Fuel Co.

Rating: ?

Where: 901 E. Market St., Charlottesville

Phone: (434) 220-0864

Website: www.fuel-co.com

Highlights: Housed in a renovated gas station, this hip caf?/bistro/bar owned by the Kluge Estate Vineyard and Winery delivers a gourmet dining experience comparable to any upscale restaurant but with none of the snob factor. Check out the accompanying wine store’s Fuel Co. 150, a special selection of bottles priced under $20. Reservations recommended.

Smoking: Non-smoking until 11 p.m.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, Dinner 6 p.m.-Midnight Monday-Saturday, Brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday; Caf? 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily

Entr?e prices: $17-$28

Check for two: $141 (including three courses each, alcohol, tax and gratuity)

When the leaves change color, it’s time for a change in scenery.

The onset of autumn begs for a road trip, preferably one involving wine. Forget interstates, and take the scenic drive out Route 6 toward Charlottesville. A bountiful reserve of renowned wineries awaits.

Spend the afternoon immersed in the honeysuckle tones of a perfect viognier or the intense berries of a cabernet franc. Cap off the evening with an indulgent dinner amid the romance ofa gas station.

But not just any gas station. One that thinks in terms of tartare, not Twizzlers. One where the wine list can tempt even the most seasoned Big Gulp afficiando.

Despite the service station canopy and row of pumps out front, Charlottesville’s Fuel Co. isn’t just any gas station. It’s a hip roadside restaurant with sophisticated fare, sleek d?cor and, thanks to owner Patricia Kluge of Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard, an impressive selection of varietals ($20-$99) from Virginia and beyond.

During the day, Fuel Co.’s caf? is the perfect spot to fill up on gourmet sandwiches or get prepared items to go. If your tank runs better on premium than regular octane, check out the bistro for dinner. This is where Fuel Co. shines.

In honor of its third anniversary, Fuel Co. has extended its bistro/bar hours until midnight and created the Fuel Co. 150, a special selection of bottles under $20, chilled and ready for purchase in the accompanying wine store.

This is a gas station worth the extra mileage.

Virginia wines, such as Kluge’s Albemarle Viognier ($10 glass, $40 bottle), and a casually elegant atmosphere make Fuel Co.’s approach to fine dining laid-back and comfortable. On a Friday night, the low-lit dining room (smoke-free until 11 p.m.) was filled with wine enthusiasts in a range of attire.

Fuel Co.’s eclectic dinner menu is best described as “New Retro American.” A double cut pork chop ($20) is paired with dried cherry bread pudding, Australian lamb chops ($27) with sweet potato grits.

There are no unnecessary additives. Accents are simple, and dominant flavors are derived from the purity of the main ingredient. Each bite can be tailored to elicit different sensations.

After selecting a Lyeth Meritage and Ferrari-Carano Fum? Blanc, we started with Atlantic salmon tartare ($7) and seared day boat scallops ($9).

Finely diced salmon, delicately blended with cr?me fraiche and surrounded by chopped egg, was served with baguette crostini. The refreshing zing of lemon oil cut through the salmon’s richness.

Topped with a simple garnish of julienne apples, cucumbers and carrots, sweet, ivory-colored scallops flaunted unabashed freshness. The flavors of edamame and mango vinaigrette vibrated subtly in the background.

Fuel Co.’s entrees are presented with minimalist elegance. Splashes of color from intricate sauces and seasonal vegetables shimmer against clean, white china.

Loup de mer ($21) was served atop a mellow potato puree. Chorizo, wild spring onions and orange-caper vinaigrette swung the filet’s flavor from viciously smoky to pungent.

Perfectly rare venison chops ($28) had the texture of butter. The meat melted in the mouth, further enriched by cream-laden grits and wild mushrooms. The earthy bitterness of Swiss chard provided a punchy foil.

Surprisingly, the meal ran out of gas at dessert. Fuel Co.’s endings seemed to embrace the pedestrian nature of gas station fare too literally. The discreet innovation found in the rest of the menu sputtered out.

Vanilla ice cream profiteroles ($7.50) were cleverly dotted with Rice Krispies, but the puff pastry tasted stale. The chocolate torte ($7.50) looked like an indulgently rich treat but tasted like store-bought brownie mix.

Despite dessert shortcomings, Fuel Co.’s irreverent interpretation of a roadside eatery delivers a noteworthy dining experience. Discerning yet creative dishes and a sleek, cosmopolitan atmosphere make it worth the drive, no matter how much gas prices fluctuate.

Freelance writer and graphic designer Dana Craig considers dessert the most important food group. The Times-Dispatch pays for the meals on her unannounced visits to restaurants. Contact her at [email protected].