Three months after he left a hole in Northern Virginia by closing Villa Mozart in Fairfax City in November, chef Andrea Pace got a call from a customer who knew he dreamed of opening an inn. The Public House in Flint Hill was on the market, she told Pace, and “your name is written all over it.”
No sooner did the chef and his partner, Reem Arbid, drive up the gravel path to the two-story, four-room inn in Rappahannock County than they fell in love with the place. In March, they sealed a deal to take it over. By May, they were open for business, with Pace in the kitchen and Arbid greeting, seating and mixing cocktails. The Blue Door Kitchen & Inn takes its name from the property’s high-gloss entrance. The exterior gives way to two dining rooms and a bar that blend rustic and contemporary accents in such a way as to make the restaurant feel timeless. Salvaged barn doors and framed photographs of area buildings share space with furniture that suggests a midcentury showroom.
Regulars at Pace’s gem in Fairfax City, take note: While there are glimmers of the admirable Italian cooking served at Villa Mozart, the Blue Door Kitchen finds a more streamlined effort. One of a handful of dishes to make the trek from city to country is Pace’s signature rye ravioli, so thin you can see the fresh spinach slipped inside, and rounded out with mountain cheese. To start is to finish the pasta. “I can’t make enough of it,” says Pace of his new/old bestseller.
Arbid, his gracious sidekick, is Lebanese, a detail that finds its way into some of the snacks on the menu, including a pleasant hummus topped with juicy beef tips. But the better strategy is to look to Europe. Rice balls with interiors of molten pepperjack cheese, arranged in a bowl with a tangy tomato sauce and Parmesan, are easy to like, as are grilled shrimp, which share a little skillet with mellow chickpeas and torn radicchio. There are fine soups, too, including artichoke with porcini, a mushroom near and dear to the chef.
The starter that most reminds me of Pace, who is from the part of northern Italy where German is spoken, is a mousse made from charcuterie trimmings. The opener comes to the table on slices of bread with sails of dried speck riding the waves of whipped meat and heavy cream. The bread needs to be better, and would be if it were toasted, but the spread, soft and smoky, has his Alpine home region of Sud Tyrol stamped all over it.
Part of me wishes Pace had opened with the menu he offered at Villa Mozart. Some of his appetizers in particular come across like repetitive variations on themes. The chef’s more labor-intensive food will have to wait for now, he says. “We wanted to test the market a bit.”
The Blue Door Kitchen is the uncommon restaurant to impress customers more with mains than firsts. Take a bite of the gnocchi and tell me otherwise. Yukon Gold potatoes are transformed into fun-size pillows of pleasure, stained red with a fresh-tasting tomato sauce and dropped off with a creamy blob of burrata cheese speckled with espelette. Same with the half chicken, seasoned to encourage devouring with paprika, cumin, curry and pepper and framed like a picture in a shallow copper casserole that’s filled out with little roasted potatoes and baby purple carrots, cooked in duck fat. Halibut leaves the stove at the precise moment it should, after which the fish is finished with split beets and fava beans. Seven Hills Food in Lynchburg supplies the grass-fed beef tenderloin, which arrives at the temperature you ask for, with sauteed porcini mushrooms and Gerber-soft dollops of celery root puree. An inky huckleberry sauce ties the pleasure together.
Like many of his peers, Pace puts thought and money into his plates and bowls, which the chef helped design with Studio North Ceramics of Springfield, Va. A table in the center of the main dining room gathers the fetching wares.
The most appealing dessert, chilled fruit soup, takes full advantage of the season. Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries lend their summery sweetness to the dark puree, which is garnished with the same fruit and topped with a quenelle of ivory ricotta and citrus ice cream. The secret to the shade of the sauce and its curious appeal? Balsamic vinegar and fresh basil. Chocolate mousse circled with caramelized banana slices and nuggets of shortbread is unusual for its garnish. What appear to be strings of coconut is quickly fried phyllo. Will fall find flaky apple strudel, a highlight at Villa Mozart, on the menu? A fan can hope.
A pleasant evening calls for dinner out back, on the patio overlooking several acres of land, just waiting to host a wedding. Originally red, the deck has been painted to match the grass. Same for the umbrellas shading the tables. Pace was too preoccupied with renovating his investment to plant much of a garden this year. Even so, he managed to coax tomatoes, basil and hot peppers from the soil.
Pace’s fantasy about opening an inn had the avid skier thinking Colorado or Vermont, not a mere six miles from the Inn at Little Washington. “I never imagined Rappahannock County,” he says. Neighbors seem grateful he’s among them, judging from the grapevine and the nightly scene of locals popping up like jack-in-the-boxes when they find one another in the same spot.
The restaurant’s skeleton staff and youth reveal themselves in the occasional underseasoned dish or attendant who takes an entire order without writing anything down. (We fear there will be mistakes, and there are, in the form of AWOL dishes or things we didn’t order.) But the parting taste in our mouths is of a place we’re happy to trek to and eager to see mature.
675 Zachary Taylor Hwy., Flint Hill, Va.
Open: Lunch or brunch Friday through Sunday; dinner Thursday through Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers $8 to $14, main courses $16 to $32.
Sound check: 67 decibels / Conversation is easy.