Sometimes ‘destination’ restaurants really trouble me. Why put an amazing restaurant in the middle of nowhere – are you testing the commitment of your diners? How far will they go? Understandably if the setting is breathtakingly beautiful, then sure, I understand, but often they aren’t.
I was expecting Chilhowie, Virginia to be gorgeous. The surrounding mountains have The Blue Ridge Parkway, one of America’s most beautiful lines of blacktop running through them, and the photos of the accomodation we were booked into looked very picturesque. When we did finally arrive in the afternoon we were bemused to see the golden arches for the first time in days, and empty lots filled with scrap metal (the owners, I find out later work in the scrap metal business) and a very small town with a disused rail line running through it. Is this it?
Townhouse is situated on the main street of the town, in a subdued terrace block. When we arrived a wedding party was crossing the road and entering a neighbouring restaurant upping the glamour of this quiet country town. We were given directions to the accomodation and we returned the same way we had come and arrived a few moments later at Riverstead Cottage, our new home for the night.
After camping for 7 days in a row up to this point, the pure joy of having 4 walls was overwhelming. Not only did we have 4 walls, but gorgeous walls, and a bath! and a fluffy kingsize bed! and a cheese plate! We sat on our porch on rockers, and drank a bottle of Blanquette de Limoux to celebrate S’s 39th year while eating the first bit of delicious cheese that we have had in days. This is the life… If only we could stay here for the rest of our time in the US…
Dinner was pushed back to half 7, the last reservation of the night, it would happen. The room, holding 28 people was full, and we sat in the corner. On the stereo, The XX was playing..
We had the 5 course set dinner that we had booked earlier, but we were given a sneaky additional. Thank you kitchen.
First up we were served two dark chocolate cookies which were filled with parmesan cream and preserved lemon.
Shortly after followed the Scrambled Egg Mousse, Smoked Eel Roe, Sorghum, Sweet Spices, Preserved Ramp. This was served luke warm. The sweet spices – nutmeg being the most dominant, added a lovely warmth, the mousse was very light and at the bottom of the bowl some delicious balls of roe added some needed salt. I thought it would be a little too rich for me – but it was far from that. A Madeira sherry was served with this, which highlighted the sweet spices. The flavours of kerosene and prunes held its own too without being too pushy.
Followed this was the Chilled Vegetable “Minestrone” which came with 17 different types of vegetables. It was presented just like a Noma root vegetable dish that we had had in May. I don’t think they appreciated my comment, but this way of presenting vegetables is so distinct it was hard not to notice. The soup was lovely and fresh, the consomme had a lovely earthy-ness. When married with some of the root vegetables which also had some earthy flavours but were super sweet and crunchy the whole experience felt as you did as a child playing in mud. Pure simple pleasure.
The next course was their ‘take on pork and beans’ – Cranberry and Lima Beans, Roasted Cream of Ham, Chilled Bouillon, The end of Summer Foliage. On presentation, all you saw were lovely small sprigs of flowers, leaves and buds, but behind this was hiding a creamy dollop of ham deliciousness. My first taste had an almost spearmint, aniseed numbing sensation which then followed by a rich creaminess. Sweet ham, oily nuggets of pork fat, nutty beans, and fresh vegetable soup all came together holding hands on my tongue while dancing a barn dance. S described it as ‘there is a hog rolling around a herb garden in my mouth’. Either way it was amazing. If I could recreate that first taste again and again, for the cost of my first born, I would.
Next was the Peekytoe Crab in Brown Butter and Lime, various onions, shellfish, banana, curry, lobster mushroom. On first sniff, it brought me straight back to Malaysia. Chargrilled onion skins, bonito flakes – which I love, but can over power if not careful, and an interesting addition – a dollop of vanilla ice cream. Now I love a play on temperature, don’t get me wrong, but ice cream, vanilla specifically, is such a distinct flavour that I struggled to get my head around it used in this way. I have written that it was like being on a Malaysian fishing boat, but in a good way. I also received a hard nugget of something in my mouth which put me off a bit. Was it the fossilised banana?
If you have been reading for a while, you will have known that we have being doing a bit of campfire cookery, which always leaves a touch of the ‘ash and smoke’ about a dish. Well, next up we had Border Spring Farm Lamb Shank cooked in ash, sesame, smoked eggplant, peach, a dressing of bonito, black garlic. It was like being back at the campfire again, but with a level of sophistication that we couldn’t hope to recreate with our plastic crockery. I felt that the lamb was a little overdone, which was a shame but the flavours taken as a whole were amazing. The caramelised peaches were great on their own, but incredible with the rest of the dish. We drank a cabernet from Mendoza, Argentina, with this which was a very happy pairing indeed*
* I don’t have the listing of the wine matching to share with you unfortunately. I did ask, but as it wasn’t written up on the night, I have no reference until it is sent to me.
Blueberries and Crunch Milk Skin: rose sorbet, cajeta, coriander berries, roasted jalapeno cream was our pudding. First taste was the milk skin which had a pure dairy flavour like those milk buds you had as a kid. The jalapeno ice cream had a lovely clean kick, and a slight salty-ness which reminded me of fetta. The rose sorbet was pure and perfumed, not at all stinky, and lifted all the other flavours. S, being poetic as always commented ‘these guys are spooning under a sleeping bag away from the arctic winds’.
A lovely coffee from a local roastery, and a takeaway baggy full of ground coffee “because we know you guys are on the road” was greatly appreciated. A small clafoutis stuffed full of blueberries arrived in a paper bag “for the morning”. I almost kissed the waiter. We waddled out, not too full, but happily merry into the open door of the car which took us back to the homestead.
There is something to be said to be removed from the pressure of the ‘scene’ of a big town, of large floors which seat 100+, of being close to your suppliers, and being able to see every dish that leaves your kitchen. I don’t know if I ever will be able to get back there, but it was lovely to spend our 19 hours in Chilhowie, Va with our kind hosts, The Townhouse.