World-class cuisine: Fuel Co. lures Chicago chef

Travel does wonders for the palate. Dish just blew back into town from a few days of wining and dining in the magnificent Windy City.

Like Charlottesville, Chicago's booming. It seems everyone I met had just moved to or moved back to this metropolis, and new buildings like Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion and the soon-to-rise Trump International Hotel and Tower by Adrian Smith (and spearheaded by last year's The Apprentice winner Bill Rancic), not to mention films like Wicker Park– named for one of the city's trendiest neighborhoods– are signs of how hot the chilly city is.

But I'm here to talk about food, and dinners at a few of Chicago's best restaurants– Avenues and the French Vietnamese Le Lan– amazed my eyes and taste buds with new culinary trends like savory ice-cream: foie gras with cinnamon ice-cream, a basil and parmigiano granita intermezzo, and a rocquefort (cheese!) mousse.

But not even my favorite concierge, Robert at The Peninsula, could get me into Tru on a Saturday night. Tru is the hottest of the hot, winner of both the 2004 Zagat and Chicago Magazine's "best Chicago restaurant" awards. Chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand have wowed diners with their truly theatrical cuisine (i.e. a trio of tartares is served in a fishbowl containing a live beta), which doesn't come cheap. Prix fixe dinners can rise above $150 per person.

Which is why I'm glad to be home, especially now that chef Tim Hockett is here. Hockett recently left Tru's kitchen to become the executive chef at our very own Fuel Co. "In the same way the region is attracting national attention for its distinctive wines," Hockett says, "Fuel Co. hopes to draw recognition to Charlottesville dining."

He's well on his way. On a recent evening, Fuel's dining room was filled with diners from Richmond, D.C., and beyond. They must believe that Fuel is well worth the cost of the fuel it takes to get there.

Most entrees are at or under $20– even the seared halibut with pea tendrils, apple salad, and lemon verbena oil ($19), which is almost identical to an entrĂ©e I enjoyed at Avenues for around $40. And a glance at the $25 three-course pre-theater menu makes me wish I hadn't spent $68 for a comparable meal in Chicago.

Just last week, Fuel added a playful Sunday brunch to its lunch and dinner offerings. Entrees ($9) include the Dr. Seuss (three scrambled eggs, pesto, Virginia Ham, toast, and roasted potatoes) and griddled brioche toast with fresh berries and whipped cream. One good reason to stay home this weekend.


Learn to Cook - Down on Dave's Farm


Country mice with a culinary bent will be happy to know that Dave Matthews' Maple Hill Farm, a few miles north of Scottsville on Route 20, is transforming into a cooking school of sorts. The farm's new chef, Gail Hobbes-Page, will be leading a new series of cooking demonstrations in various locations on the vast property.

"I feel passionate about getting this food into people's mouths," she says. The first demo, which takes place on November 12 from 1 to 4pm, focuses on fall greens. The next, December 10, includes suggestions for "Holiday Giving Foods," and the theme for a planned January meeting is "Cooking for the New Year."

All demos are free, but don't be surprised if Hobbs-Page has you pick the greens in the field before she brings you to the barn to watch her cook 'em up in a variety of ways.

"I'm not afraid to get dirty," she says, "and I can make just about anything on my propane heater."

Fuel executive chef Tim Hockett and sous chef Joe Warker