French twist: In its second year, Tempo mixes traditional cuisine with worldly flavors

AT THE TABLE

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Paris-born chef-owner Brice Cunningham creates serious food grounded in classic French cooking, which has been second nature to him for most of his life. Photo: John Robinson Paris-born chef-owner Brice Cunningham creates serious food grounded in classic French cooking, which has been second nature to him for most of his life. Photo: John Robinson

Is it possible to be irreverent and reverent at the same time? Tempo, the modern French-American restaurant that opened in 2011, proves that it is, mixing good, irreverent fun with food that reveres French culinary tradition, prepared by one of Charlottesville’s most talented chefs.

On the one hand, Tempo’s scene ignores conventions and boundaries, whether beneath Bart the Cape Buffalo at the bohemian-chic bar, in a cowhide print banquette in the dining room, or under the disco ball in the “Champagne Room.” Take the recent Valentine’s Day lingerie fashion show, where local models paraded down a make-shift catwalk in Tempo’s bar area. Not long after, St. Patrick’s Day brought Guinness and shots of Irish whiskey. And then there’s the music. A local indie band one night might be followed the next by a dance party of eclectic, European tracks combining “Buddha Bar, Ibiza, and Hotel Costes.” Throw in an occasional night of salsa dancing, and it’s evident that Tempo welcomes fun in any form.

But, the irreverence ends at the kitchen. In there, Paris-born chef-owner Brice Cunningham creates serious food grounded in classic French cooking, which has been second nature to him for most of his life. Even as a child, delicacies like sweetbreads and mutton were favorites of Cunningham, whose father was a maître d’ at a Michelin three star restaurant and now helps run Tempo.

Cunningham trained under some of the world’s experts in French cuisine, including the legendary Alain Ducasse, for whom he worked in Paris. After other high-end stints in Luxembourg, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C., Cunningham was lured to Charlottesville in 2001 by Brian Helleberg, a Charlottesville native with whom he had worked at Gerard’s Place, in Washington. Together they opened first Fleurie, and then later Petit Pois—two of Charlottesville’s most beloved French restaurants.

By 2011, the partnership had run its course. Cunningham moved on, determined to create a more relaxed venue than the two restaurants he had owned for years. He wanted to have fun, and thought doing so need not preclude him from serving serious food. So he created Tempo. Even the name was meant to capture Cunningham’s fresh approach, referring to the pulse of music, universal and running across all cultures, without boundary.

And yes, some of the food at Tempo does draw on the cultures of the world. But, it is French at heart, and reflects the work of a culinary master. Beets and goat cheese are a classic duo, and Cunningham’s riffs work well, enhancing the beets with goat cheese cream, roasted pistachios, and microgreens. The house-cured salmon gravlax, served with whole wheat blinis, is both luscious and briny. And the Spicy Tempo Shrimp has already developed a following, not only for the perfectly fried shrimp, but also for the addictive sweet and spicy chili sauce that dresses them.

Among entrées, seafood fans will again do well. In some hands, lobster can be dull, drained of flavor by too much time in a hot bath. But Cunningham does justice to the pricy crustacean, poaching it gently in butter, and resting it atop celery root purée. The red onion confiture (jam) is a welcome offset to the richness. On a night when there was no lobster available, pan-seared local trout worked well as a stand-in with the puree and confiture. And the hits keep coming at dessert, most notably a custardy apricot bread pudding that belongs on any list of the best desserts in Charlottesville.

Meanwhile, libations again marry fun with classics. The cocktail menu, laden with sweet and fruity concoctions, is geared toward the party crowd. The wine menu, on the other hand, is the work of an oenophile, with all of its choices selected by Cunningham.

Perhaps no aspect of Tempo better illustrates the marriage of French tradition and carefree fun than the recently introduced event “Champagne and Burgers.” Champagne is about as rule-driven a product as there is, its preparation being governed by the strict rules of France’s appellation d’origine controlee. Burgers are, er, not. Every Tuesday, Tempo offers two free orders of burgers and fries with the purchase of a bottle of champagne. All three burgers currently on offer are outstanding: the black angus beef, the house made pork sausage, and, perhaps best of all, the brandade, which is a patty of cod poached in herb-infused cream, bound together with mashed potato and egg yolk. As Tempo puts it: “Putting the French back in your fries.”

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