Gourmet food is moving downscale. The work of talented chefs is increasingly available to diners who don’t wish to dress up or pay a small fortune for a good meal. While the proliferation of inexpensive, casual, high quality restaurants has generally been a good thing, one downside is the squeezing out of a dying breed—a restaurant where you can go not just to eat but to dine.
Against this trend, l’étoile stands steadfast. This is not so say that it offers bad value. Thirty dollars can get you a three-course dinner Tuesday through Thursday. But, while the atmosphere at many restaurants today can blend in with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, a meal at l’étoile is an escape from it. To walk into l’étoile is to enter your grandmother’s dining room. The white tablecloths, dark wood floors, and original art on the brick walls of the charming storefront create an ambience that is at once elegant and soothing.
Owner Mark Gresge’s interest in restaurants was born out of a passion for hospitality, sparked by dinner parties his parents would host when he was a child. Yet he did not enter the business until many years later, when in 1993 he was let go from an engineering job near Charlottesville, and an opportunity arose to open a lunch room annexed to The 1817 Inn, where his wife worked at the time. With no money or background in food, the Gresges went for it.
Fast forward 20 years and The Tea Room, as it was initially called, has moved down the street to Starr Hill and has evolved from a soup-and-sandwich lunch room into one of Charlottesville’s most romantic restaurants: l’étoile, which is French for “star.”
Gresge’s philosophy is simple: Make guests happy. “They chose us,” says Gresge of his guests, and their choice can involve significant planning and expense.
“Some people bring their grandmother, who hasn’t been out forever,” he tells his employees. “Think about that,” he urges, “instead of ‘Table No. 2.’”
As for the food, for much of l’étoile’s existence the head chef was Gresge himself, who learned to cook during The Tea Room’s early years, with side jobs at restaurants like Memory and Co. and Kafkafe. Four years ago, Gresge stepped out of the kitchen to focus on catering. Of the chefs who have since run the kitchen, none is more accomplished than its current resident, Ian Redshaw. “The first day I saw him,” said Gresge, “I knew this guy was special.”
Just 24, Redshaw is a prodigy of sorts. Talented and mature beyond his years, he is l’étoile’s first chef to have graduated from the esteemed Culinary Institute of America. When Redshaw enrolled at age 18, he already had five years of on-the-job training, having honed his knife skills and fundamentals in a Minnesota restaurant under the tutelage of French chef Paul Laubignat.
Since joining l’étoile in October 2011, Redshaw has taken the food to new heights while staying true to Gresge’s vision. Unlike many young chefs, Redshaw aims not to wow guests with bold, brash flavors, but is content to soothe them with simple, deft preparations of quality ingredients. Redshaw admits that, like his schoolmates, he dabbled briefly in trends like molecular gastronomy. But he soon realized that his heart was in something different: ingredient-driven cuisine where the chef gets out of the way. “Simple, clean flavors,” is how Redshaw describes his approach.
A stellar bowl of mussels, a standout on the current menu, is served in a broth of Starr Hill Pils flavored with fresh herbs, gorgonzola, and house-made bacon. Duck is another standout. In some restaurants, it is prepared beyond recognition—smothered in a syrupy sauce or cured with overbearing spices. Redshaw’s minimalist approach is refreshing. He sears a breast to medium rare, and serves slices of it almost completely unadorned. The accompaniments—frisee and gently cooked fresh vegetables—complement the duck, not compete with it.
Redshaw’s skill with pasta reflects his experience at a James Beard-nominated Italian restaurant in New York. Risotto is often on the menu, and Redshaw typically brightens up rich ingredients like mascarpone cheese and truffles with fresh, seasonal vegetables like mushrooms and English peas.
Desserts may not reach the heights of the rest of the menu, but several are excellent. On a recent visit, our group’s favorite was a chocolate pot du crème, a luscious French custard that caused spoons to clang in the fight for the last bite.
Twenty years after its birth, l’étoile remains one of Charlottesville’s most popular destinations for a romantic dinner. Redshaw is its current star—“l’étoile de l’étoile.” And not just because of those mussels.