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A Great Escape

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
Southern Comfort Food:
Also down the road from Monticello is a lunch spot that takes the sting out of the word "touristy." Michie Tavern has for decades been feeding tourists by the busload in its rustic Colonial pub rooms. What would you expect from a $10.95 all-you-can-eat buffet? Not fried chicken as respectable as this (even if it's often oversalted), nor good crunchy white-corn bread, excellent coleslaw, an almost-good potato salad, black-eyed peas, pickled beets, long-cooked Southern green beans and too-sweet but otherwise fine stewed tomatoes. All of it served with extraordinary Southern hospitality: Every few minutes a costumed waitress brings around another platter of chicken and offers to fetch more of anything else you'd like. An old-fashioned notion, from before the bottom line was invented.
Oops: Ching Ching Cha, the Georgetown tea room I mentioned here on Oct. 4, is Chinese, not Japanese.
Forget the Mason-Dixon line. These days the North meets the South in Albemarle County, Va., at a small, lush getaway spot called Clifton: The Country Inn. The key indicator is not, as sociologists have long held, the North's mayonnaise versus the South's similar but sweeter "salad dressing." The crucial distinction is bread.

At breakfast, Clifton serves the most delicate of biscuits, the kind that shatter into tiny shards at the slightest touch. I'm convinced that such biscuits can only be made in Southern air. At dinner, Clifton sometimes produces fine-grained, tangy sourdough bread and focaccia – very good focaccia – that bring to mind a Northern city like New York.

But there's more. The ham at breakfast is not quite Smithfield, but it shows a Dixie sensitivity to the potential of cured pork. Dinner reveals a Northerner's Eurocentrism, in balsamic vinegar, white truffle oil, pesto and beurre blanc.

All this culinary mingling goes on just down the road from Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson introduced ice cream to these shores. At Clifton, though, the ice cream is likely to be churned from fresh coconut milk, and nestled with banana ginger compote in a pastry bowl, afloat on the darkest bittersweet chocolate sauce.

The connection with Thomas Jefferson goes beyond a mutual appreciation of ice cream. This 14-room inn, built in 1799, was once the office, then the home, of Jefferson's son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph. Now it's an exquisite little resort, with flower-lined lawns, a lake and a river, a clay tennis court and a stone-faced pool with a waterfall. A night's stay, at $125 to $315 for two, is accompanied by three breakfasts: coffee or tea brought to the door of your room, an early continental breakfast buffet and a full plantation breakfast. A huge jar of house-made cookies is replenished in the tea room daily, and more sweets are added for the 4 p.m. teatime to tide guests over until dinner.

But the kitchen's major effort is dinner, and it's open to the public. A small public, that is. Sometime after 6:30 p.m., guests gather in the drawing room – with etchings galore of Jefferson and a time-worn oil of George Washington – and in the library for drinks and hors d'oeuvres. Nibbles on the order of miniature red bell peppers stuffed with cheese or canapes of smoked salmon with a dot of lemon mayonnaise won't spoil anyone's appetite, even though they are passed frequently. They're one small bite each. Just enough to note that the croutons are freshly toasted.

While reserving rooms and checking into Clifton is an exercise in cheerful chaos, the dinner service is precise as well as charming. At 7:15 the chef appears to describe the forthcoming meal – four courses plus a palate-cleansing sorbet on weeknights, five on weekends. The only choice to be made is the entree: the meat or the fish. Then, at 7:30, everyone is ushered into the dining room, which is actually a glassed-in sun porch overlooking ancient and dignified trees.

On weekends, dinner starts with some elegance such as foie gras. On weekdays it gets right to the soup. The likes of potato with watercress or sorrel might sound pedestrian. Not so. The slightly thickened broth brings out the most flavor to be found in a potato, heightened with plenty of black pepper and teased with tangy greens. No wonder Clifton offers soup every night.

Next is salad. Just salad, you might think, yet the greens are local and the dressing might be embellished with balsamic vinegar, pine nuts and local goat cheese. Seldom do I find diners wishing for seconds after a full plate of salad; here I did. The greens were the size of a thumbnail, like eating a springtime breeze. And the cheese and pine nuts were restrained, each encounter a surprise.

I'm generally not a fan of mid-meal sorbets made from sweet fruits such as strawberries, but here the sweetness is not played up, and the ice is indeed refreshing.

The blessings of Clifton's location all show in the meat entree. On any given night it might be lamb, veal or beef, but most likely it's from the nearby Summerfield Farm. For decades Summerfield has been producing extraordinary veal. Now the company offers lamb, too, and it is tender but not soft, delicate but not faint of flavor, with a welcome graininess. Clifton lightly coats lamb loin with bread crumbs and sautes it to a medium-rare pink, then adds a dollop of pesto and a Provencal stew of peppers, tomatoes and olives alongside. Nothing fussy, yet far from plain. The herbs are also local, as is the vegetable of the day – maybe yellow wax beans so young that they hardly need their brief cooking. Even when there's a foreign element – perhaps wild rice – it's nothing to complain about, despite its breaking the magic circle of neighborly ingredients.

The fish entree, of course, isn't likely to be local. Still, even when it's tropical mahi-mahi, this plainly grilled little slab of fish is beyond reproach. Its beurre blanc has a slightly rustic texture that's appealing. But the revelation on the plate is the inn's oven-dried tomatoes. Local heirloom tomatoes have been baked at 250 degrees since 9:30 in the morning. They are concentrated but not really dry, and explode in the mouth with a tomato-ness I'd never have anticipated.

What to drink with such a dinner? The wine list is as extensive as the menu is pared down, so you could choose from Australian or French, Italian or the best of our West Coast. But this is the moment to explore Virginia's grapes. A Horton Mourvedre – wouldn't Thomas Jefferson have reveled in it?

Clifton: The Country Inn – 1296 Clifton Inn Dr., Charlottesville. 804/971-1800. Open: for dinner daily at 7:30 p.m. (hors d'oeuvres begin at 6:30 p.m.); breakfast and afternoon tea for overnight guests only. MC, V. Reservations required. No smoking. Prices: fixed-price dinner Sunday through Thursday $48, Friday and Saturday $58. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $70 to $85 per person.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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