We arrived at the Town House at 7 o’clock. The host gave us a key and a map, and arranged to pick us up at 8. We followed the map about five miles, through one traffic light flashing on an empty road, before pulling up to The Riverstead—a farmhouse rented out nightly to weary travelers like us. Then, we got ready for dinner.
Chilhowie, Virginia, is just about the last place you’d expect to have the meal I’m about to describe. The town’s population is a little over 1,000, but unlike my little townlet (Stockton has a population of around 500), there’s not much in the way of neighboring cities, or really even neighboring towns. Needless to say, there’s a lot of farmland out there.
Come 8, a BMW pulled up to the house, driven by one of the restaurant’s sous chefs, who informed us on the way back to the restaurant that we’d be having the whole place to ourselves (this was the Thursday night before the snowpocalypse). We were led to a huge corner table and here, I should apologize…I didn’t bring my camera. After the 8-1/2-hour drive, all I wanted to do was relax with my fiance and a glass of wine—though that excuse would have flown out the window if I’d known how beautiful the food would be. As it is, we’ll have to make due with my pictures of The Riverstead. Which I actually kind of like.
But anyway, the food. Starting with the amuse bouches: one of them a “cookie” type thing that, though really delicious, wasn’t as memorable as the other—a pork belly taco, flavored with kaffir lime leaves and served in a “taco shell” that was actually cheese. Jim and I looked at each other: This is place is serious. The next course was a soup: rolls of pickled and raw vegetables standing upright in a chilled vegetable broth. (You can see a picture of it here.) Now I know I might not stress it much on this blog, with all my posts about pork and whole fish and pasta, but I hold a special place in my heart for well-made broths. There’s just something so pure and beautiful about them…great ones can make me teary-eyed. Put simply, this vegetable broth was the best I’d ever had (and it would be surpassed later in the meal). Seriously. I’m not exaggerating. I couldn’t offer enough superlatives. And the soup itself…it wasn’t just delicious, it was fun. You start off trying to figure out how to eat it—with a little broth in your spoon, and one vegetable roll, now two together, maybe three?—until you realize there is no wrong way, you could nibble or slurp, it didn’t matter, every combination was gorgeous. That’s what almost all the courses were like: puzzles with no wrong answers.
The progression was perfect, too—no mean task for thirteen, fourteen, fifteen courses—but, of course, I can’t remember it all. In addition to a bottle of wine (“a nice cheap white,” is what Jim ordered, and not only did the sommelier, Charlie Berg, deliver, but—to give you a sense of his charisma—he made us feel right at home by charmingly, without the slightest hint of condescension, repeating the phrase itself, “a nice cheap white,” as he uncorked the bottle), we also had pairings for about half the courses in our three-hour meal. So…yeah, it’s a little jumbled. But in rough order, there was a dish of chilled razor clams with dissolving “rocks” that you ate alongside some (I’m assuming) real rocks imparting a fragrance that made us nostalgic for particular kind of beach we’d never been to; a “frozen [brulee] lake” that you cracked open to get at one of the bolder combinations—smoked steelhead roe, avocado, and a coconut ice cream—the richness all cut with something we assumed had been manufactured in the lab/kitchen (it was that bright and flavorful) but turned out to be an honest to goodness fruit called finger lime; a clear, smokey, onion-y ham broth (though I might be misrembering the onion part), with a flourless ravioli made out of egg yolk (and made to look like one.); and, one of our favorites (the last one actually falls into that category, too), an oyster. It was wrapped in apple leather and served beside a scoop of creme fraiche and sweet, garlicky roasted apple sauce. I think I would give my right leg for one of them right now, and it’s 9 in the morning, and I’m drinking my coffee. And I don’t even like oysters.
Later came preserved ramps, from last season, set at the bottom of a bowl of scrambled egg mousse flavored with birch: a wholly unexpected combination that now, of course, seems obvious—and also made this my favorite ever egg-y restaurant dish, just beating out the truffled baked egg at Bouley. (As we told Charlie several times, the meal as whole smashed Bouley, and Daniel, and Le Bernardin, and every other hotshot New York restaurant we’d ever been to. Actually, by the end of the meal, I think we may have said that to Charlie a few times too many. Like five or six too many. I’d like to say that we just wanted Charlie and the chefs to feel that their work was being appreciated–that that’s why we kept flashing our connoisseur creds—but I also know that we tend to want to be taken seriously at the times when we’re least likely to: you know, when drunk. But whatever. I think they enjoyed our enthusiasm all the same.)
Next—I think it was next–was an orange, or rather an orange puree made to look like an orange (man, I love these molecular gastronomists), which we we broke open to find a salad of plump, briny mussels. Maybe it’s because we shared this dish (we had our own full plates for all the others), but this wasn’t a favorite; I mean, there were definitely brilliant bites, but as a whole it felt somewhat out of balance—like we made a mistake somewhere in the puzzle. Still, it worked wonderfully as a palate cleanser, and was very cool. And even if there had been more serious shortcomings, they would have been made up for tenfold by the next dish—maybe our favorite of the night—a chorizo boullion with shrimp sausage, tender little lumps of manchego cheese, and a big black bubble in the center: a cuttlefish bubble that burst in our mouths, making Jim exclaim, “This is ridiculous! It’s like a whole bouillabaisse in a single bite!” It was served with a sherry that brought out the cheese and the spice of the chirizo, and practically made us start applauding after each bite.
Then came the entrees. The first was squab with foie gras, strewn with tender pistachios and covered in beet juice. Have I told you that I don’t like foie gras, that I’m disappointed every time I see it on a tasting menu? Do I need to tell you now that I licked this foie gras clean off the plate? Or that the squab was even more perfect than our previous favorite squab, at Saul in Brooklyn? I almost feel like I should stop there, assuming you’ve all gotten the point (that you should drop what you’re doing right now and drive to southwest Virginia), but then I wouldn’t be able to tell you about the scallops and pork belly, served with crispy puffed rice and passion fruit and red cabbage dipping sauce—a play on Chinese food that transcended it to the stars. Almost the best part of that dish was the Shao-Xing wine that Charlie told us to take down like a shot before attacking the plate; it was like a warming beef tea, with the strength and depth of flavor of a good whiskey. I’m going to have to write Charlie for the name so we can serve it at dinner parties.
Our final entree rivals the chorizo bouillon as our favorite dish of the night: lamb shoulder cooked for 36 hours in ash and served alongside wild-rice “polenta,” black garlic marmalade, and a creamy piece of yucca. Something resembling ash (but obviously tasting better) dusted the lamb, which could be cut with a fork, and tasted…I think I’ve run out adjectives. Bold? Smoky? Charcoal-y? Amazing? I’m not doing it justice, but then again, I haven’t done any of the dishes justice. They’re the work of artists, with hardcore technical training (executive chef John Shield trained under Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz, and his wife, the pastry chef Karen Urie Shields, trained under Trotter and Gale Gand).
Although I still don’t know how we found room for them, the desserts were as playfully magnificent as the rest of the meal. The first looked like snow with bits of grass sprouting through, the snow being…I’m not exactly sure what, but it was very white and very cold, and it contained creamy milk chocolate ice cream and a frozen green-curry puree—another combination I can’t believe I missed for so many years. The grass was herbs—basil, cilantro, mint, and I’m sure a few others—which turned Jim unusually wistful; he told me, for the first time ever, about a pea garden his grandmother used to tend when he was little. In the four years we’d been together, I think it was the first time he remembered it.
The second desert, and final course of the night, was maybe the most fun of all. Beside a few pools of black sesame sauce, mounds of yogurt and marzipan lay cloaked in concord grape sauce flavored with anise. It was a representation of the purple mountains we drove through on the way to Chilhowie, and after the first few bites, mixing and matching different elements (all of them delicious, as always, though the sesame sauce with the concord grapes stood out), the whole dish turned into the very best kind of mess—and made us feel like happy children.
After the meal (plus two fabulous olive oil chocolates), we were lucky enough to be taken back to the kitchen to meet the chefs, John and Karen, who were very kind as we yet again drunkenly proclaimed their superiority to all those New York restaurants we’d been to (an opinion we still hold)—not to mention their kindness in cooking so beautifully for us until near midnight, in an empty restaurant, with sheets of icy-rain falling outside.
We were given a breakfast tart, prepared by Karen, to be heated up the next morning, and driven back to the farm house, where we had a long soak in the big-enough-for-two clawfoot tub, and listened to John Lithgow read poetry from a CD we’d brought on the trip. I recommend you follow our lead. Drive to Chilhowie. They’ll give you a key, and a map, and arrange to pick you up for dinner. You could get the four course meal that comes with your stay at Riverstead, but you should ask them to go all-out, or at least have ten courses. Enjoy it all. Go back and soak in the tub. Wake up to fresh juice, breakfast, and the cookies that were waiting for you when you first arrived.
In case you need more persuading, here’s an adorable article about John and Karen’s recent wedding. It pushed me over the top when I was trying to decide whether it would be worth adding an extra five or so hours onto our trip to Savannah, and it’s another reason that Chilhowie is going to be the last stop on our honeymoon. I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate.
132 East Main Street
Chilhowie, VA 24319
(Town House is unfortunately for some, fortunately for others, permanently closed. I say fortunately because John Shields and his wife Karen Urie Shield have opened up a new restaurant, or actually two: one for thé full tasting course expérience called Smyth, and another inside the same building I believe, The Loyalist, that focuses more casual fare, a kind of neighborhood restaurant… and bar if course! We haven’t made it out to Chicago yet but the moment we get the chance, we’ll be booking at Smyth and the Loyalist!
—Your ridiculous voice message makers and honeymooners at stayed at the B&B, Robin and Jim, wish you all the best and more guys!)