Some of the most revolutionary cooking in the country is going on in a tiny restaurant off Route 81 in rural Virginia. And frankly, it’s hard to imagine it could happen anywhere else.
At Town House in Chilhowie, Va., chefs John Shields and Karen Urie Shields have made the local ingredients such an integral part of their repertoire, you just can’t see them serving these kind of dishes in, say, New York or Chicago.
In fact, John did work in Chicago, at one of the most innovative restaurants of the decade: Alinea. But when the chance came to move to an out-of-the-way spot and do their own cooking their own way, they took it.
The ingredients in some of the dishes here are foraged from the Appalachian mountains and grown by local farmers in Virginia. I’ve never been to noma, the famous restaurant in Copenhagen that is known for its philosophy of incorporating regional culinary heritage (and foraged ingredients) into its menu, but I can imagine the experience might be something along the lines of what’s going on at Town House.
Some of the extraordinary methods and ingredients: smoked hay; gathered grasses; frozen sorbets of clam juice and eggplant; broken meringue; oyster water; and a ton more.
Not every dish was entirely successful. But even when they weren’t, they were wildly creative and admirable nonetheless. And the great ones? Truly spectacular. Come along and see.
We were first presented with this plate of rocks and coral with two green leaves on top. The leaves were flavored with a briny oyster water, the remains of which you can see in the pool of water below the rocks.
I’ve also seen this dish served with oysters, so I’m not sure if we didn’t get the oysters because of dietary restrictions or if it was just a new take on the dish. Either way, it was a lovely way to start the meal… just a taste on your tongue.
Chilled Vegetable “Minestrone”
A simply beautiful course. Those are tiny shaved vegetables: beet, carrot, cucumber, zucchini, etc., each rolled into identically sized cylinders and stacked next to each other like skyscrapers in a bowl.
Then the server pours this divine consomme on top.
It’s perfectly clear with slick little globules of oil swimming on top for flavor.
And yes, the flavor: each vegetable tasted of itself. Crisp, clean mouthfuls of summer.
It was served with a crisp, bubbly apple cider made in Virginia, whose flavor was subtle enough to let the raw vegetables stand (literally) on their own.
Razor Clams, Green Tomato, Kohlrabi, Coriander, Buttermilk
This was unbelievably creative and fresh – both meanings of fresh. The sorbet on the side was ice cold, but very creamy – it felt like ice cream but tasted like sorbet – and it was made from the juice of the razor clams on the dish.
The green tomatoes and dill flowers brought the dish to a whole other level…. almost vegetal but briny at the same time. I think this was my favorite dish of the night.
Meyer Lemon and “Ashes” of Smoked Mussels
Our sever explained the “ash” two different ways. At first she said they took the mussel broth that they frothed and froze with liquid nitrogen, then scraped it up and placed it on top of the dish. Then she said the eggplant was smoked dark and treated the same way. So I’m not sure which it is, or maybe both. I must admit, I was completely weirded out by the look of this plate. The ashes look more like mold to me, and that was a little bothersome.
At first I didn’t mind the flavor: you got an overwhelming hit of smoke and then the slurpy seafood sensation of mussels. But as I continued eating, I bit into a crunchy seed of some kind that tasted so much like bitter soap I wondered if I’d finally come to understand why people think cilantro tastes like soap. I imagined it must have been a coriander seed. It was awful. When we asked about the dish, the waitress said, no, it wasn’t a coriander seed. But suggested maybe it was an eggplant seed?
Hunna did not find the same problems I did, and in fact really enjoyed the dish, especially the smoke.
Look at this little present! It almost looks like a jewel box, doesn’t it?
Baby Peas, Vanilla, Scrambled Egg & Mint
The package was held together inside with a scrambled egg mousse, which was slightly sweet from the vanilla. The peas were sweet, too. But just as mint goes so well with sweet dessert – and peas! – it was a lovely combination with this dish. We forgot to ask what the wrapper was. Was it lardo?
Dunguness Crab in Brown Butter & Butter Whey
Spring Onions, Shellfish Cream, Lime, Crisp Scallop, Carrots
I thought this would be a little richer than it was, what with brown butter and whey and all that. But, like most of the dishes here, it was more clean tasting than I expected. Still, very decadent, even though it didn’t feel heavy or buttery.
Greg is having a lot of fun.
Purely made of squid. No dairy. No rice. It tasted like squid soup. The texture was a little like a runny rice pudding. It was a fun course. Also not the most beautiful dish in the world, but I believe you’ll agree with me when I say the next dish more than made up for that.
Hay, Milk Skin, Grasses, Toasted Garlic, Horseradish, Crispy Tongue
The milk was infused with hay, and there are wild grasses and a broth made from sorel and onion. Stunning, stunning, stunning in all ways. The greens made a salad like you’ve never tasted. This is what I mean when I say you couldn’t get this dish anywhere else. We felt like we were eating Appalachia.
I also love how so many of these elements relate to each other. Hay and grass, beef, milk, even the wild weeds. (Purlsane! The nemesis of SCF!)
The beef was incredibly tender and rich, too.
Border Springs Lamb Glazed in Mushroom Stock
The Juices from Raspberries, Malted Yogurt, Pine Shoots
They described the dish as being made with black raspberries and porcini mushrooms with a mushroom glaze and young spruce buds.
This was also incredibly rich and full of varied textures and tastes. A little juniper from the pine, a little fruit and lamb combo.
An incredible final savory course.
The desserts were mind blowing.
A Curd of Sour Quince, Olive Oil & Black Pepper
Dill, Pine Ice Cream, Toasted Meringue, Blueberries
A juniper berry sorbet with a mastic marshmallow on top and some fresh curd cream on top.
Dill? In dessert? Why hasn’t anyone done this before? If they have, why haven’t I been so wowed?
Cucumber, Softly Whipped Cream, Green Strawberries, Geranium
If you can imagine a light-as-air sorbet treated ever so gently with a bit of cream and then matched with a slightly pickled strawberry, you are on the right track. Cold. Refreshing. Sweet.
So elegant, tasty and beautiful.
And to finish: Chocolate, marshmallow and meringue, with some lime zest on top .
The food was beyond all expectations.
And even though we were still was a few days early, we were happy to call it our 10th anniversary celebration. Here’s a look at Les Dorkages, still blissful after 10 years.
Yes, you can all laugh now. That’s what a good meal is all about, right?
The 411 on Town House: A destination restaurant in a tiny town in Chilhowie, Va., where the food is as revolutionary and innovative as you’ll find anywhere, while still remaining true to its Appalachian roots. The restaurant itself is well-appointed, with dark wood floors, high ceilings and rich tones of red and brown, but the decor lets you concentrate on the food on the plate: mosaics of color and riots of texture. The bold dishes of smoke and brine can be followed by subtle compositions of sweet and herbal touches. Clean sorbets melt with crisp local vegetables.Rich meats are strewn with foraged flowers. And desserts mix sweet and savory to fantastic effect. The only downside: it’s miles from anywhere. On second thought, maybe that’s not a downside. 132 E. Main St., Chilhowie, Va. 276-646-8787. townhouseva.com.
The chefs have a great blog, too: townhouseblog.blogspot.com.