Charlottesville, Virginia is home to a disproportionate number of good restaurants. When the nationwide restaurant boom took off about 20 years ago, Charlottesville was one of its greatest beneficiaries.
Back then, one of Charlottesville's trailblazing restaurants was Metropolitain, a restaurant where Southern food was brilliantly married with French. (I don't think I will ever get out of my mind their chanterelles over grits.) The New York Times' compliment that Metropolitain was reason to move to Charlottesville was only partial hyperbole. In that restaurant's latest incarnation -- "Metro" -- the restaurant no longer merits such high praise. Rather, that praise now belongs to the gourmet market / cheese shop / wine shop / bistro Ciboulette. It is reason to move.
So many (SO MANY) great things about the place. Where to start?
1. The owner.
When we were planning our wedding, my wife once complained that our wedding coordinator was too "anal." I told my wife that being "anal" was probably something to look for in a good wedding coordinator. It would probably be wise to seek out anal doctors and space shuttle safety inspectors, too.
Jose DeBrito is thoroughly French. As such, he is an unabashed food snob. While some might find the quality off-putting, it is an extremely valuable quality in the chef-owner of a food establishment. If it doesn't meet Jose's high standards, it isn't at Ciboulette. If it does meet his high standards, it is bound to make your taste buds smile. In other words, everything at Ciboulette -- the wines, cheeses, oils, duck confit, pasta, truffles, charcruterie, condiments, etc. -- is great.
Jose cares more about good food and drink than he cares about money. For example, when I purchased a beautiful chevre from him last fall, Jose recommended a wine from any of three Loire Valley appellations as an accompaniment. The catch: he recommended those appellations even though he knew that he did not have any such wines in stock. As a substitute, I asked him to recommend a wine that he did have in stock that might go well with my chevre. He said that none of his (hundreds of) wines would pair well, and instead directed me to a nearby wine shop and instructed me what wine to buy. I did as instructed and was rewarded with a delightful afternoon of chevre, a crusty baguette, and a bottle of Quincy.
Ciboulette is an embodiment of Jose DeBrito's love of great food and wine.
2. The cheeses.
Wow. The cheeses. In its early days (last year), Ciboulette sold its cheeses to three restaurants in the country: Daniel (NYC), Maestro (McLean), and Seegers (Atlanta). Ciboulette now distributes to many restaurants in the DC area, and Jose DeBrito, the chef-owner, says that he sells more cheese to DC than he does to his loyal local customers in Charlottesville. There are two sections of cheeses. One section has some excellent cheeses that you might find at any good cheese monger. Another section has his special French farmhouse cheeses. Their taste transports you.
3. The lunch menu.
Having tried literally everything on the menu, I can say that there is hardly a single disappointment. (But for the grilled chicken w/basil, I could say that there is not a single disappointment.)
My crepe-obsessed sisters swear that the ethereal crepes are the best they have ever tried. While they adore the lemon-and-sugar variety, I am partial to the luscious ham and gruyere with sautéed mushrooms.
The oyster po-boy, a French Twist on a Cajun tradition, is as good as any I have found in New Orleans. Its only fault is that the wife has learned that the aioli that comes with it is literally addictive.
The fennel and goat cheese sandwich needs to be tasted to be believed.
The French burger, smothered in perfectly caramelized onions, takes an American tradition and improves it. This is high praise from a burger zealot, who typically likes his burgers relatively unadorned.
The mushroom soup is a rich, soul-warming bowl of earthy mushroomness. All the soups have been stellar.
The cheese plate rules. Take your time with it. Enjoy each morsel.
4. The service.
Jim Leff stresses the importance of becoming well known to a favorite restaurant, so that your relationship with the kitchen evolves from customer-server to something superior.
One afternoon, when the kitchen did not have the braised rabbit with papparadelle special that I ordered, the chef offered to make veal cheeks instead. This last-minute substitute entree, whipped together in minutes, was a remarkable dish. When I shared it with others at the table, they were rendered speechless by its flavor. Jose shrugged off our awe, and argued that the ingredients were the real stars, claiming that anything done with veal cheeks tastes great.
Jose extends similar "special treatment" to virtually anyone who demonstrates an interest in good food. He tries hard to learn each customers tastes and strives to prepare food accordingly. For example, show interest in a cheese plate, and the chef will bring over a plate of 6-12 artisan cheeses flown in from France only days earlier. The same cheeses that Fabio serves at Maestro. Or Daniel serves at Daniel. Of course, at Ciboulette, you will pay a fraction of the cost.
5. The dinner.
Although dinner at the bistro does not meet the meteoric standards of an afternoon meal, it is still a great experience. At night, the bistro barely disguises the fact that it is a gourmet shop during the day. They just turn the lights down and light some candles, and - tada! - it's a bistro. Charming. Stroll among the wine racks to hand select your wine for the evening. The $5 mark-up allows for small splurges. But Jose knows best. His recommendations never fail. Be prepared to be patient, though. He's the only one in the kitchen.
6. The setting
Customers dine atop gorgeous handmade wooden tables that are available for purchase. There are excellent cookbooks, wine books, and food magazines scattered about the place for customers to peruse while noshing and sipping wine. When in Charlottesville, it is nearly impossible not to while away the afternoon basking in the greatness of Ciboulette.
Ciboulette is located in the Main Street Market, not far from the downtown mall. The Main Street Market is also home to: (1) Albemarle Baking Co., one of the greatest bakers of bread I've ever found (great baguettes and the Chocolate Praline Crunch will weaken your knees); (2) Feast, a gourmet shop with loads of delicious free samples scattered about the store (the best French dressing anywhere; and a nine-cheese grilled cheese that is as good as it sounds); (3) Hedge, a quaint florist; (4) Gearharts, a world-class artisan chocolate maker (try the Maya or Criolla); and (5) Seafood @ West Main a solid fishmonger (good squid, cheap).
Ciboulette is a dream.