As our P+K crew steps out into the night after a dinner at Charlottesville's newest restaurant, our banter reaches fever pitch — giddy thoughts expressed in fragments, completing each other's sentences, the usual chatter about big balls, vows to return asap, and lamentations over how hard a table will be to score moving forward thanks to a no-reservations policy. We are a pack of tween girls fresh off a Taylor Swift concert. When the fervor spills over into a tsunami of 'how good was that?' texts the next day, we know it's time to break tradition and get right to spreading the gospel on this spot.
There's an old adage about pornography that fits into our evolving take on new restaurants. To paraphrase: You just know it when you see it.
Until now, the protocol on reviews has been to hit a local venue at least four times, usually over the course of a month or two, before even glancing at the publish button. Our philosophy is that you have to engage with a place over time before its soul reveals itself. It's unfair to dispense with lore on a restaurant based on a single visit, especially if the doors just opened.
Well, every now and then a newcomer wastes no time showing you what it's made of, and damn is Brasserie Saison loaded with some serious mettle!
We'll rewind a little. The warm vibe and good light immediately pulled us in from the cold and greeted us with a cozy, shotgun-style dining room where a happy din buzzed. All the details are addressed — from potted succulents brightening the bar to sepia lighting casting a no-filter-needed glow on everything. The place glides and grows on you instantly.
We park at the bar with Reid who slings us perfectly balanced cocktails and some booze-list intel on the side. We mumble f-bomb platitudes over the 23 Skidoo (Bulleit rye, Aperol, Luna Amaro, charred lemon bitters) and take in the dining room. Among the smart crowd are industry cats like Lampo's Andrew Cole nodding his head with a broad sheepish smile on his face—further confirmation that we're in the right place.
Recs + Rants
Smell the Roses. We're no strangers to Rose's Luxury, having experienced the darling of DC's dining scene many times as residents and returning often when back in the city for business. Straightaway you'll recognize the artful nuances of Rose's in many dishes at Saison, brought to you by Chef Tyler Teass, the Cville prodigal son who hails from that rocking kitchen. With most offerings, each bite starts with a relatively straightforward flavor mission, then midway through the seductive spectrum, you're introduced to some side hustle through an unexpected texture or ballsy flavor. It's like learning your successful attorney friend moonlights as a painter whose work graces hip gallery walls across Soho — you were already impressed, then blown away.
Design nerds, dig it. The actual menu is one of the most refreshing design concepts we've seen in town. Crafted by Charlottesville brand studio Watermark, the beautiful menu graced with hand-drawn images of root vegetables and oysters is UX eye candy.
Ginned up and down. The range of gins available is impressive and inspires an urge to educate ourselves further on the deep depths of this spirit. The namesake Brasserie Saison Cocktail (Bombay gin, lemon, pink peppercorn, Saison) will land in front of us again soon. Similar to a French 75 but with a home-brewed Saison kick, it brought to mind Germans' beloved radlers. Refreshing, light and definitely for citrus lovers, this'll be a perfect patio drink come the warmer months. And to cap the night they offer quite the sophisticated amaro list —Will loved the Amaro delle Sirene with a twist.
Don't choke the sun. One among us would like to admit she had very little idea what sunchokes were as she ordered this dish, and at first impression thought they looked like pieces of ginger root stuffed with well-cooked potatoes. Further research shows that this root vegetable is in fact a type of native North American sunflower. Otherwise known as a "Jerusalem artichoke," the tuber not only bears zero connection to its eponymous Middle Eastern city, but is also seemingly unrelated to artichokes. We can't help but feel this is the culinary equivalent of being cat-fished. Another among us really dove into said research and feels compelled to indulge his inner 8-year-old self by sharing that sunchokes are also known as "fartichokes" due to the unfortunate side effect of their elevated levels of the carbohydrate, inulin. Team P+K can neither confirm nor deny the real world findings of this allegation. Anyways... we digress. The Roasted Sunchokes dish is damn delicious and served with creme fraiche, horseradish, and trout roe (to our utter, caviar-loving delight). We absolutely encourage you to order it, hypothetical flatulatory implications aside.
Winner winner. The Chicken Liver Toast didn't survive for long once it landed at our table. The thick, perfectly charred and smoked crust of bread was the ideal vehicle for the creamy spread. Also appreciated were the subtle complimentary notes of burnt hazelnut and pickled celery sewn throughout. All in all, a strong opener for us and right up there with Oakhart's and Timbercreek's.
We got the beet. There are some within our foursome who love beets and some who do not. We're not naming any names, but the Marinated Beets with homemade straciatella and puffed rice quickly had the non-lovers backpedaling. The word we kept repeating while cleaning the plate was texture. Man, did this have it! The perfect mix of crunch, cream and consistency, we're just going to go ahead and throw this out there — an order at Brasserie Saison is not complete without this dish.
Flexing it. The name of the place grants a roster spot for a few menu staples. Mussels are a solid go-to and one of those litmus tests you need to check off the list right away with a Belgian-themed concept. We shared the House Style and were in unanimous thumbs-up agreement around the table. Quick note — the pot includes a whopping 50 mussels and is definitely meant for sharing.
Swine dining. The Pork Cut is an exercise in brevity that turns out, in practice, to warrant a novella. At first glance, the menu copy doesn't exactly pull you in — Grayson grits, marinated kale, jus — but the dish itself exhibits the understated vibe that abounds here. What initially seems simplistic turns out to be layered with flavor that punches you good. Dual cuts of Autumn Olive Farm pork belly and loin allow you to indulge both virtuous and sinful tastes.
Can't stop, won't stop. After various small plates, two entrees and a few glasses of wine, we weren't sure if dessert was a viable option. We're incredibly thankful to the kind folks at Saison for showing us the error of our ways and sending out a full spread, including Buttered Popcorn Pudding, Jackie's Brownie, Frozen Yogurt, and the trio of Ice Creams. As innocuous and State Fair-ish as the name sounds at first pass, the buttered popcorn pudding offers up some next-level interplay of textures and flavors: creamy pudding, crunchy, cracked corn, sweet butter & eye-lash curling lime curd. The salt & cracked black pepper ice cream topping the Jackie's Brownie punched in close to cacio e pepe weight which left us cheering. The Frozen Yogurt with strokes of saffron honey, olive oil shortbread and sweet jam could even make for a nefarious breakfast. When was the last time you dug into a dessert course that gripped your palate and imagination as deftly as the appetizers and entrees that preceded it?
Wash it down. We'd be remiss if we didn't highlight one of the most critical aspects of Brasserie Saison— the beer. Upon first conceptualizing the project, co-owner and serial Cville restaurateur Will Richey knew he wanted the suds to not only be local, but true to the Benelux-themed menu he had been dreaming up. Enter Hunter Smith, founder of Cville's own Champion Brewing Company. Known for a bevy of knockout releases since opening shop in 2012, Smith and Co. got to work outfitting the restaurant space with its very own mini Missile Factory (or, more appropriately in Dutch, "Raket Fabriek"), from which lead brewer, Josh Skinner, would sling in-house his take on classic European styles and collaborate daily with Chef Teass. As expected, the final product does not disappoint, with the flagship brew — and restaurant namesake — Saison jumping to the top of the P+K list of personal, local favorites after a few sips. Not to be overshadowed, the wine list offers up a number of local and outsider gems alike, including our group pick: a killer, brand new 2016 Gewürztraminer from tenured VA winegrowers, Afton Mountain Vineyards.
And so, many months of labor and love later, the story of Brasserie Saison begins.