In the fall of 1993, in a booth at an unassuming new restaurant on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, I dug into a plate of rabbit quesadillas. I was floored. “Who puts rabbit in quesadillas?” I thought. “And, how could they taste this good?”
In an era when fine dining meant white tablecloths and fussy French cuisine, the dish of rabbit quesadillas, along with many like it at a casual restaurant, revamped my perception of food. And, I am not alone. Chefs all over town cite the influence of Metropolitain, the trailblazing restaurant that changed the way Charlottesville eats out.
Metropolitain no longer exists. After moving off the mall in 1995, it closed in 2002. But its replacement on the mall lives on. Opened in 1996 by Metropolitain’s founders Tim Burgess and Vincent Derquenne, Bizou carries forward the idea that spawned its parent: What if it’s all about the food?
I recently returned to the same booth where I enjoyed those rabbit quesadillas more than 20 years ago. The place looks much the same—diner-like décor with salvaged jukeboxes in each booth. “It’s not brand new and shiny,” says Derquenne. “It’s crazy and cozy at the same time. I think sometimes that’s what we want.”
My dinner company was two chefs who, as much as anyone, have felt the impact of Metropolitain and its successor. As a cook at Metropolitain in the early ’90s, Rachel Willis prepared countless rabbit quesadillas before moving on to run the kitchens at Continental Divide, Clifton Inn and now Cakes by Rachel. “Metropolitain broke a barrier,” Willis says. “It proved there was a market for thoughtful, well-executed casual dining.”
Michael Lewis, another Metropolitain alumnus who helped to open Bizou before opening Mono Loco, echoed the praise. At Metropolitain, he says, “we all felt that we were doing something special.” Metropolitain was driven by unwavering “professionalism,” Lewis says, and “Bizou has maintained that sense of purpose and focus.”
Bizou was never supposed to be a less-expensive version of Metropolitain. According to co-owner Burgess, the original plan was good diner food. But, that Bizou would come to inherit the ethos of Metropolitain seemed “inevitable.”
“Eventually people just demanded it move forward and upward,” says Burgess. The theme soon became “that of the old Met: Just have fun with the food,” he says.
None of the dishes I shared with Willis and Lewis would have been out of place at Metropolitain. Fun is everywhere. BBQ Arancini, a riff on the Italian snack, are as whimsically conceived as the name indicates—perfect fried balls of smoked, pulled pork with a crust of panko and herbs, accompanied by pimento cheese, deviled egg and a relish of pickled watermelon rind. Soft, wavy sheets of house-smoked salmon are draped over a bed of crisp fried green tomatoes in seasoned cornmeal, aside a dollop of saffron aioli. A favorite starter is the pork belly, lightly smoked then cooked slowly in its own fat before being chilled, diced and pan-seared. After all that, it reaches the plate in lettuce leaves with pickled pears and spicy honey mustard. Sweet, spicy, sour, salty, fatty and fun.
Among entrées, the truffled mushroom tamales are a standout, impressing even a man with his own Latin-influenced restaurant. “Having had Mono Loco for almost 11 years,” says Lewis, “I was humbled by the mushroom tamales.” A puréed wild mushroom filling with grilled corn salsa, cilantro-cashew crema, green chile sauce and crumbles of tofu pretending to be traditional Mexican cojita cheese.
A longtime trademark of Burgess’ and Derquenne’s food has been the fusion of their different heritages. Derquenne is from France and Burgess from West Virginia. The rabbit quesadillas were an early example. One day, as Burgess tells it, Derquenne made a confit of rabbit leg intended for a rillete, a traditional French spread. Burgess spiced it a little differently and gave it a twist to appeal to American diners. Voila! Rabbit quesadillas.
A more recent French-American hybrid is the sauce that came with the hanger steak. Southern Béarnaise, as it’s called, is an American riff on the classic French emulsion, spiked with smoked beef jus.
For dessert (a passion for Derquenne) there is the famous grilled banana bread, born at Metropolitain, now at Bizou, and as good as ever. Served with caramel and vanilla ice cream, it has been so loved for so long, it may be Charlottesville’s signature dessert. Next was a newer innovation, Melting Chocolate Truffles, where small, round chocolate truffles wear a coat of almond flour and ground graham crackers to buffer the heat of a quick fry—so that when cracked open with a fork, melting chocolate oozes out. House-made marshmallow and peanut butter cream round out the grown-up treat.
“Metropolitan showed Charlottesville what it was capable of,” says Willis. All these years later, Bizou does the same.