Farm-Fresh Ingredients Nurture a Fine Restaurant
By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, June 8, 2006
Author Clark Jr. went to the Winchester Farmers Market to buy vegetables for the city's Village Square Restaurant, where he was executive chef. Thomas Orme was at the market to sell fruits and vegetables from his Grandale Farm near Hillsboro. Once they got to talking, the outcome was a cozy restaurant on Orme's farm where Clark now uses the produce as the centerpieces for his menus.
Instead of building dishes around what he finds at the farmers market, Clark plans the menus, and Grandale's fields are planted to supply his needs.
Grandale Farm Restaurant occupies a new building on the old Harpers Ferry Road farm. Its rustic style blends with the older buildings, as does a new exposition center and private event space that is to open this month. Both are part of the community center that Orme envisions the farm becoming, with a variety of after-school programs, after-dinner book discussions, chess groups and photography seminars.
There aren't a lot of restaurants in this part of Loudoun County; Grandale's neighbors are mostly vineyards and subdivisions. But with a sweeping view of the farm pond, fruit orchards, the Orme farmhouse and waves of flowers, the restaurant is a perfect place to stop for lunch or dinner as part of a country outing, or as a dinner destination. It opened in October for something of a three-month trial run and reopened for the long haul in April.
Many inns in Northern Virginia's hunt country are more formal affairs, involving dress-up clothes, multi-course meals and lots of money. Grandale Farm is more informal; the menu includes sandwiches and salads at lunch, and the most expensive item on the dinner menu costs $23. The restaurant's liquor license application is still pending with the county, but the corkage fee of just $2 a bottle provides a wonderful excuse to pick up a couple of bottles at a vineyard nearby.
The restaurant is a small, spare room that seats no more than 30, with a big fireplace at one end and a big picture window into Clark's kitchen at the other. A patio seats about 16, with large umbrellas to provide shelter from the sun. The service is friendly and accommodating. Our waitress, who lives in nearby Hillsboro, could even venture that the antique farm machine in the yard probably was once used for spreading manure.
In addition to the farm-grown produce, Clark relies on local producers for meat, fish and poultry. Everything is made fresh in Clark's kitchen, from breads to desserts. There are only a handful of choices for each course, but each is deftly prepared using impeccably fresh ingredients. The menu will change often, according to what is freshest.
A good place to start is with the Maryland crab cake appetizer. It might not be that far to the Chesapeake Bay, but I have had a hard time finding really good crab cakes in the Northern Virginia suburbs. That isn't a problem here. Clark's crab cake is a study in simplicity, with sweet jumbo lump crab, hardly any filling, scant binder and a bright-tasting lemon caper aioli (garlic sauce) as a lovely complement.
And don't skip the soups. The cup-size portions only serve to whet your appetite. The corn and leek bisque on a recent visit was like a taste of summer in a bowl. A grilled chicken and squash soup flavored with curry had just enough zing to excite the senses. And a Manhattan clam chowder packed a lot of clam into a tomato-vegetable base.
Salads feature crisp greens and simple ingredients combined as refreshing segues into the main course. Batons of moist, flavorful prosciutto are scattered over baby spinach leaves, dressed with a balsamic shallot vinaigrette and sprinkled with bits of queso blanco (fresh Mexican white cheese). Mixed spring lettuces are paired with julienne parsnips and tiny garlic spouts in a light tarragon asiago dressing.
Sandwiches at lunch include a juicy grilled chicken with pesto mayonnaise on Italian bread and a hefty steak burger, each served with a small green salad and a little side of fruit.
Entrees are basic: steak, swordfish, duck, tuna, crab cakes and rack of lamb. But each is thoughtfully accented with vegetables and a starch. The filet mignon, cooked just medium rare as ordered, sits on a slope of garlic mashed potatoes. The tuna steak, ordered barely seared, is still cool in the middle and wonderfully rare, without a hint of connective tissue, and served with sauteed bok choy and basmati rice in a rich soy-ginger glace.
Only the duck, ordered medium rare but delivered barely pink, missed the mark, and only slightly. The meat was tender and juicy and the accompanying caramelized beets and wilted greens were a smart match to the rich meat.
Of the four desserts -- chocolate decadence cake, carrot and Fuji apple cake, berry swirled cheesecake and a torte of almonds, walnuts and pecans -- the last is the one to write home about. This is no syrupy-sweet Southern pecan pie, but a sophisticated European-style torte, only slightly sweet to allow the taste of the nuts to shine through.
A visit to Grandale Farm Restaurant is the kind of day in the country you dream about but rarely find. It's off the beaten path, in a lovely rustic setting, but with food that makes the drive worth the journey.