It’s fantastic at the restaurants of the Piedmont
Maybe Epicurus was right: pleasure is the only intrinsic value. Well, at least up to a point. When it comes to fine food, hedonists, epicureans, connoisseurs, gourmets, and gourmands alike recognize and revere the Piedmont as a world-class DDR (Designated Dining Region!).
The area boasts it all from Michelin-starred haute cuisine to down-home country cookin’, and everything in between. There’s not a regional cookery, national or international, that isn’t exquisitely represented, and that which is known as “American” is here in abundance at the highest level. In fact, there are so many fine establishments that it would take years and many editions to catalog them all. We won’t even try.
However, in an effort to help those seeking unique dining experiences, we’ve asked several area chefs to visit favorite restaurants of their choice and report their findings. This mini-mini guide, which is by no means exhaustive, highlights some of the outstanding fare diners can enjoy. It’s road-trip time. Bon appetit!
The Ashby Inn & Restaurant, Paris
Photos by Jaclyn Dyrholm
In case you have forgotten this hidden jewel up in Paris, make it a point to go see how this gem sparkles. From the moment you walk in you feel the history of the building and are greeted with kindness and professionalism. The menu offers many choices: you may choose the Chef’s Tasting (a selection of small plates that exhibit the variety of the chef’s offerings), order off the regular menu as you’d like, or choose from the vegetarian options. Stuart, the extremely knowledgeable sommelier, presents a very extended wine list full of local and international options. If you are driving after dinner, they offer a fantastic choice of half bottles as well.
So now let’s get to the fun part—the food. Before dinner, we were served little teasers—exquisite bites of deliciousness. We were given olive oil cake with yellow beets and cucumber; squid ink chips with a yellow beet jam; and a light mint pot de crème with fresh peas, toasted pumpernickel crumbs, and the most perfect tiny mushroom we have ever seen. Homemade bread served with local honey butter was a delight.
We chose to create our own courses with a little help from Rory, our server, who has been with the Ashby Inn for three and a half years. For appetizers, Andrea went straight for the pork belly, which was divine. I was torn between the asparagus and the mushroom soup, so I left that choice up to Rory; he recommended the mushroom soup, and he was right on the money. The presentation alone was incredible, and it tasted like a little bit of heaven. Due to the array of tempting choices, selecting the main course wasn’t an easy task. Anything from fish, lamb, beef, and duck … what to decide on? I went with the beef strip loin, served with ramps that were foraged by the chef himself. Tender, juicy, and perfectly prepared. Andrea decided he would go for the lamb lion; again, we would rate it a 10 out of 10.
For dessert, while tempted by the house-made sorbets, I again let Rory help me decide, and yet again he was spot on with the white chocolate creameaux, which turned out to be divine. It was elegantly presented and a perfect finish to my incredible dinner. Andrea ordered the chocolate pavé and was equally impressed.
Overall, we had an amazing experience. The use of the products their local community provides that are personally selected by the chef and his staff from local farms and vineyards—from meat to vegetables to wine, almost all within an hour’s drive—is admirable as well as delicious. Perfect date spot as well as a beautiful drive! Highly recommended.
—Andrea and Amber Ferrero
Vintage at the Inn at Willow Grove, Orange
Photos by Jaclyn Dyrholm
If you are up for a beautiful drive through the countryside of rolling hills and old Virginia farms, then the Inn at Willow Grow is your perfect destination. As you pull up, this elegant Revolutionary War-era historic building will give you a sense of tranquility, especially when you look around at the mountain scenery. Make sure to get there a few minutes before your reservation so you are able to take time to rest for a cocktail at the beautiful bar. As you are seated for dinner, the elegant place settings and the immediate tranquil ambiance will put you in the right mood for what’s to come.
For an appetizer, the sip of soup is a great idea, beautifully presented. We had a cheese platter that offered a variety of three cheeses, fresh berries, and wedges of fresh homemade bread … perfect. The roasted sweet tomato and phyllo dough tart came as surprise; as opposed to a traditionally shaped tart, the phyllo dough was shredded and toasted and served with the tomatoes. It was delicious.
Then we had the wild roasted mushroom fettuccine with garlic cloves, grape tomatoes, and mixed greens with sweet vermouth butter. The pasta was homemade, which gave it a variance in thickness and width. The dish was very rich but delicious. The rice-crusted ahi tuna (one of the chef’s favorite recommendations) came out just as it was ordered, rare and slightly warm in the middle. The crust was exquisite; the fried polenta that came with it was divine, as was as the espresso barbecue sauce that was drizzled over it. Other recommendations from the chef included the grilled rack of lamb (from Retreat Farm in Rapidan), the seafood trio (he notes the scallops are as big as biscuits), and the chicken paillard, served with a warm black-eyed pea and thyme vinaigrette. This dish is versatile enough to be satisfyingly warm and homey in the cooler spring weather, but fresh enough for the warmer late spring temperatures.
And then, desserts! The chef identified the strawberry cake as a favorite, and mentioned the interestingly prepared lemon and blueberry fried pie, and the house-made sorbets. We chose instead the blood orange crème brulée because, well, who would’ve thought? Nicely presented and yummy.
Overall, the experience was wonderful. The ambiance, the setting, and the people made for a beautiful Sunday evening. We are looking forward to going back for a Sunday brunch. Anyone looking for a rehearsal dinner or wedding venue, or just a romantic getaway, this is your place. The Inn at Willow Grove has a lot to offer: history, beautiful views, a great staff, and wonderful, locally sourced food.
—Andrea and Amber Ferrero
Griffin Tavern, Flint Hill
Photos courtesy of Griffin Tavern
Located in the heart of Rappahannock County, the Griffin Tavern has a lot to offer—anyone coming back from a hike in Shenandoah State Park (a favorite of the local hiking group Boots ‘n Beer), those enjoying a drive through the country, or those looking for a date spot will thoroughly enjoy this dining experience. Owner Debbie Donehey opened this popular spot in 2003 and made big changes to build a winning team with chef Rachel Rowland at the helm. Griffin Tavern prides itself on its fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, most of which are from nearby farms.
The pub offers a full bar and boasts an assortment of beers that would make any Brit very happy. Pub fare includes amazing black Angus burgers, a great spinach salad, chicken wings, and another nod to the Brits: a Ploughman’s Platter consisting of cheeses and charcuterie, most of which are made within a few miles of the restaurant.
For our date, we chose the fine dining section of the restaurant, where the atmosphere was more suited to our mood. The menu changes on a weekly basis, but also offers some always-available signature dishes. For appetizers, we chose potato skins with smoked salmon, a delicious treat, and a fried tofu with sesame oil and Sriracha, also delicious. For our main courses, we opted for the Yohanan Farm all-natural chicken and the Angus ribeye, even though the ricotta di bufala and spinach ravioli with carmelized onion was very tempting, as was sous chef Jason’s locally-famous ribs entree. The chicken was among the most tender and moist we have ever had, with a crispy skin that was like heaven. The ribeye, beautifully cooked, was seasoned to perfection and very juicy.
We asked our server, Andy, to choose our dessert. She brought us a generous slice of an apple spice cake made by Mary Frances, who has been creating desserts at Griffin Tavern for many years. They also offer a large selection of Mary Frances’s pies, cheesecakes, and bread pudding, as well as other seasonal desserts.
Sunday brunch is also a not-to-be-missed experience, with a creative selection of Benedicts, sometimes served on homemade seasoned biscuits instead of English muffins, including smoked salmon, crabcake, and vegetarian versions. The Benedicts, complemented by simpler egg dishes, burgers, bratwursts, and quiche make for a versatile menu to choose from.
We have been to the Griffin Tavern several times, for brunch and the pub, but dining on the restaurant side was a wonderful change of scenery. We highly recommend this establishment for the quality of the food and the versatility that can suit anyone’s taste.
—Andrea and Amber Ferrero
Fossett’s at Keswick Hall, Keswick
Photography by Laurie Beth Gills
We always hear about new restaurants, but what about the more established ones, the iconic ones that can withstand the test of time? How do they keep from becoming too comfortable? or being labeled as stagnant? On a recent trip to Fossett’s at Keswick Hall, I learned how.
I’d never had the pleasure of dining at Keswick Hall’s renowned restaurant until recently. It’s easy to pass up steadfast community staples in favor of the latest hot spot, but I’m so happy finally to have indulged in Executive Chef John Hoffman’s cuisine. Sometimes the greatest food finds are the ones that have been there all along.
Framed in a grand Jeffersonian country manor, Keswick Hall welcomes guests magnificently. The spectacular 48-room mansion overlooks the lush countryside of Albemarle County, with a Blue Ridge Mountain backdrop to boot.
Keswick Hall may have splendid rooms and accommodations, but you would be remiss to write off Fossett’s as a touristy hotel restaurant. In addition to overnight guests, Fossett’s draws a dedicated following of in-the-know locals. They are, no doubt, lured by the fresh, regionally inspired cuisine, and the epicurean wine cellar, which stocks more than 5,000 bottles. Depending on the occasion, mood, or budget, the diners may take a seat at the table of Fossett’s, Villa Crawford, or The Club Grill—all of which are under the direction of Chef Hoffman.
The menu has been retooled over the years, and is replete with serious temptations that all read deliciously. Chef Hoffman mixes the classic and the current, with an emphasis on Virginia’s signature ingredients and hand-selected local purveyors. In addition to this careful sourcing, Chef Hoffman makes the most of the 600-acre property with a private chef’s garden. To say that I was excited about my reservation is an understatement.
To stimulate our appetite, my dinner partner and I began our journey with a watermelon and cucumber amuse-bouche. I just love it when the end of spring meets up with the beginning of summer, and culinary gardens are just as pretty to taste as to see. We couldn’t have asked for a sweeter start.
The sumptuous menu had us wanting it all, and so our shared selection was quickly decided. We began with a regional artisan cheese platter, sourced from local dairy farms such as Caromont, Meadow Creek, and Twenty Paces. This was followed by a Tuscan kale salad, garnished with the best pickled strawberries we had ever tasted. A dish of pork belly with a nice sticky caramelization that harmonized with the peas and ramps followed. Virginia Oysters Rockefeller were prepared with salty country ham bits. Next we had a surprising medley of spiraled garden vegetables. My dining partner and I had both expected the dish to look different, but we were not disappointed, as each colorful component had a unique pleasure to offer. We polished off our feast with diver sea scallops, prepared with fresh sea beans and morels.
I have found that at most restaurants, some dishes are more carefully prepared than others. This was not the case under Chef Hoffman’s watch—every dish I ate was clean, detailed, and scrumptious. For those who seek the pleasure of being served beautifully constructed food, and of enjoying every last morsel, Fossett’s is for you.
—Laurie Beth Gills