clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

In Search of Alpine Flavors in the American South

Nutmeg-kissed French sausages and an “unapologetically meat-centric sandwich” await at chef Brittanny Anderson’s Brenner Pass

The diots with caramelized apple and onion jus at Brenner Pass.

The secret to diot, a type of sausage typical of Savoie in the French region of the Western Alps, is the distinct thunderclap of nutmeg that rings through its seasoning. The spice’s dark-woods-and-camphor flavor has been a mainstay pairing with pork in Europe (via the global spice routes) since the Middle Ages. Brittanny Anderson gets it. At Brenner Pass, her nine-month-old restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, the nutmeg in her diots is like a floral MSG. The taste combination transmits elemental messages to the brain: You’re happy. You’re safe.

Traditionally, the magenta-colored sausages may be served cold with mustard or simmered in a simple sauce of white wine and onions. In Anderson’s hands, they lull in a pork demi-glace and come with two classic foils: slivered onions and sliced apples, both deeply caramelized. It is exactly the soothing dish you want to eat while true spring weather in the Richmond area fidgets and stalls.

The diots also convey the spirit behind Anderson’s cooking. Brenner Pass echoes the name of a well-traveled Alpine corridor that runs between Austria and Italy. The Western Alps, which straddle France, Italy, and Switzerland, lie at about 700 kilometers (or roughly an eight-hour drive) from the pass. The geography that Anderson means to evoke, then, spans countries (the mountains also stretch through Germany, Monaco, Liechtenstein, and Slovenia) but zeros in on the richly comforting foods — cheeses, pastas, polenta, lake fish enriched with dairy, pork in its infinite iterations — that sustain hearty souls in the provincial mountain terrain.

Alpine cooking is one of Europe’s few regional culinary terrains, and the promise of Anderson’s approach — at once broad and specific — is what drew me recently to Richmond and Brenner Pass. But while the Alps are the restaurant’s hook, the menu really zeroes in on the specific region only about half the time; much of the food hearkens to broader French and Italian flavors. All in all I left impressed by the restaurant’s ambition but also still hankering for an Alpine immersion course; I often wished its emphasis zoomed in tighter on its branded terrain.

Citrus and fennel salad with a chevre “panna cotta.”

In 2014, Anderson — a Richmond native who returned home after culinary school in New York and stints in kitchens like Blue Hill at Stone Barns — opened her first restaurant, Metzger, with partners Nathan Conway and Brad Hemp. Metzger is located in Richmond’s 200-year-old neighborhood, Union Hill, where German meat markets once thrived. Anderson initially took her menu cues from the local history, highlighting Deutschlander specialties like homemade sausages over sauerkraut, schupfnudeln (reedy, tapered dumplings), schnitzel, and flammkuchen (thin flatbread covered with crème fraîche, bacon, and onion).

The obvious excellence of Anderson’s cooking, particularly in her masterful use of acidity to lighten hefty meats, buoyed her reputation locally and regionally. (Metzger, by my calculus, is Richmond’s best restaurant.) But it didn’t take long for Anderson to feel hemmed in by the “German” label and its reputation for leaden foods, no matter how much levity she brought to the task.

Locking in the Alpine theme for Brenner Pass certainly piggybacked on Anderson’s standing as a German foods expert, but it gave her the bandwidth to look well afield of Bavaria. Part of the decision for a pan-European approach surely comes down to a need for broad appeal, given the restaurant’s exceptional reach. Metzer occupies a 40-seat space housed on the ground floor of a two-story brick building. Brenner Pass, at three times the size, is a big leap from indie underdog to mainstream blockbuster. It opened in June 2017 in a just-built mixed-use development in Scott’s Addition, a booming area of Richmond known for its klatch of craft breweries.

The restaurant’s space wisely steers clear of any Matterhorn chalet clichés. It epitomizes this era in modern American restaurants with picture windows, concrete floors, white walls, exposed ducts and piping, and light and grainy woods to soften the industrial edge.

Moules frites at Brenner Pass, with a kick from paprika aioli.
The disappointingly chalky fondue, with Gruyère and Emmentaler cheeses.

On the menu, one dish is meant to set the scene spectacularly: fondue, that marrow of Alpine dining, the après-ski truism, the butt of jokes about 1970s American gourmandizing due for a modern-day resurgence. At my table, a pale pool of Gruyère and Emmentaler arrived and soon simmered in a yellow pot over Sterno’s steady blue flame; a generous plate of cubed bread, fingerling potatoes, speck (smoked ham from the Alto Adige), and cornichons came alongside.

I dunked in my fondue fork, saturated a spud, and the cheese was… bland. It needed garlic and Kirsch (a cherry brandy often added to traditional recipes), or something in that vein to add some harmonics. It was also chalky, as if someone had wielded a heavy hand with the cornstarch. At another meal, I tried the fondue frites, a fun-sounding rejiggering of poutine with shoestring potatoes, speck, and cornichons bound together by cheese. Same chalkiness issues here, and it became gluey too quickly.

So, the dish that should be the restaurant’s trademark needs a recipe tweak. Bummer.

The better news is that plenty else emerging from the kitchen at Brenner Pass is wonderful. Like the diots with onions and apples. And omble chevalier, the French name for artic char (a cousin of trout, it spawns in Alpine lakes), its skin seared to a crackle and its flesh bathed in a lighthanded vin blanc sauce with bagnet vert (a Piedmontese variation on pesto featuring parsley). And coq au cidre, gorgeously browned chicken in a gloss of cider jus.

Really, this is a place to revel in some pleasing comforts rendered masterfully. A kicky paprika aioli gives textbook mussels and frites extra charm. Escargots spill off slices of toast in garlicky, parsley-flecked jumbles. Pappardelle ensnares a sauce of coarsely chopped smoked pork and meaty trumpet mushrooms in the exact right proportions.

The beverage program is also first-rate. Local beer and cocktail ace James Kohler joined Brenner Pass as a partner (as did pastry chef Olivia Wilson); he compiles the wine list alongside Conway. Tense, refreshing wines from the mountainous domains of France and Italy most readily encourage an Alpine state of mind. Look for varietals from places like Savoie, Valle d’Aosta, Alto Adige, and Bugey. Their taut acidity pairs innately with regional cheeses the restaurant serves, including beauties like floral and slightly pungent Abondance; herby, buttery Beaufort d’Alpage; and Tête de Moine, traditionally shaved into curls to better appreciate its nutty flavors.

Bartender Shannon Hood’s stunning sherry cobbler.
Anderson’s “no-holds-barred, unapologetically meat-centric” mortadella sandwich.

The cocktails don’t evoke any particular place or time; they’re just damn good. The restaurant’s star team has attracted some of Richmond’s best bartending talent. Shannon Hood’s sherry cobbler, as an example, mirrored one evening’s sunset with its gradations of reds and golds from Manzanilla sherry, Meyer lemon syrup, absinthe, and Peychaud’s bitters.

Brunch, expectedly, veers into the most concretely American ideas. (For wake-up purposes, it’s worth mentioning that the restaurant’s next-door coffee shop, Chairlift, makes a boss macchiato.) Its standout dishes remind me that Anderson is a virtuoso at deep-frying. One special delivered crunchy pork croquettes (the mix of cuts included head meat) over vinegary frisée salad and a poached egg; every element was superb in its execution. Then there was the wild mortadella schnitzel sandwich, a towering, clobbering brute. The mortadella mimicked Spam in its breaded goodness, with pickled peppers, frisée, aioli, and thin slices of fontina pulling the flavors and textures in all sorts of zigzags.

This was the kind of dish — no-holds-barred, unapologetically meat-centric, and yet brilliantly balanced — that makes Anderson one of the South’s most gifted chefs. But this wasn’t exactly how I was hoping to be wowed at Brenner Pass.

I understand, in a sprawling space in an emerging part of a mid-size American city, the bottom-line need for gratifying pastas and French onion soup and citrus-goat cheese salads. And while I would absolutely recommend Brenner Pass to anyone living or visiting Richmond, I also want Anderson to look more deeply into the genre she chose. I’m genuinely curious about the regional nuances of the Alps, and I bet the customers who’ve come to trust her cooking might be, as well. At Metzger, Anderson can let her creativity roam. At Brenner Pass, she has a chance to narrow her sightline, and in turn, show us her bigger vision of the world.

Brenner Pass: 3200 Rockbridge St., Richmond, Virginia, (804) 658-9868.
Dinner Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m. Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. At dinner, most snacks $5-$10, small plates $10-$15, $16-$20, large plates $16-$34, desserts $6-$12.

Best New Restaurants

The 12 Best New Restaurants in America

Guides

New England's 38 Essential Restaurants

Guides

The South's 38 Essential Restaurants

View all stories in America's Essential Restaurants

Sign up for the Sign up for the Eater newsletter

The freshest news from the food world every day