Jose de Brito, chef of The Alley Light, has quite a reputation. His food, of course, is the biggest reason, dating back to his much-missed gourmet shop and eatery Ciboulette. But de Brito, a fervent Frenchman, has also become known for his strong opinions. Like many adherents to French culinary tradition, de Brito firmly believes that, when it comes to food, there is a correct way and an incorrect way to do things.
“It is right or it is wrong,” de Brito said. “Nothing in the middle.”
Since opening in February above Revolutionary Soup off the Downtown Mall, The Alley Light has already developed a following. Owner Will Richey created the “lounge,” as he calls it, to be an intimate spot where he and his wife could enjoy conversation. The founder of the wine buying club The Wine Guild, and a passionate oenophile, Richey selects all of The Alley Light’s wines himself. Micah LeMon, one of the area’s most devoted mixologists, oversees the bar, with a well-trained staff whose enthusiasm for blending spirits rivals his own. In the kitchen, de Brito prepares small and large plates of delicious takes on French cuisine, many of which are designed for sharing.
Delicious, sure. But is the food made “correctly?” Does that even matter?
To help answer these questions, I brought in an expert. Michel LeBorgne, a recent transplant to Charlottesville, was the founding chef of the New England Culinary Institute in 1980, and is one of the great culinary educators of our time, with former students running top restaurants all across the country. A Frenchman himself, and a stickler for proper technique, LeBorgne shares de Brito’s view that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, at least when it comes to certain dishes.
“You must learn the classic way,” LeBorgne said.
I asked LeBorgne to join me and my wife for a meal at The Alley Light to offer critique from a vantage point that I lack. Having already eaten some of my favorite meals of the year there, I fully expected him to enjoy it, but I anticipated some constructive criticism as well. There might be some sharp commentary, I thought, interspersed with, perhaps, begrudging commendation. Instead, there were groans of delight and unadulterated praise. After a while, I stopped counting the number of times a bite of food prompted LeBorgne to exclaim: “Deez guy cun kewk!” (This guy can cook!)
The longtime culinary teacher even awarded de Brito the highest grade possible: perfect.
“This fish is cooked to perfection,” LeBorgne said of the roasted sable, gently prodding it to illustrate the delicate texture that he said can come only from precise preparation. Toasted faro, olives, and chicken jus vinaigrette harmonized without overwhelming the fish.
Le Borgne also noted the “perfect uniformity” of the cut of the diced chives in a vinaigrette of tomato confit over blanched calamari and poached mussels.
“I am very demanding about the way we chop,” said de Brito.
As Ciboulette fans may remember, De Brito is particularly adept at charcuterie, and for our group he served a foie gras torchon and veal sweetbread terrine, alongside a handful of cherries soaked in Armagnac. With a hunk of bread and a glass of red, this could make for a meal in itself. For some regulars of The Alley Light, in fact, it often does.
A whole semi-boneless quail enveloped a stuffing of porcini mushrooms and brioche, with red wine sauce and turnips. Possibly the richest dish of the evening, it also may have been my favorite. LeBorgne echoed my praise. “He doesn’t play with the food,” LeBorgne said of de Brito. “Too many chefs play with the food.”
The only dish with which LeBorgne could find any fault was a salad of mixed greens which, in French custom, was served as the last savory course. It was dressed with too much vinaigrette for LeBorgne’s liking, as he put it.
As full as we were, a spread of desserts to share rekindled our appetites. A lime glaze glossed a silky passion fruit cheesecake. A true French parfait was a frozen milk-based dessert of almond and kirsch, with a poached pear, caramelized almonds, and hot chocolate sauce. LeBorgne and my wife were so fond of it that their spoons kept almost clashing.
Before the meal ended, Le Borgne called it one of his favorites in recent memory, a great tribute to de Brito. Not many chefs could earn such high praise from a critic as tough as LeBorgne.
“The perfect cooking methods and well balanced ingredients were just perfect for the taste buds,” said LeBorgne.
There’s that word again. Sounds like an A+ to me.