Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Cozy Comfort

Charlottesville's funky but upscale diner, Bizou, seems like Millie's western cousin.

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Both restaurants rely on a surprise element. First-time customers get more than they expect: At Bizou, it's first-rate, moderately priced new American cuisine in a down-home setting of paper napkins, plastic plates at lunch, pine paneling covered with movie posters and no tablecloths. Bizou occupies a narrow, L-shaped space with an open kitchen that can be seen from the mall. The seats at the counter/bar often are occupied by customers waiting for one of the 40 seats.

Bizou is a spinoff at the original site of Metropolitain, which quickly won a reputation as the "in" place for the foodie crowd in Charlottesville after Burgess and Derquenne opened it in 1991. With business booming, they moved Metropolitain to a larger space a block off the mall in 1995 and once settled there, opened Bizou as a sort of Metropolitain Light. Early this year, the unlikely pair — Burgess is a West Virginian who studied computer engineering at the University of Miami before succumbing to the lure of the kitchen, and Derquenne was classically trained as a chef in his native France — opened a third restaurant in downtown Charlottesville, the Asian-influenced Bang. And later this month Metropolitain, which has been closed for renovation, will reopen as Metro.

Bizou's chef is 28-year-old Sean Lawford, a protégé of Burgess and Derquenne at Metropolitain who was lured back to Virginia five years ago. He changes the menu at least weekly, and sometimes daily, but a couple of the standards are always available — meatloaf with smashed potatoes and chipotle ketchup ($10), and roasted chicken with potatoes and gravy ($13).

The menu tops out at about $18, and for that price, the portions are large or, in the case of my grilled pork porterhouse steak, huge. It was an inch-thick, 10-ounce slab that oozed juicy white meat. It was served with choucrutte (sauerkraut), smoked apple bacon and their "smashed" potatoes. At $17, it was delicious and more than I could finish.

My wife, Nancy, chose sautéed sea scallops ($18) and was rewarded with more than half a dozen perfectly seared scallops bathed in a cream sherry and accompanied by julienne vegetables.

I began the evening with a whole, grilled, slightly spicy quail ($9) simmered in bacon and onions, and served in a bowl with baby spinach and a cranberry glaze that would have been more than adequate as an entrée. Nancy opted for the soup of the day, a smoothly blended bisque of wild mushrooms topped with cheese — just right for taking the chill off a fall evening ($4.75).

We finished with two desserts ($5), either of which alone would have been enough to share. But in the interest of science, we tackled both the homemade banana bread, drowning in praline sauce and topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream, and the blackberry upside-down cake with ice cream.

At lunch a week earlier, I had a leg of rabbit ($8.50) so big it must have been the one that attacked Jimmy Carter that time in the lake. (Lawford assured me, however, that it was raised on a farm in Powhatan.) It came with wild mushrooms in a Dijon sauce over roasted rosemary potatoes and a green salad.

The mini salmon cakes ($6.95) were the sour note of our visits. Nancy ordered them for lunch despite a warning by the waitress that "some people love them, but some hate them." They were good, but looked and tasted like crispy potato rolls. We couldn't detect even a hint of salmon in them and neither could a friend who was sitting across the room. To his credit, Lawford acknowledged that sometimes the Yukon gold potatoes that hold the cakes overpower the salmon flavor.

A minor complaint concerns the bread: It's not free. Small slices of baguettes are 75 cents at lunch and $1 at dinner.

Last squawk: The wine list. It's all French, and the house chardonnay ($5 a glass) had a musty smell and taste that made us yearn for an oaky offering from one of the excellent nearby Virginia wineries.

So drink a beer, go easy on the bread, avoid the salmon cakes, and you'll wind up with a great meal in a funky hole-in-the-wall that is definitely worth the 75-minute trip from Richmond. S



Bizou

119 W. Main St., on the downtown mall in Charlottesville.

(434) 977-1818

Lunch 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m. except Sunday; Dinner Sunday - Thursday 5:30 p.m. - 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m.

No reservations




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