The first time I visited the Côte-Rôtie food truck, I knew it would be at Champion Brewing Company before long. Since opening in 2012, the downtown brewery has become the capital of Charlottesville food trucks, and hosts one almost every night.
This is the brainchild of Champion owner Hunter Smith, who had seen the success of food trucks at breweries in other cities. Gigs at Champion have become so popular that Smith now enjoys the pick of the litter. “We are selective,” says Smith, who cites great food, a strong brand and a changing menu as key criteria.
Côte-Rôtie excels at all three, and is a natural fit for Champion, where it now appears most Sundays and many Tuesdays, too. What sets it apart is the training of the owners, Peter Robertson and his wife, Merrill, both graduates of the Culinary Institute of America. The training shows in the attention to detail in even the simplest foods. The first dish of theirs I ever tried, for example, was a straightforward steak frites, which, like a great bistro’s, had no room for improvement. Even the fries rivaled any in town—hand-cut potatoes, fried first at a low temperature and then again at a higher one to crisp before serving.
But, as much as they excel at the basics, the Robertsons really shine when they let loose. Before moving to Charlottesville, they ran a popular restaurant in the Hamptons, which was so small they operated it by themselves, allowing them to do whatever they liked. Wanting that same freedom in Charlottesville, they initially sought a similar brick-and-mortar location, but eventually decided a food truck could meet their needs just as well, and launched Côte-Rôtie last fall.
The Sunday marriage of Champion and Côte-Rôtie yields a rare treat: sophisticated food by world-class chefs in an informal setting. “We use Sunday to try new things and cook with ingredients we love,” says Merrill.
“They’re a great fit,” says Smith, “because they have what people look for when they go to Champion—something new and flavorful, while still affordable and sometimes unconventional.”
An added bonus is that Champion is kid-friendly, with board games, free video games and even cornhole. I often take my children, 8 and 6, for Sunday dinner. Our most recent visit was on a beautiful April evening, when we followed our usual routine of playing a board game at a picnic table outside while sharing an outstanding array of dishes. In prior visits, the kids have especially enjoyed items from the yakitori grill, which the Robertsons had custom-made in Japan and installed on their truck for grilling meats and vegetables. My son’s favorites are the outstanding yakitori sweetbreads, which may be because I haven’t told him what they are. “I want those bread things,” he will say.
But, the Côte-Rôtie menu changes every week, and so on this visit there were no sweetbreads. We instead shared fried baby artichokes, tossed with fresh fava beans, sliced cherry tomatoes and a luscious lemon aioli. While it was right up my alley, the children were uncertain about some of the unfamiliar ingredients.
Like me, they loved the chicken ballotine with French fries and greens. Chicken breasts, first cooked sous vide in foie gras fat, were then rolled into hockey puck-shaped discs, breaded and fried. The method produced uncommonly juicy and flavorful chicken, which we devoured. My children even enjoyed the unusual topping: a barbecue sauce made with Champion’s Face Eater Gose, a sour, funky and salty German-style wheat beer. Stickin’ in My IPA, a hoppy, spicy rye ale, was an ideal complement.
Indeed, another virtue of Côte-Rôtie at Champion is the chance to pair great food with great beer. Smith’s favorite pairings include pork belly egg rolls with Missile IPA as well as a dish of U-10 (extra large) scallop crudo, with grilled grapefruit, edamame purée and ponzu, which Smith likes with Shower Beer, a light pilsner.
One of the Robertsons’ personal menu favorites comes from another tool in their truck: a rotisserie. After slowly cooking pork shoulder on the rotisserie, they portion, bread and fry it, cover it with provolone and Japanese barbecue sauce and stuff it into bread for a sandwich they like to pair with Sir Nils Olav, a hoppy IPA. They also enjoy oxtail poutine with ICBM, a strong imperial IPA. They braise oxtails, pick the meat and reduce the braising liquid to gravy. They then toss the meat with cheese curds and fries and douse it all in the gravy. One more favorite pairing of theirs is True Love, a Mexican-style lager, with a dish of raw hamachi, grilled romaine, edamame and radishes.
Admittedly, children may find some of these dishes a bit challenging. But there are always the fries. And cornhole.
“We use Sunday to try new things and cook with ingredients we love,” says Merrill Robertson, owner of Côte-Rôtie food truck.