A James Beard award-winner, Christopher Gross has been one of this town's most accomplished and sophisticated chefs for more than a decade. His wife, Paola, is a highly credentialed wine expert.
Biltmore Fashion Park is a chic, swanky mall. At most of its shops, if you have to ask how much something is, you probably can't afford it.
So when I first learned that the Grosses planned to open a place here called Christopher & Paola's Fermier Brasserie--it means, roughly, Farmer's Tavern--I scratched my head. Maybe the fashionable couple planned to dress rustically in overalls and straw hats. Laying aside their milk cans and pitchforks, they'd serve tankards of beer and joints of mutton to our town's happy agricultural workers, who'd come here to fill up after a hard day in the fields.
Christopher Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Red bell pepper soup: $5.95
Smoked prime sirloin: $26.95
Hot and cold chocolate: $6.95
Yeah, right. Actually, Christopher & Paola's Fermier Brasserie is just as much a restaurant "concept" as another Biltmore Fashion Park tenant, Planet Hollywood. The difference, though, is that this concept works.
Don't look for the kind of creative, three-hour, eight-course meals that the chef used to put together at Christopher's, the eponymous gourmet restaurant that he left last year, after a bitter dispute with his partner. Those epic and epicurean dinners, designed for the luxury market, certainly are not what the Fermier Brasserie is about. It's also not about Christopher's Bistro, the other, less stuffy part of his former dual-restaurant operation. At the Fermier Brasserie, you won't find the Bistro's marble floors, flower arrangements or maitre d's in designer suits. Heck, you won't even find tablecloths, matching silverware or someone savvy enough to thank you for coming when you depart.
What you will find, however, is high-quality, accessible, affordable, Gallic-accented fare, hitched to one of this town's best wine lists and a half-dozen brewed-on-premises beers, all served in a wonderfully casual setting. The Fermier Brasserie may be informal, but it's not Christopher Lite.
This is the kind of place you can walk into wearing jeans, without worrying about a tap on the shoulder from the fashion police. There's lots of wood, which gives the room a warm, homey feel. So does the open kitchen. But extremely tight quarters--on busy nights, the tables seem uncomfortably jammed--take the warmth and homeyness a bit too far. The God-awful, thumpa-thumpa music, on the other hand, goes way too far.
Look up, beyond the exposed ductwork ceiling, and you'll see the brasserie's gleaming, stainless steel beer vats. Lower your gaze, and you'll spot several oils along the walls, whose principal subject is the chef. Awards and certificates attesting to his culinary prowess are also prominently hung for guests' inspection.
The ego display doesn't bother me. That's because Christopher has the talent to back it up. The man can flat-out cook.
Once you're seated, someone toting a big basket of marvelous French bread stops by and plucks out a small slice. I don't know why Christopher just doesn't give each table a small loaf, instead of making his staff perpetually wander the room replenishing supplies. But if the employees don't complain, I won't, either.
The menu is small, about a dozen entrees. There are few new bursts of culinary inspiration--many items have simply moved across 24th Street from Christopher's old digs. The best strategy for ordering: Search out the dishes that require the most chef involvement. The more time the kitchen spends with a dish, the better it seems to be.
Take the soups. At $12.50, the soup of wild mushrooms and foie gras has to be one of the Valley's costliest splurges. But foodies won't mind flirting with Chapter 7. Touched up with port, it's glorious, an ample portion full of vigorous, earthy flavors that grab you by the lapels and don't let go. This soup is a real conversation stopper, in the best sense of that term.
Red bell pepper soup is just about as good. I'd call it subtly intense, the puree underlined with essence of white truffle and chanterelle powder.
There are other worthy starter options. Light, delicate ravioli, filled with minced escargots and sweetbreads and smothered in a spoon-lickin', mushroom-spiked garlic sauce, can get your head spinning in a 360-degree swivel. And so can the terrine of foie gras, one of my all-time favorites that Christopher has wisely brought over from the fine-dining room.
On the other hand, the kitchen doesn't seem fully engaged with a couple of tame appetizer platters. The miserly $22.50 seafood plate for two brings four Belon oysters, a few ounces of lobster meat and a precious thimbleful of crab. Yes, the seafood is good. But this is not how you get the attention of James Beard judges. The lackluster, $10.50 platter of roasted "Provençal" vegetables--tomato, eggplant, squash, zucchini, mushroom, asparagus and potatoes--won't impress judges or customers. The somewhat sodden veggies arrived much closer to "chilled" than the "room temperature" promised by our server. There's much room for improvement here.
The main dishes show what can happen when skilled hands get to work on high-quality ingredients. At least that's what I concluded after I sank my teeth into the explosive sirloin steak, the single best dish here and maybe the best steak in town. The perfectly trimmed, prime-grade beef is marinated, infused with truffles and then delicately smoked. The result is a steak so good that my socks practically started rolling up and down in joy. A rich sauce fashioned from red wine and marrow, gilded with roasted shallots, adds to the intensity.
If you prefer your animal protein in the form of lamb, attach yourself to the rack. Four meaty, butter-soft chops come crusted with seasonings, and paired with roasted potatoes and an inexplicably dull veggie medley. Is it proper to pick up the bones and gnaw? Who cares? You'd be a fool not to.
Christopher has always had a way with fish. And he hasn't lost his touch here. I was particularly smitten with the Friday special, a bowl of fish stew that reminds me of a Provençal bourride. The key is the fragrantly creamy sauce, enhanced with pureed vegetables and freshened with aoli, supporting hunks of sea bass and tuna. And if you need more evidence that the chef is sweating the details, check out the artichoke heart floating alongside the fish. It's fresh, not out of a can or jar.
Two popular fish--ahi tuna and halibut--get deft treatment. A first-rate hunk of ahi receives a quick sear from the flames, then gets doused in a full-bodied red wine sauce. With its sides of roasted potatoes and olives, it tastes like southern France. A thick slab of halibut, meanwhile, has a suavely continental air, accompanied by roasted red and yellow tomatoes and moistened in a delicate truffle sabayon. This is one of those dishes that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
You don't run into cassoulet too often in this town. It's a particularly hearty winter dish, here fashioned from duck, spicy merguez (a North African sausage) and white beans. You don't run into the likes of the Fermier Brasserie's artichoke and tomato tart at all. Fresh artichoke, roasted red and yellow tomatoes and leeks are tossed in a light lemon sauce and spooned into puff pastry. And Christopher's house-smoked salmon pasta is also one of a kind, a robust dish that keeps your attention all the way to the last bite.
You can linger over a cheese course, which offers well-known French favorites and boutique cheeses from New York's Egg Farm Dairy. Or you can move directly to dessert.
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It would a shame to run out of belly room before you get to the outstanding sweets, many of which have had their pictures taken in foodie magazines. I'm partial to the hot and cold chocolate: moist chocolate cake with a warm chocolate lava center, served atop house-made chocolate ice cream; alongside is a scoop of chocolate sorbet nesting in a tuile. Chocoholics will need to schedule a 12-step recovery program the next day. I'm also fond of the tarte Tatin, a buttery, sugary French concoction that resembles an upside-down apple pie. Fans of the rich chocolate mousse tower, another signature dessert, will happily note its appearance. Profiteroles, however, aren't in the same league.
A word about wine and beer. The Fermier Brasserie offers about a hundred wines by the glass, from just about every corner of the earth. Looking for a white? There's everything from a $5.25 Johannisberg Riesling from Washington state to a $13 premier cru French Chablis. Want an offbeat red? There are wines from South Africa, Portugal, Austria, Lebanon and Argentina. For dessert? Check out Spanish Muscat and luscious Banyuls, from France.
The brewmaster, meanwhile, has been putting out a half-dozen beers. Kolsch is light and refreshing, perhaps better suited to August. The full-bodied Oktoberfest, malty and substantial, couldn't be more different from most American swill. The Brown Ale is the least impressive effort, one-dimensional and without character. But the lusty Barleywine makes up for it--it's almost caramely, with lots of nuances. If you're not your group's designated driver, choose the Double Wheat Bock. Twenty ounces of this potent brew will unleash your inhibitions. And if you're in the mood to experiment, try the Espresso Stout--yes, coffee is added during the brewing process. The best way for first-timers to go: Get a sampler--five-ounce glasses of all six, for six bucks.
Don't be fooled by appearances. The cheerily informal Fermier Brasserie is as big-time as Christopher's and Christopher's Bistro ever were. It's just big-time in a different way.