Patowmack Farm: Fresh from the ground — and from a chef’s imagination

August 20, 2014

After studying the menu at the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, my party is approached by a waiter who hardly needs a notepad to take our requests. Each of us responds to “What can I get for you?” with a single adjective that sums up his desire.

“Found,” a friend says.

“Grown,” another announces.

“Raised,” I reply.

Elsewhere, the format might be fodder for a YouTube parody. Here in northern Loudoun County, the structure — whereby diners select one of three multi-course menus based on ingredients that have been foraged, harvested or culled from animals — makes perfect sense, given the surrounding 40 acres of farm purchased in 1985 by Beverly Morton Billand.

In the farm’s beginning, she turned some of what she grew into dinners for customers who ate in her barn. Last summer — several professional chefs and a dedicated dining room later — she acquired the services of Tarver King, who left the beloved Ashby Inn in Paris, Va., for a lighter schedule (three dinners a week plus lunch on the weekends) and a higher calling: the chance to plot his own pantry.

Liberated from the demands of a busy inn, King now has time to fully develop ideas that once remained on paper and to take an active role in creating a fresh larder. Since his arrival, he has introduced diners to wineberries, which he turns into vinegars, and cardoons, which he recently featured in a succotash. Soon, he expects to pluck the heritage Russian rice he got planted.

The restaurant, which resembles a greenhouse, with bare English oak tables instead of plants, looks much the same as it did on my previous visit last year, which is to say there are strings of tiny white lights above your head and walls of glass that allow the great outdoors inside. If a decorator has played a role in the setting, which includes an outdoor tent in good weather, it isn’t obvious. The plainness is forgotten when a flock of servers surrounds your table and, in a single graceful gesture, sets down a bunch of snacks.

Gougeres that could have been whipped up by French chef Michel Richard break open to reveal a surprise: tangy tomato inside the delicate cheese puffs. What appears to be a doughnut hole turns out to be a savory rhubarb fritter, and what the mind reads as a pork rind is in fact a scallop puff coaxed from pureed, dried seafood that has been fried into an ivory curl. A smear of chicken liver is sandwiched between thin, quarter-size crackers that reinforce their filling; the fragile coins get their flavor from chicken fat and skin.

King creates memorable moments from even routine situations. His bread shows up not in a basket or on a plate but inside a slender cedar box, its smooth cover topped with a pinch of salt on one end and a slice of butter striped with nasturtium on the other. The lid is removed and set to the side of the warm and crusty bread. (By the end of the night, you’ll be asking where King shops for dishware. Some of the pottery can be procured from Cloud Terre in Washington, which counts a Patowmack Farm line.)

Each of the three menus, personalized with the party’s name, has its charms. “Found” let me discover the pleasure of yellowtail tuna marinated in lemon and ginger, then rolled in grilled cabbage leaves and sharpened with ramp puree. “Grown” slipped between savory courses a single-slurp freeze pop flavored with tea, lemon grass and other herbs.

“Raised,” on the other hand, gave me some goose bumps.

The kicks started with a deep white bowl of barley flavored with red wine and scattered with petals of pickled onion and pinches of feta that a server said came from his own Nubian goats. After introducing the dish, the waiter grated a small black something over the risotto-like pasta. My taste buds expected bottarga or truffle. In reality, they encountered beef heart that had been cured in sake and dried. King appreciates the salinity the filings add. Chances are, you will as well.

Lighter but no less enticing were tortellini stuffed with a warm salad of sweet corn, sunflower seeds and leaves of savory. The tender hats of pasta were gathered in a shallow pool of guinea hen broth enriched with butter and smoked corn.

Then, it was off to Southeast Asia. Or so the charred beef brisket led us to believe. Cured in miso, spiked with vinegar and warmed over charcoal, the smoky, oh-so-tender main course arrived with steamed rice, crushed peanuts and minty shiso leaves. A pale yellow ring of emulsified miso framed the whole.

The arrival of King and the addition of a food and beverage director has allowed Morton Billand to focus more on her farm operations. “Tarver has lifted me up,” she says.

My meals at Patowmack Farm suggest that the highs outnumber the lows, which are few. One miss, from “Grown,” was a cantaloupe soup with charred cucumber. Another curiosity garnished a cocktail: The bright red maraschino cherry in my Manhattan could have been plucked from a Shirley Temple. Not every ingredient underscores the restaurant’s stated farm-to-fork mission.

On a housekeeping note, the food gets harder to appreciate as the night wears on, but only because the lights don’t go up in the conservatory. By the fourth course, I was tempted to ask for a flashlight to see what I was eating. That said, no amount of wattage is going to endear me to the mostly deconstructed desserts, a trend that needs to be retired and never revived. Why rip a cake to shreds if you can slice it, and why leave it to customers to figure out how to push different elements on a plate together to make them taste like a complete thought?

Don’t get attached to any one menu. King, with the help of sous-chef Nathan Shapiro, changes as much as 40 percent of their work from day to day. The only things a diner can count on at the hillside attraction are some stylish surprises and a breath of fresh air.

2.5 stars

Location: 42461 Lovettsville Rd., Lovettsville, Va. 540-822-9017. www.patowmackfarm.com.

Open: Dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; brunch/lunch 11 a.m.
to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; Sunday Supper once a month 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Prices: $88 for five-course dinner; paired beverages are $50 extra.

Sound check: 63 decibels / Conversation is easy.

THE SCOOP

Location: 42461 Lovettsville Rd., Lovettsville, Va. 540-822-9017. www.patowmackfarm.com.

Open: Dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; brunch/lunch 11 a.m.
to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; Sunday Supper once a month 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Prices: $88 for five-course dinner; paired beverages are $50 extra.

Sound check: 63 decibels / Conversation is easy.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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