At Ashby Inn, a fresh start
Daily menu, different venues create variety
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 3, 2010
When the owner of the Goodstone Inn in Middleburg decided to change course in September, he dismissed Tarver King. "I was crushed," recalls the chef, 31, who had worked there for almost a year, experimenting with aroma and sound to create what he refers to as a "progressive" bill of fare that stretched to nine dishes on a tasting menu. "I've never been let go before," says King, previously executive chef at the Woodlands Inn in Summerville, S.C., for five years.
King wasn't out of a job for long. By November, he was at the stove again, at the venerable Ashby Inn in Paris, Va., where he was reunited with four colleagues from the Goodstone, including sous-chef Nathan Shapiro and managers Neal and Star Wavra. One man's misfortune turned out to be my cause for celebration: In just a few short months, the ensemble has put an exciting spin on an old favorite.
A handful of "snacks," most priced at $3, signals the changes. Spiced pecans are a tasty but common munch. Airy crackers reminiscent of Asian shrimp chips are more intriguing. Some days accented with curry, other times teasing with vinegar and salt, the crackers make a diverting companion to a cocktail as shaken by Neal Wavra, the inn's sommelier and managing partner. The snack with the greatest dramatic potential is a gougere hiding a shot of what tastes like an especially intense French onion soup. Caution: If you don't eat the puffball in a single bite, the liquid might end up on you, your menu or a companion. (Sorry, dude!)
The Ashby Inn served me a first: grilled pate. King says the treatment gives the appetizer, which typically goes down like "cold fat," an unexpected but welcome note of smoke and juiciness. The guy is right: Melted fat equals abundant flavor. Made with pork liver, pork belly and pork shoulder and bundled in bacon, the rich slab tastes less excessive than it could, surrounded as it is with curls of pickled carrot, candied apricot and other contrasting accouterments.
The chef has an eye for what looks good. Something as straightforward as a steak has more allure when it's a tall cut of strip loin with a curtain of buttery potatoes and tomato-tinged Choron sauce draped over its side. I also like the way King serves his black bass, layering slices of fish with tabbouleh and decorating the top of the construction with house-made potato chips. Strangely, however, the grain salad was refrigerator-cold. I couldn't really taste it until it had warmed to room temperature, and by that time, well, the fish was cool. Speaking of fish, the kitchen might want to rethink its fried mackerel, which is meant to evoke fish and chips but misses the mark with a too-stiff coating.
King is a booster for brining, and you'll sign on, too, after tasting his super-juicy roast chicken breast. Before it hits the heat, the chicken soaks in a salted bath of buttermilk, onions and bay leaves. Creamy polenta and mellow chestnuts provide a soothing base for the entree, which picks up more color and crunch with a cover of shredded Brussels sprouts. The chef also brines sweetbreads, which are glazed with honey and sherry and dressed up with chard.
Winter is not a garden's finest moment, although vegetarians can visit the Ashby Inn with confidence year-round, judging from one evening's terrific risotto, garnished with melting pearl onions and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, and another night's gnocchi. The latter was elevated with meaty mushrooms, tangy goat cheese and a dusting of crunchy Japanese bread crumbs, everything in proper proportion.
It would be hard to tire of the Ashby Inn. No two meals are alike, thanks to a menu that changes daily and to four small dining rooms, each with a different personality. On a cold winter night, I'm always happy to be led to the underground tap room, where the low-beamed ceiling, knotty pine banquettes and live fire create a cozy effect. In summer, the inn's flagstone terrace with its view of gardens calls to me. But just as appealing are the window-wrapped porch, cheerful in yellow, and the salmon-colored lower dining room stocked with booths. Here and there in the various rooms you spy little brass plaques bearing the names of loyal customers: what former longtime owner John Sherman affectionately called his "foul-weather friends."
"We inherited a place with a terrific reputation and a wonderful history," says Neal Wavra, a host so genial you wish he could be cloned and dispersed around Washington. While chefs of varying skill sets have cooked here in the past, the 1829 property has always benefited from good bones and delivered quiet romance.
Dessert might surprise you. What you read on the menu doesn't prepare you for the avant-garde presentation that sometimes follows. "Pumpkin custard" with "caramel" and "graham" has nostalgia written all over it, but the confection looks more like a miniature landscape and harks to what King used to serve at the Goodstone. The custard, punctuated with pinches of crushed, house-baked graham cracker and caramelized sugar, is spread like lava on the plate, with dots of caramel sauce placed alongside. And even the more straightforward desserts tuck in surprises. A fine, not-too-sweet strudel of pears and plump raisins comes with a scoop of ice cream flavored to taste like pie crust. That's a good thing.
So, too, is the option to linger after a meal. The Ashby Inn offers six guest rooms upstairs ranging in price from $155 to $195 a night, including a "full country breakfast" and the chance to dream on.
Liquid pleasure: Ease into dinner with a Mule, as poured by Neal Wavra. It's a subtly sweet, slightly bitter cocktail swirled with bourbon, applejack, Cointreau, Campari and a syrup made with sumac gathered from nearby roadsides.