OUTSIDE IT was 14 degrees, but inside it was California The Parkhurst Inn looks like a standard Virginia roadside motel -- which it is -- and catches the wind from its Luray hilltop, which in the fall will show to better advantage.
What doesn't show is that this is a unique restaurant for its part of the countryside, a restaurant where the breads are homemade and the crudites are imaginative and pretty. Though playing to a nearly empty house night after winter night, owners George and Nita Weddleton maintain an everchanging menu of a couple dozen items, hoping that skiers from Bryce and Massanutten will begin to beat even a narrow path to their door.
One Sunday night the restaurant served only one table all evening, but the breadbasket contained crusty whole wheat slices, ginger muffins and a sensational caraway quick bread the kitchen was trying for the first time. The crudites, arranged as a bouquet around a dip that the proprietor-chef-waiter called a cross between green goddess and aoli, were both familiar and exotic. Carrots, celery, hugh black olives, radishes, green peppers. But also sliced raw sweet potatoes that were delicious, their sweetness and texture reminiscent of sugar cane. And pickled brussels sprouts, tiny ears of corn, sticks of rutabaga and summer; squash.
The dining rooms are knotty pine, dimly lit by crystal chandeliers and tabletop flames, carpeted and warm and festive if neither city-slick nor old-world charming. The menu is on a stand brought to the table: Among appetizers there might be oysters breaded or Parkhurst-style, fried mushrooms, cheese and fruit, snails -- with an interesting touch of ground almonds -- plus two soups, both homemade and pretty good. Main courses are mostly beef -- filet with bearnaise, a variation of steak Diane, or filet slices with cream, mushrooms and madeira -- and seafood -- shrimp, scallops, lobster tail in butter sauces with lots of lemon or herbs -- plus chicken in champagne cream or duck a l'orange. Standard offerings though they sound, all are prepared with a flair. The seafood is frozen, but carefully cooked. The scallops are moist and lemony, the beef rich and subtle, the duck sauce excellent even if the bird itself had seen better days. Steamed vegetables come with the entrees -- perhaps cabbage with rosemary -- and fettucine or potatoes if you are lucky, Uncle Ben's wild rice mix if you're not.
Desserts are a highlight. The nine of them include crepes of chocolate batter, filled with chocolate mousse; or plain crepes filled with cream cheese dINN, From E1> custard and topped with intense and fruity reaspberry sauce. Ice creams and sorbets are homemade -- though not wonderful.
The wine list is surprising for such a location. The house wines are Parducci burgundy and Summit chablis, and the list of bottles represents the best of California boutique vineyards as well as French, Italian and even Shenandoah Valley wines, at fair markups.
This is a good restaurant, or at least a restaurant on its way to or from being very good. It is the reality of George Weddleton's dream of running a country restaurant after he left a restaurant partnership near Lake Tahoe in California. He drove through the country with a camper on the back of his truck for a year, in search.
Luray was probably a mistake. A hundred miles from Washington, it is one mountain range further than the immensely successful Inn at Little Washington, and has not its architectural charm. In California, said Weddleton, people readily drive two hours for dinner. Not so in Washington. wThat very Sunday evening, Nita Weddleton was in Washington trying to publicize the restaurant at a travel and leisure show, but it was a bust; at her last report, only 30 or 40 people had showed up. And Weddleton has little expectation any more of serving the local community, which he characterizes as more interested in moonshine than wine. What has he found that works with the locals? "Nothing."
Once the Weddletons and their three children settled on Virginia as their destination and found the Parkhurst, it took them a year to make it ready. The motel had no kitchen when they bought it. They furnished it through scavenging. The stove, steam table, refrigerator and ice machine came from an unoccupied restaurant for $500; but it took two weeks of scrubbing before they were even clean enough to be brought indoors.
Finally, the Parkhurst Inn opened in July 1979, just in time for the oil crisis to keep travelers home for the summer. A week after it opened, the chef become discouraged and quit. Weddleton, who had cooked in an Italian restaurant, but not in the last 10 years, took to the stove. The staff now consists of the Weddletons, one kitchen assistant and a friend who owns a nearby vineyard and comes in to wait tables on weekends. In the summer, college students returning to the Luray area for vacation are pressed into service. The Weddletons' 3-year-old daughter and her clan of teddy bears make a show of helping in the kitchen.
Running the business is easier in summer. The Weddletons grow some of their own produce and buy the rest from nearby farms. The motel rooms and cottages can be rented without having to be heated (a problem until they can afford to carpet them). And from spring to fall, the Skyline Drive and Luray Caverns tourists increase their business.
The Parkhurst Inn is still far from making ends meet. Weddleton, wearing a bushy mustache, brown leisure suit and carefree-looking smile, loses his bouyancy only slightly when he talks of how difficult it has been to break even with this restaurant. "The bank has been great," his smile returns.
After the first disastrous year of the Parkhurst, the bank allowed him to go six months without making payments. In the meantime, he is trying not to compromise his standards more than necessary. He reluctantly stopped making his own mayonnaise, and gets no fresh fish except in the summer. He ordinarily makes his own pie curst, but had some commercial crusts left over from a party, and used them for his pecan pie. That's what he wound up serving a restaurant critic, along with a two-day-old half of a roast duck (because he wanted to use up the half before he used the fresher whole duck he had cooked more recently). "We have to do a lot we are not proud of," Weddleton admits, though he will not forsake his California attachment to fresh vegetables, no matter what.
At best, a 50-seat restaurant has a hard time making ends meet. And, though the average food check is $15 a person for dinner -- that means closer to $20 with tip and a sample from Parkhurst's tempting list of wines and imported beers -- some people spend as little as $8. Weddleton has tried whatever attractions he could invent, from a $25 midweek package of room, breakfast and dinner during last fall's foliage season, to turning a motel room into a private candlelit dining room for two.
And, though the kitchen has its limitations in the frozen seafoods (and tough shrimp), that sticky wild rice mix and stale duck, its inventiveness -- the almonds in the snails, the rosemary-steamed cabbage, the breads, the chocolate-batter crepes, and that glamorous arrangement of crudites -- would be a strong attraction in another location. And for such an empty dining room to continue to serve the variety it does, with as many fresh and homemade foods as it does, is an impressive feat.
Weddleton has no intention of giving up, no matter what. He makes it sound inevitable: "We're here and we've got to stay."
The Parkhurst Inn, on route 211, 1 1/2 miles west of Luray Caverns, Va., (703-743-6009) open Tuesday through Sunday. Here are some of its recipes. BEEF PARISIENNE (6 servings) Sauce: 1/4 cup water 1 1/2 teaspoons powdered beef bouillon 1 pint heavy cream 1 tablespoon cornstarch Beef: 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced 1/2 cup chopped scallions 2 1/2 pounds beef tenderloin fillets 1/4 cup madeira
To make the sauce, dissolve the bouillon in the water in heavy pot and stir in all but 2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream. Heat to boiling. Mix remaining 2 tablespoons cream with cornstarch and slowly add to boiling mixture.
In a second heavy skillet heat butter. Saute mushrooms and scallions. Set aside. Brown filets 1 minute on each side. Remove from pan and set aside. Deglaze pan with maderia and reduce to half over high heat. Return meat, mushrooms and scallions to pan. Add sauce and heat just until warm. Serve immediately.
This can be prepared hours ahead and heated just before serving. CARAWAY BREAD (Enough for 1 9-inch pie pan) 1 1/2 cups flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup sugar 1/3 cup butter 2 teaspoons caraway seed 2 eggs, beaten 1/2 cup milk
Sift flour, baking powder, salt and sugar into large bowl. Cut in butter. Add caraway seeds and blend well. Mix beaten eggs with milk and add to dry ingredients, stirring only to moisten. Spread in pie pan and bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes until lightly brown on top or toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. CHOCOLATE MOUSSE CREPES WITH VANILLA SAUCE (12 crepes) Filling: 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla Pinch salt 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream 6 egg yolks Crepes: 1 cup flour 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar Pinch salt 2 teaspoons cocoa 3 eggs 1 1/2 cups milk 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1 teaspoon of cognac or brandy (optional) Vanilla custard sauce: 2 cups milk 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla 6 tablespoons sugar 4 egg yolks Pinch salt
To make filling, combine chocolate, vanilla and salt in food processor. Mix until chips are finely chopped.Heat heavy cream to boiling point and add to processor while it is running. Continue mixing until chocolate is melted. Add egg yolks and process 10 seconds (just until they mix in). Cool in refrigerator until mixture becomes thick (about 1 1/2 hours).
To make crepes, sift flour, sugar, salt and cocoa into bowl. Lightly beat eggs. Make hollow in center of flour mixture and add eggs, stirring dry ingredients into the eggs to make paste. Add 3/4 cup milk. Beat lightly until smooth and creamy. Slowly add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla.Let sit in refrigerator for about 1 hour.
After removing crepe batter from refrigerator, add remaining 3/4 cup milk (only enough to make thin batter). Drop 2 teaspoons of batter into crepe pan or teflon egg pan heated to medium-high. Quickly swirl to make crepe size. Cook 1 minute on each side until golden brown. Be careful, because cocoa burns easily. Set aside.
Drop 1 1/2 tablespoons of filling in freeze, place crepes on sheet pan, seam down. Remove from freezer 1 hour before serving.)
To make vanilla custard sauce, warm milk and vanilla extract in saucepan. In top of double boiler mix sugar, egg yolks and salt. Add hot milk by teaspoonsful, until mixture becomes liquid. Then add remaining hot milk, stirring constantly. Continue heating and stirring until mixture coats the spoon. (Be careful not to overheat or sauce will separate. If sauce separates, bring it back together by adding additional egg yolk mixed with 1 teaspoon cornstarch.) Cool sauce and spoon over top of chocolate crepes.