French twist: Petit Pois combines French classics with contemporary fare

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French onion soup is a Petit Pois classic. Photo: RammelkampFoto. French onion soup is a Petit Pois classic. Photo: RammelkampFoto.

In Charlottesville, a meal at Petit Pois is as close as it gets to eating in France. My dinner companion told me so. And, he should know. Jose de Brito, acclaimed chef at The Alley Light, was raised in France and his passion for French cuisine can produce strong views on the subject.

What is it about Petit Pois, smack in the middle of Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, that reminds de Brito of restaurants in France? “The classics,” he said—dishes like duck confit, steak frites, coq au vin and the chicken liver mousse my mother eats every time she visits Charlottesville. Each is the result of a time-tested method, properly executed. Use top quality ingredients and adhere to the classic method, said de Brito, and any chef anywhere, whether in Virginia or France, can achieve similar results. “It’s fool-proof,” he said.

Perhaps, but Petit Pois’ chef is no fool. Brian Jones, who has headed the kitchen since the restaurant opened in 2005, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and has done stints with some of the country’s best French chefs, like Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert and Jean Georges Vongerichtin. “I do not give praise often, but Brian Jones is great,” said de Brito, who once cooked with Jones at Fleurie, Petit Pois’ parent restaurant.

Jones’ favorite Petit Pois dish, French onion soup, illustrates de Brito’s point about the classics. The broth requires a laborious process, combining house-made beef jus and chicken stock, and Jones is methodical about following it. For the jus, Jones roasts trimmings of steak from the steak frites and then simmers them in water with vegetables and aromatics, while leftover bones of Polyface chickens form the base of the stock. Jones then adds slowly caramelized onions to the broth, pours it into a crock and tops it all with a day-old baguette slice from Albemarle Baking Company and oozing, bubbly, gratinéed McClure cheese from Virginia’s Mountain View Farms.

I began my meal with the soup, and I’d be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying bowl of food in town. De Brito meanwhile enjoyed a special of pan fried smelts, with grilled lemon, baby arugula and capers, which, thank goodness, Jones may add to the regular menu.

Next I chose another classic: trout amandine. Capers, sliced almonds and butter smothered a seared trout filet with crispy skin. De Brito sampled the green beans that came with my trout to test whether they were tender, as in France, or left crisp, as is more common in the U.S. “Cooked like a French guy,” de Brito concluded happily.

As an additional side, I could not resist ordering panisse, fried cakes of chickpea flour popular in the south of France, but rarely seen stateside. Again, their preparation requires hard work. The recipe Jones sent me after the meal says to stir the batter so vigorously that “you should break a sweat.” Laced with fennel seed, and served in bite-sized cubes, the panisses were delicious on their own, but addictive when dipped in the accompanying red pepper rouille. They’d make a perfect snack at the bar with a cocktail or glass of rosé, I tried to force myself to remember.  Truth be told, Petit Pois does not strive to be an authentic French bistro. That was not the aim of owner Brian Helleberg, who opened Petit Pois as a less expensive alternative to his restaurant Fleurie. Hence, the décor does not mimic a classic bistro, but instead is whimsical, with bright—almost fluorescent—green walls, colored glass lights and beaded tile floors. And, the menu veers from authentic French bistro fare, too, with the addition of Jones’ own creations.

Compared to the French classics, Jones’ additions tend to be lighter and healthier—for instance, Helleberg’s personal favorite Petit Pois dish, crab cakes, is available seasonally. The lighter dishes are a welcome twist on French fare, particularly in warmer months, which is Petit Pois’ busy season.  That’s when a 65-seat patio triples capacity and draws crowds of people for al fresco dining and Downtown Mall people-watching.

But my dinner with de Brito was a delicious reminder of how restorative a Petit Pois meal can be during cool weather, as well. The hearty French classics and cozy 25-seat room seem made for winter dining. “It’s a perfect place for an unfussy meal when you do not want to cook,” de Brito summarized. “That is the definition of a bistro that does its job well.”