Monday, July 21, 2014


Driving to Chilhowie, VA and back in under thirty-six hours has to be the most ridiculous travel we've ever done for dinner.  Sure, we've flown across the Atlantic and this continent for other meals (el bulli, Noma, Modernist dinner), but those were destinations that we were excited to visit for more than just the meal.  Chilhowie is the middle of nowhere, about as far into Virginia from DC as you can get without hitting another state.

Deterred by the 350 mile drive, we'd never made it to Town House, ending up disappointed at the missed opportunity when John and Karen Shields closed it, and disappointed a second time when their DC project was put on hold after a Georgetown space fell through.  We weren't going to miss the opportunity to attend one of their Riverstead dinners.

The two-room Riverstead inn is a charmingly restored house; a newer extension allowed for a redone kitchen and two large bathrooms off the upstairs bedrooms.  We made good time and pulled up around three in the afternoon (after later-than-planned 9:35 a.m. departure), where we were immediately greeted warmly by Neil Wavra, whom we'd met during our two stays at the Ashby Inn and who is basically serving as inn manager and sommelier for these dinners.  (I would love to be a regular at a DC-based restaurant with John and Karen in the kitchen and Neil running the front of the house.)  Neil introduced us to Karen, who was the only one in the kitchen at that hour; main prep is done at the Town House space and then plastic wrapped and carted over around 4:30.  Given that she probably had lots of other things to finish up (not to mention that she's a month from giving birth to their second daughter!), I felt a bit bad about how long she spent standing around chatting with us, but we really enjoyed it.  (Like us, they build vacations around food!)

The intimate dining room has six tables seating a maximum of sixteen (eleven on our evening).  The walls are adorned with a number of framed menus from the Shields' personal collection, including from Charlier Trotter's (where they met -- Karen tells an adorable story of their meet-cute: on John's first day, he carried a leaking tray of cuttlefish across the kitchen, spotting her pastry area; she followed the trail of black dots to the source), their wedding, and Mugaritz (her answer for favorite meal, eaten on their honeymoon).  The small size and general level of food nerdiness -- pre-dinner conversation in the lounge surveyed the relative merits of minibar, Komi, Saison, and Benu, and we walked in only minutes before Neil rang the triangle to announce dinner -- required to attend one of these dinners, given the schlep, might counsel in favor of a communal table, but John suggested that not all of their diners would want to be forced into that option.  (As it was, we ended up in so much conversation with a solo diner at the next table that by dessert he had joined our table.  By the end of the meal, the three of us and three women at another adjacent table -- the only locals, former Town House fans -- were sharing a nightcap of twenty-year-old Pappy Van Winkle brought by our solo-dining new friend.)

Once John and the stagiers arrived, we hovered around the kitchen doorway chatting and watching some of the prep.  (Thanks to Adam's Kickstarter pledge, we were also able to spend a few hours on Sunday in the kitchen at Town House observing prep and generally pestering everyone with questions.  It was a great insight into the whole experience.)  John and Karen were both unfailingly friendly and nice about our intrusion.  (I'm wondering if they could be convinced to let me come stage during some future weekend of dinners, despite my lack of training.)  Ryan Santos, who runs a pop-up in Cincinnati, won our immediate respect when he told us how he'd just staged for five weeks at Kadeau on Bornholm and that Geranium was also his least favorite Copenhagen meal.  A sixteen-year-old stagier from Toronto impressed us with his precocious dedication; he runs his own pop-up back home.

Before launching into the course-by-course, big picture: we had some outstanding dishes, and an excellent experience.  (They're obviously very talented and creative.)  Other courses were less impressive -- although everything was enjoyable -- but our conversation with John on Sunday made clear that he has a great sense of the weaknesses and that many of the issues seem attributable to the kinks of this temporary format.  I am glad we made the trek, and very excited to taste what they can do in a permanent restaurant setting.

We wandered down from our room at around six, choosing to enjoy the unseasonably pleasant weather -- thanks polar vortex! -- on the porch instead of joining the older-skewing group in the lounge.  (The three local women, about our age, had opted to the do the same.)  Neil quickly brought us flutes of Foggy Ridge "Handmade" Cider, a different offering from a maker that we've enjoyed on many prior occasions.  (There is a local bent to the wine list, which is divided into "Old World" and "Old Dominion.")

We loved the first canape.  Vacuum-sealed sunchokes are cooked and peeled.  The skins are dried, deep fried for mere seconds, sprinkled with salt, filled with puree of sunchoke and creme fraiche (at least when we saw it made on Sunday), and topped with marigold petals (nicely thematic, we later learned; marigolds are in the same family as sunflowers).  Delicious.
sunchoke cannoli

A sweet (honey) and acidic (vinegar?) gelee contrasted well with the fishy turbot skin; another strong snack.
turbot with honey

The weakest bite -- a somewhat dehydrated roasted beet skin wrapped over diced roasted beet -- although I liked the brightness of grapefruit zest on the beets.  (John was also apparently disappointed with how this turned out.  On Sunday we got to sample a fantastic, shalloty aioli that would somehow be integrated with great-smelling wood-roasted onions and blueberries as a replacement for Sunday's dinner.)
beet nigiri

The best dish of the night -- amazing.  Pureed tomatoes were drained into a hotel pan of sea grapes (the little purplish-red seaweed vesicles); seaweed-infused tomato water was later frozen into a granita.  Clean tomato flavor from the granita and green tomato seeds (painstakingly scooped out of cherry tomatoes) got briny seasoning from the sea grapes, trout roe, and dashi.  The exploding texture of both the sea grapes and trout roe was cleverly parallel.  (The dish also contained kasu, the fermeneted lees used to make sake, although it was an ingredient new to me and I have no idea what it tastes like in isolation.)  Beautiful.
tomato with seawater

Raw corn kernels, corn silk, and a creamy sauce including (I think?) more corn.  I liked this dish -- I love fresh corn -- but it needed something else to make it pop.  (My disappointment here was mitigated upon learning that it was a last-minute replacement for a planned crab dish that had to be scraped when the FedExed crab arrived insufficiently fresh to be used.)  It was a bit too sweet for its placement in the meal, and the lemon zest on top was somehow reminiscent of lemon curd for me, making me think that it would have made for a good savory-straddling dessert.  (John decided on Sunday to turn it into one, incorporating verbena and corn ice cream, I believe.  I wish I could have tried that.)
sweet corn with toasted cream

A challenging, interesting dish -- the saltiness of basically raw clams (and seaweed powder?) balanced by the sweetness of roasted onions.  (I'd thought at the time that the smokiness came from the onions, but I was fascinated to later watch Ryan cold smoke slivers of clam by foil-covering a hotel pan filled with ice, a smaller tray of the sliced clam, and a smoldering log from the indoor grill; the clam took on a beautifully smoked flavor from only about fifteen minutes under the foil.  Also, whole geoducks are disgusting; I'd never seen one up close like that before.)  I liked this dish more than Adam did; he wanted more sweet onion flavor to counter to wave-to-the-face brininess of the geoduck.  He's right that I probably would have preferred it that way, but I think that just comes down to a personal preference issue -- we're still acquiring a taste for oysters, and prefer the sweeter, milder end of the spectrum -- rather than an execution issue.  If you prefer stronger oysters or raw clams, you'd have no complaints.  But John wasn't done tinkering; by Sunday he was pureeing the clam bellies into an aioli with safflower oil and lemon to be added (I think) to this dish.  I hadn't thought I would like the result, fearing Too Much Clam, but I did; I'm sure it made for a good way to add another layer of flavor.
geoduck clam with spring onion

I quite liked the little fermented vegetable (including leeks and ramps) sourdough biscuits, but I loved the butter.  Even better than cheesy butter is cheese in butter.  In this case, Grayson was added and then it was dusted with onion powder.  I slathered on a 1:1 ratio of butter to bread.
vegetable sourdough

Fava beans got a great flavor from the grilling, over a light base of grated radish and cucumber.  (We were at the time a bit confused as to why we didn't get the turbot on this that other tables got, but it worked well enough as a vegetarian course.)
grilled fava beans & cucumber

The combination of chard, roasted beet, slightly sour cooked raspberries, and grated preserved egg yolk was delicious.  My complaint is that it felt a bit incomplete without a protein to replace the omitted duck heart, although I imagine that this would be less likely to happen in a full restaurant (with its greater depth of ingredient stores) than a set-menu pop-up.
dried beet with swiss chard

Another creative bread, but the drizzle of honey over the drier biscuit was no match for the earlier sourdough and that fantastic butter.
sprouted wheat biscuit with sorghum

The omitted turbot from the fava bean course appeared here to replace lamb.  I loved the interesting combination of the black walnut paste (hidden under the caramelized milk crisp) and miso sauce.  The crispy milk is made by patient simmering of a thin pool of milk in a pan until it reduces into essentially a milk skin crepe, which then browns with a turn-away-and-it's-burned rapidity.  A cool textural contrast and a subtle but nice flavor (although it was subtle enough to make us wonder whether it was worth Ryan's effort and scaled fingertips from peeling them gently out of the hot pan).
turbot with nocino & miso

It's been a month of outstanding desserts, and these were two of the best and most creative.  A smear of rich, densely flavored beet fudge cake was topped with fresh mint, smokey embers ice cream -- made from infusing embers in the milk before churning -- and mint ash.  Adam doesn't even really like mint in desserts and loved this.  Fascinating.
embers & wintergreen branch

Adam probably preferred the combination of white chocolate and carrot (both densely textured in its preserved form and sweeter in bits that I think I recall as roasted), paired with a gorgeous (in both appearance and flavor) salad including carrot flowers, lemon thyme, and purslane.
preserved carrot

The olive oil meringue, which we'd watched Karen prepare earlier that afternoon, was part meringue, part cake.  Very delicious, but in a much more rustic, homey way after the sophistication of the prior two desserts.  (It may have been better suited to a mini size, as more of a petit four last bite.)
warm olive oil meringue

Overnight guests are greeted in the morning by an array of cold breakfast items.  Homemade yogurt, blueberry chia seed compote, and granola made for a very good parfait, but the standout was a delicious chard and roasted  spring onion crostata.  Tart blueberry, beet, and rhubarb was interesting (in a good way).  (The tray made it easy for me to bring it upstairs to Adam.  Because I'm nice. :))

 We were so excited to go hang out in the kitchen that we didn't even mind getting up early too much.  If only every meal could include the opportunity for such a fun postmortem.  


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