Most destination restaurants make it somewhat easy for a diner to choose it and make a trip there. They are generally not that difficult to get to and there are other attractions in the area. As examples, elBulli has Barcelona nearby as well as the incomparable Mediterranean Sea at its doorstep and The French Laundry has the entire Napa Valley wine country to beckon, while being within a reasonable drive of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Unless one lives in the area, Town House, in Chilhowie, Virginia - not far from the Tennessee and North Carolina borders, is not the easiest destination restaurant to get to. One can not take a quick and cheap flight and it isn't really a short drive from anywhere with a sizable population. Fortunately though, once one makes the effort, the area around the restaurant has some charms, including bucolic mountain scenery, top-notch farms, a venerable old hotel and the State Theater of Virginia – The Barter Theater in nearby Abingdon. More importantly though, it has the other most significant attribute shared by the best destination restaurants – it is absolutely worth the journey, as difficult as it may be.
Chef John Shields and his wife, Pastry Chef Karen Urie Shields did not start out in Southwest Virginia. Unlike their friend and colleague, James Beard award winner Chef Sean Brock of McCrady's in Charleston, S.C., they were not born in nor did they grow up in nearby Abingdon or anyplace else in the vicinity, though their Certified Sommelier, Charlie Berg, did, as did much of their kitchen and front of the house staff. The Shields' chose to come to Chilhowie in order to be able to put their collective culinary vision to work. Turning down the opportunity to be the Executive Chefs at and open Charlie Trotter's foray into Las Vegas , they preferred the opportunity to do their own thing, working for restaurant owners with the willingness, capability and vision to allow them to do just that. Sean Brock called Town House his “favorite restaurant in America.” After my dinner there, I can understand why.
Driving up, the restaurant appears very unassuming, located in a small storefront on the main street of a very small town. It is quite easy to miss, even with little else around. Once inside the door, however, things change. While not opulent like the restaurants of the Shields' previous employers, Alinea, Charlie Trotter's and Tru, Town House is quietly elegant and supremely comfortable: relaxed and yet, sophisticated. The kitchen is spacious and outfitted to do anything a chef in today's world is likely to want to do. The chefs can play and they can make very serious food. Much of the ingredients they use comes from within the region. On the afternoon I was visiting, they received a delivery of buttermilk from Cruze Farm in Tennessee. Aside from the buttermilk itself, which is of extraordinary quality, the most notable aspect of this delivery was that it was facilitated by a patron of the restaurant returning home from Blackberry Farm in Tennessee. Since Cruze Farm was on his way, he did the favor for the restaurant.
We arrived for our 7PM reservation with plenty of sunlight still in the sky and shining through the window on to our table. To be honest, I was a little nervous. In addition to my wife, I was dining with our 10 year old son and my sister-in-law, who joined us in Abingdon to visit the now closed nearby summer camp she and my wife had attended in their youth. I was nervous because I was uncertain how my son would deal with an extended tasting menu and though I had dined out with my sister-in-law on numerous occasions previously, I had never dined with her at a restaurant serving food like I was expecting Town House to serve. I was not sure how she would respond.
The opening salvo came in the form of a cookie sandwich. The amuse, two thin dark brown cookie wafers sandwiching Parmigiano cream, olive oil jam and Meyer lemon confit, told us that we would be in for a unique experience, both playful and tasty.
The next dish, though told us that we would be in for a special experience. We opted for the 10 course tasting menu (we did receive a few extra courses thrown in) for $110pp. The menu opened with Shields' “Chilled Vegetable 'Minestrone,'” a dish that stunned us with its beauty when it was brought to the table. Consisting of 19 different vegetables sliced into thin ribbons, rolled into cylinders and stood on end in a bowl with a vegetable consommé poured around it table side, the dish was equally impressive on the palate combining a myriad of flavors playing off each other. This was a home run on the first pitch, one of the more spectacular courses I've had anywhere. From this point on, I didn't need to worry anymore about my son and my sister-in-law. They were equally wowed and all in.
I will comment at this point on our drink pairings, which were orchestrated by Certified sommelier Charlie Berg. As would be expected of a restaurant with the aspirations of Town House, the wine pairings were superb with each glass working in a synergistic way with the food. More remarkable though, was how well Berg composed non-alcoholic pairings for my son's dinner. While we drank the Foggy Ridge “First Fruit” hard cider from Virginia, our son received a cocktail of Italian sparkling water with lemon thyme and fennel pollen, that was superb. Both beverages had good acid balance to complement the food with just enough sweetness to make them pleasurable and balanced. The remainder of the dinner worked equally well with Berg serving wines to keep me interested and cocktails to make my son feel special and well cared for. It was always a treat for him to anticipate what was coming next and he was never disappointed.
Our next course was the first detour from the tasting menu. Hamachi Lightly Marinated in Sudachi with Sea Bean, Caramelized Buttermilk Yogurt (Cruze dairy), Apricot, Arugula and Lovage was the first time my son had eaten raw fish. He (and the rest of us) was smitten. The flavors were clean and fresh and the dish had plenty of textural contrast. My son received a creamsicle like drink with buttermilk and orange. We continued with the cider.
The menu was back on track with the next dish, “The Orange From Valencia,” a visual, textural and flavor tour de force and an obvious homage to the contemporary cooking of Spain. The “skin” of the orange was an orange cream that was frozen in liquid nitrogen while coating a balloon. Once the balloon was removed, the “orange” was filled with amongst other things mussels, bread crumbs, marcona almonds and a flavored mayonnaise and then sealed. The combination was exhilarating, full of fun, texture and flavor. I particularly enjoyed watching my son's eyes grow wide and listening to him wonder aloud “how did they do that?”
The next course led to a 2008 rosé from the Cote de Provence, Saint Andre de Figuiere, for the adults and a lemongrass ice “berg” mixed with house made local cherry extract for my son. The common factor of the beverages was in fact cherry as the rosé held lovely cherry undercurrents. This was no accident as the course, another departure from the set menu, was a ”Soup of Cherries with Bronzed Sardine, Sweet & Spicy Ginger, Tomato and Almond Bread.” This was another dish benefitting from a strong Spanish inspiration. The soup was described by our server as having “gazpacho flavors,” which it did, in fact resemble, though it was sweeter than a classic Andalucian tomato gazpacho. Sardines are a very “Spanish” fish, commonly found as a staple throughout the country. Interestingly, our server described these as having been “steamed” as opposed to the more typical grilled sardine preparations one might find in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. On its own, the flavor of the sardine was strong and mildly off-putting to some at the table. The genius of the dish, though, lay in the combination of the sardine with the cherry soup. The fish provided the soup with a taste of umami and salt, while the sweetness of the cherries submerged the stronger elements of the fish flavor and left the most pleasant ones on the palate. The almond “bread” reminded me of Adria's sesame sponge. As with Ferran's sesame, the “bread” was incredibly light and airy, but still full of pure flavor. The almond component also served to add greater legitimacy to the soup as a gazpacho. This was a dish in which the sum was clearly greater than its parts.
How does one embody spring rain in a dish? Somehow, Shields did just that with his next course entitled “Representing Spring Rain.” Not only did the dish taste like what I would imagine the embodiment of an idealized spring rain to be; clean, crisp, pure and slightly sweet, it visually looked like an idealized version of what a spring rain might produce. It contained lavendar misted onto the plate, droplets of horseradish, nasturtium, fava bean, shiso, shaved avocado, parmesan water and banana ice cream. Not exactly an intuitive combination, this dish spoke of an amazing understanding of the building blocks of flavor as well as an astounding imagination. From an ingredient combination perspective, this was perhaps the most impressive dish of the evening.
Once again veering from the menu, we were poured a NV Piper-Heidsick Champagne, but we were instructed to drink a little sake that was also poured for us before tasting the dish and following that the champagne for the remainder of the course. Chef Shields brought the course to the table personally and gave us his description, describing it as “Middle Eastern.” This was a “Kusshi (Japanese origin) Oyster Lightly Poached with Rose Water, Oyster Broth and Cilantro Accompanied by Cabbage, Cucumber, Sweet Onion and Cauliflower.” Whether it was the unusual instruction regarding the beverages or simply the combination of ingredients, the dish was absolutely magnificent, one of the most delicious and novel combinations I have experienced. My sentiment was shared by the rest of the table, including my son, who only slightly struggled with swallowing the oyster.
Blis bourbon barrel maple syrup provided the foundation for my son's next pairing. To the Blis, Berg added a touch of Pedro Ximenez sherry vinegar. The rest of us were served 10 year old Bual Madeira from Cossart Gordon to accompany The “Scrambled Egg Mousse with (Blis) Smoked Steelhead Roe, Birch Syrup, Sweet Spices and Preserved Ramp.” This dish was decadence pure and simple and worked best when the spoon took a bit of every layer. As the fourth course in the progression (as listed on the menu), I think the table's response to the richness of this dish would have been different, but as the seventh course (as it arrived to us) and not knowing what was yet to come, this was the first dish that returned to the kitchen with some plates requiring additional cleaning.
That was not the case with the following dish, “Softshell Crab Roasted in Brown Butter accompanied by 'Caramelized Onions', Lime, Sea Grapes, Salt Cod, Vanilla and Mustard Oil.” Paired with a Jarana sherry from Emilio Lustau, this was another course that sang harmoniously and deeply. I'm a sucker for soft-shell crab in almost any variation that does not extinguish the wonders of the crab. Though the crab was essentially hidden in the presentation of the dish, buried under a number of ingredients, its essential nature and flavor shone through with the remainder of the ingredients adding nuance and originality. Though I was starting to feel the combined power of the meal, I was secretly hoping for more of this dish.
At this point, the last thing we needed was bread, but bread we received and bread I ate – a potato ciabatta served with olive oil. As with everything else, it was too good to pass up, though I limited myself to one piece.
In an evening filled with remarkable dishes, one of the most remarkable followed, “'Risotto' of Squid.” Prepared entirely of squid, without the benefit of rice or dairy, this dish could not have been a better replacement for a traditionally prepared risotto. The squid pearls had just the right degree of toothsomeness and the risotto was perfectly creamy all while possessing wonderful sweet squid flavor. Along with the initial “minestrone” this squid dish was my son's favorite savory course of the evening. He actually cleaned his plate with a bit of the well-timed bread.
Cola was the flavor component our sommelier was seeking for the next pairing. For us, he selected a Pinot Noir from Victoria, Australia made by celebrated winemaker, Chris Ringland. The 2008 Permutations. For my son, Berg chose a concord grape slushy to accompany the “Foie Gras Royale & Crisp Chicken Skin with Beet, Lemon, Pine Needles and Nuts, Blueberries and Black Raspberries.” The chicken skin, used to scoop up the foie gras and berries, was a great touch for this rich dish.
Our final savory course showed inspiration from Andoni Luis Aduriz. “Thorntree Farms Lamb Cooked in Ash with Black Garlic, Burnt Leeks, Smoked Bacon and Silverized Potato Starch and Eggplant Puree,” took off from Aduriz's classic dish of Veal in Ash, adding original elements and combining them to create a sublime dish and a suitable ending for the savory portion of this astounding meal.
The first dessert entitled “Parsnip Candy” consisted of parsnips done three ways (ice cream, dehydrated and candied), yeast sponge cake, aerated coconut ice cream, almond macaroon powder and banana pudding. We were poured a 2007 Vidal Fleury Muscate de Beumes de Venise, while my son received goat milk infused with lavender and clover honey with a lavender blossom on top. The dessert was delicious and refreshing, comparable in every way to the savory portion of the meal in terms of creativity, imagination and deliciousness.
By the time we arrived at desserts, we were the only patrons remaining in the restaurant. As if the evening didn't have enough magic already, Chefs John & Karen came to the table to invite our son into the kitchen to help plate the final dessert. With a grin wider than any I have ever seen, he gleefulyy accepted and trotted off to the pastry station, where, with direction from the chefs, did a creditable job of layering on the elements of “Powdered Chocolates,” which included steamed yuzu sponge, bergamot and an aromatic “salad” of herbs. He (and we) enjoyed eating it as much as he enjoyed constructing it.
This was one of the most singular meals I have ever had in this country. With outstanding food and beverages, unparalleled warmth, an elegantly casual space and great service, this meal would have stood out under almost any circumstances. When adding the pleasure of seeing one's young son discover, marvel and thoroughly enjoy the pleasures of a great meal, the situation is priceless. The enjoyment I received observing my son's excitement and pleasure was similar to my first meal at Alinea, shortly after it opened, when we were accompanied by our two, then teenage, sons as well as a friend of my eldest son and again, when dining at elBulli, with my then 16 year old eldest son. Each of those meals would have stood amazingly on their own, but were so much more fun and memorable by sharing it with them and sensing their pleasure and excitement. This was the case at Town House, where in addition to enjoying our son's response to the meal, my wife and I also enjoyed having her sister with us. My initial concern and apprehension quickly faded, replaced by a mutual sense of excitement and discovery. Town House with Chefs John and Karen Shields and their superb staff is truly special. It may not be the easiest restaurant to get to, but it is worth the trip!