A different inn in Washington
Blue Rock offers local, low-key focus
By Tom Sietsema, July 2010
"Everything looks like a painting."
We haven't even been served water yet, but a friend is already impressed with what he sees from our window table in the hushed dining room of the Blue Rock Inn in Washington, Va.
Before us, there are geese and a pond shaded with a few weeping willows. A turn of our heads reveals stakes embedded in a gentle hill, evidence that grapes once were grown on the property. The backdrop for this bucolic scene adds a measure of majesty: The Blue Ridge Mountains appear close enough to touch. Menus are passed out, but for the moment, food isn't our focus. Horses from a nearby stable have just meandered into the picture, too.
The Blue Rock Inn is 20 years old, but if your last memories of the place predate this spring, erase them.
The property was purchased in foreclosure by Arlington entrepreneurs Said and Kirema Hawa in March 2009; the couple then spent $3 million and a year turning the building and grounds into a place that's worth the 90 minutes or so it takes to get there from the other Washington. In addition to the restaurant, the main building houses five guest rooms and a 20-seat pub and terrace whose menu runs to falafel, burgers with hand-cut fries, and grilled seafood served on a Spanish-style salad of tomatoes and bread.
A notable aspect of the inn's recent upgrade was the hiring of Gérard Pangaud, the veteran Washington chef, as a consultant. The talent behind the late Gerard's Place in Washington in turn hired Rachel Rowland, a former sous-chef at the shuttered Four and Twenty Blackbirds in nearby Flint Hill, to help execute his vision. The French native says he wanted someone local: "You have to know the area and have a connection" to it. Style-wise, Pangaud adds, "we're not trying to be the Inn," a reference to his world-famous neighbor, the Inn at Little Washington.
The menu at the Blue Rock Inn is short, just eight or so entrees, and priced to please (main courses average $23). Within those parameters is a little something for everyone and a few standout performances. Local ingredients get plenty of play, and I feel a sense of place as soon as my pre-dinner Manhattan shows up, along with a warning from the server: "The cherry is straight off the tree," she says. "Be careful. It has a pit."
There are more cherries with an elegant appetizer of foie gras confit, served with a sweet cherry compote, brioche veined with sour cherries and a rhubarb sauce that would have been better with less vanilla. Still, the fruits signaled spring in every bite.
Little touches elevate the dining. A very good crab cake (it's mostly seafood) is flattered by a thatch of shoestring-thin fried zucchini and a tartar sauce brightened with fresh basil from the garden. Instead of steaming their mussels, Pangaud and Rowland poach the tiny, tender morsels before adding them and their juices to a small casserole dish with a soft, saffron-tinted liquid garden of minced leeks, tomatoes and celery. The "palette" of roasted beets is true to its name; slices of red beets alternating with goat cheese look like petits fours on the plate, which finds room for a carpaccio of golden beets dappled with a chunky dressing of ground nuts and passion fruit.
Thymus glands aren't for everyone, but I'm an unabashed fan of sweetbreads. The Blue Rock Inn cooks them so they're golden and crisp on the surface, then embellishes the starter with a bright puree of peas and a scattering of buttery chanterelles. Further richness comes from the bacon "cream" made with fennel, wine and the obvious bacon. I order the rabbit for its sides (I'm a fool for polenta and chanterelles) but am pleased to find just as much pleasure in the entree, which had been braised in chicken stock and wine and finished with a puree of garlic and foie gras scraps.
No one at the table expects much from the ravioli with pesto, but the kitchen surprises everyone with tender ridged pasta plumped with mozzarella and roasted tomatoes and spoonfuls of a sauce that resonates with basil, garlic and Parmesan. The ravioli comes from purveyor La Pasta in Silver Spring, but it's based on Pangaud's recipe. Beef short ribs are so soft, they cut like butter. (Later, I learn why: The meat is cooked sous vide, in vacuum-sealed pouches at low temperature in a water bath.) Draped with a red wine sauce, the beef rests on a disc of sauteed potatoes alongside crisp green beans. The combination is straightforward and satisfying. In contrast, the wan roasted duck breast takes a back seat to its plate decoration: a small shepherd's pie fashioned from duck leg and mashed potatoes. And one evening's halibut performs like Ambien. The roasted fish, its fingerling potatoes, artichokes and tepid broth -- all leached of flavor -- result in a yawn.
The indoor setting is much like the menu: easy on the eyes. A wood floor, sisal carpet, tan leather chairs (on rollers, oddly) and napkins that match the Polo-blue-colored walls give the room a clean, natural look. There's a sideboard with bouquets of wheat and a few gold-framed paintings, too, but nothing to compete with the soothing animation beyond the windows.
"I love making desserts," says Pangaud, and his passion reveals itself in a selection that dares you not to indulge (half are gluten-free, including the warm chocolate tart). Consider the fetching Vacherin that brings together meringue, pistachios and cherries, what the maestro calls "the favorite dessert of my dad." I'm most drawn to the lush mango tart Tatin, a sweet memory from Gerard's Place.
The owners and staff of the Blue Rock Inn have more in store. They intend to start an orchard and bring back the vineyard, for instance, and turn an unfinished house on the property into four apartments, expanding the bed-and-breakfast operation. They're also planning to make it easier for food lovers to get to know Rappahanock County, with day-long gastronomic tours of the area slated to start Aug. 22 and run periodically thereafter. The cost will be $150 a person, including coffee in Sperryville, a farm visit, a tour of Linden Vineyards, a four-course dinner at the inn and -- best of all for food fans who don't care to drive and drink -- pickup and drop-off by bus in the District.