The best-kept Charlottesville dining secret is that Jose de Brito, who formerly wowed Chowhounds at the now-defunct Ciboulette, is now cooking at Hotcakes in the Barracks Rd Shopping Center and has dinner specials that are available on Friday and Saturday nights.
In addition to the usual cafe sandwiches, salads and entrees they have a weekly changing menu of specials: for example this weekend they are offering five appetizers, four entrees and three wines by the glass. Wines from their shelves and cooler are served at retail prices.
Our group of three each had different appetizers: the risotto, the gnocchi and the octopus. The risotto with wild mushroom black truffle butter and Bordelaise sauce had great flavors. Not as creamy as some risottos but very good. The octopus was served with cranberry beans arugula, olives and Thai basil. A delicious balance of the tender octopus perfectly, cooked beans and the olive basil flavors. The stars of the lineup were some of the best gnocchi we've ever had. Ethereally light but with a wonderful sautéed crust they were complemented by a simple but classic sage brown butter sauce with parmesan. Just great! (Each of the appetizers was $10)
We were less adventurous in our entree choices, bypassing the linguini with snails and the black cod with a mussel veloute to have the chicken ($19 each) (for 2 of us) and the "iron steak” for $17. Both dishes made us very happy. The steak was pan seared with a Caesar salad "taco" and clams vinaigrette. The steak was a perfect medium rare and the Caesar was well-seasoned and the presentation was in a "taco" made of parmesan. On the side were some baby clams served with a vinaigrette. Quality of the ingredients is very high (for example bits of excellent salt-packed anchovy in the Caesar).
The free-range chicken was served with black trumpet mushrooms, roasted garlic mashed potatoes and wild mushroom jus. The serving was a breast, seared to keep the meat moist and flavorful but with crisp skin. The mashed potatoes and the sauce were just fabulous with silky texture and intensely delicious flavor.
You can select desserts from their extensive dessert case (for example a slice of Sachertorte for about $4)
Overall food quality is tops and compares with Oxo say, but the decor and ambience remain that of an informal cafe. This can be an advantage if you are dining on your own. We saw various people with books and laptops (they have wifi).
We encourage old fans of Jose's cooking to seek him out and those who aren't familiar with it to give it a try.