C'est si bon: New "French wave" rolls through town
Napa Valley boasts the French Laundry. Charlottesville can now claim Fuel. It might seem a stretch to compare Thomas Keller's acclaimed decade-old gourmet restaurant located in an old stone cottage (originally a French steam laundry) in "rural" Yountville, California, to a downtown gas station– until, that is, you realize that, in addition to a café and convenience store, this gas station that opened in October also has an elegant bistro and wine bar.
Much like the innovative and artful French Laundry, and also akin in genre to local gems Oxo and Fleurie, Fuel Co.'s restaurant, which opened on Monday, December 1, specializes in sophisticated contemporary American cuisine– with a definite French touch. One major difference: You can't get your collars starched while you eat at the famed Napa restaurant, but you can fuel your car and your taste buds simultaneously here in Charlottesville.
Francis J. Reynard is the chef behind Fuel Co.'s luxurious– and predictably premium-priced– menu. Reynard, who recently took over for Dan Shannon as executive chef for both the Kluge Estate Farm Shop and Fuel, joins the growing group of French wine and food experts helping to shape and refine Charlottesville's epicurean profile.
This gastronomic alliance française includes such chefs as Vincent Derquenne of Metro, Bizou, and Bang; José De Brito of Ciboulette; wine importer Didier Simonin; Kluge's pastry chef, Serge Torres; and others (not necessarily French-born but definitely French-promoting) like Fleurie chefs Brian Helleberg and Brice Cunningham.
Reynard was swept away from a job as executive sous chef in charge of special events at the exclusive NYC restaurant Daniel. For Fuel's intimate, upbeat little bistro, he combines his formal French training with the gas station's culinary aesthetic– seasonal, sophisticated, and symphonic in its fusion of flavors and textures.
That translates into appetizers such as "chestnut apple soup with applewood bacon and foie gras croustilles" and "creamy Virginia grits with pumpkin, parmesan, and duck confit." Sample main courses to tempt your palate include "cannelloni stuffed with celery and frogs legs" and "stuffed trout tournedos with spinach, glazed shallots, and a port reduction."
The single dining room is both warm and cool, both simple and très chic– a brushed steel bar, vintage black and white industrial photographs from the Library of Congress, rich wood tables and chairs, two mirrored wall niches filled with flowers. In other words, a white tablecloth experience without the white tablecloths.
Fuel's bistro will be open seven evenings a week for your convenience. Gas pumps close at 10pm, so make sure to fill up before you order dessert.
While I'm mentioning French-fueled restaurant openings, Ciboulette's new bistro opened for dinner on Wednesday, December 3. If you haven't been by lately, you'll notice the obvious changes to the hybrid store-restaurant– the retail section shifted to the front of the store (facing West Main) leaving the atrium-half and upstairs loft for the bistro, and several tables have been added, blinds installed, and the main wall is now a deep cayenne red. Owner José De Brito and chef Josh Wheaton originally planned to open on November 26, but Thanksgiving demands forced them to hold off one more week– giving us just enough time to digest.
Amarcord: Fellini's reincarnated?
Could a local legend with a rather sexy– if not lurid– history be resurfacing a decade later? If Fellini's owner Ben May has his way, the answer is a definite yes.
May– who bought the Fellini-themed Italian restaurant on the corner of Market and Second streets from Francis Guthrie "Chief" Gordon (rumored to be driving limousines in California) back in 1994– says he has carefully preserved interior memorabilia.
"I have a warehouse full of posters and antique furniture, and I have refinished every piece," he tells Dish. "I can put Fellini's back exactly as it was."
The building, which has been completely refurbished from the reinforced foundation to the shiny new copper roof, is currently for lease with Downer Realty. Though May and his realtors will do their best to keep it a restaurant (if not Fellini's, something else), it could very well reincarnate as a store or– even more radical, considering its shady history– a law office.
br>PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO