The couple hope to open a place of their own in the Mid-Atlantic — someplace easier for diners to reach than Town House, a six-hour drive from Washington and more than 40 miles from the nearest airport, in Blountville, Tenn.
The chefs’ departure from the 28-seat dining destination follows that of the restaurant’s sommelier, Charlie Berg , who left the establishment after New Year’s Eve service. Per tradition, Town House closes for a period after the holiday, when “there’s no product” to be sourced locally, says Shields, 35, who originally expected to return to the kitchen later this month.
Shields and his wife, 33, brought impressive credentials with them when they left Chicago, where both had worked at the acclaimed Charlie Trotter’s , he as sous-chef and she as head pastry chef. John Shields went on to be a sous-chef at Alinea , also in Chicago, and become one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in 2010 .
Recruited in 2008 by Kyra and Tom Bishop, co-owners of a high-end steakhouse in Chilhowie, to rethink their restaurant, the chefs brought in a bunch of fancy toys, including a Gastrovac , a Pacojet ice cream maker, and introduced four- and 10-course tasting menus (most recently $58 and $110, respectively). Ingredients for some dishes were foraged from the nearby Appalachian Trail. The last menu featured beef cheeks flavored with smoked hay; turbot cooked with cream, spruce and anchovy; and geranium leaves frosted to look like snowflakes and garnished with parsnip ice cream.
“The biggest challenge was filling the room Tuesday through Thursday, depending on the season,” says Shields, who has been entertaining offers to leave Town House since last year. “We’ve done zero (guests) before.”
The couple, whose 2009 wedding was documented in The Washington Post Magazine, is relocating to Philadelphia, where they have relatives who can help them tend the couple’s 9-month-old daughter, Cicley, while they map their future and scout possible locations for a restaurant of their own.
One of the cities they’re considering is Washington, which they visited a few weeks back. They dined at Sushi Taro and at Toki Underground . “I’ve always loved D.C., “ says John Shields. “It’s got a great vibe.” (The couple had hoped to check out Little Serow as well, but figured the exacting kitchen wouldn’t accommodate Karen Shields’ pescatarian diet.)
While Kyra Bishop has nothing but praise for the departed chefs, she says, “John and Karen made the choice to leave.” Did their resignation come as a surprise? “It is a surprise, but I can also appreciate what they want to do.” The restaurant and its nearby Victorian guest house, Riverstead, are situated on family land belonging to the Bishops.
Bishop says she and her husband are mulling several options: “We’re very opened-minded” about the future of Town House.