Two of us are tucked into the cozy Tap Room inside the Ashby Inn & Restaurant in Paris, Va., when our server sets the scene for the night by dropping off not one, but two free welcomes.
First, a cube of pork pâté and a tapioca cracker hit with lime zest. Then, “Here we have sweet pea custard with fresh mint, grown in our garden, sauteed beech mushrooms, some shiso and a little pumpernickel crumble to top it off,” the attendant says as she presents another gift from the kitchen. For just a shot glass, the treat contains a lot of bliss. The breeze of the herbs mingles with the butteriness of the mushrooms and the crackle of ground bread, anointed with lemon oil, to create the taste equivalent of a catchy tune.
The three small spoonfuls are replaced by rolls baked with duck fat, brushed with bechamel and sprinkled with grated cheese and diced tomato. We devour them and contemplate asking for more, but we’re facing a six-course tasting menu and want to give each our full attention. We’ve been at the Ashby Inn for less than 10 minutes but can’t wait to see what else the restaurant’s new chef, Tom Whitaker, has in store for us.
On the job since January, the British native, 36, comes to the table from the esteemed Fearrington House near Chapel Hill, N.C., where he cooked under executive chef Colin Bedford for 10 years. “There’s only so long you can be in someone’s shadow,” Whitaker says, explaining the move north.
Well, there’s also the little matter of his wife not wanting to move to his beloved England. The couple’s compromise became Paris, Va., which the chef says reminds him of where he grew up, in a market town called Hexham in the country’s north. Everybody’s happy now — including diners who missed David Dunlap, who left two years ago and was followed in the kitchen by Patrick Robinson, the former chef de cuisine at the late Table in Washington.
The inn comprises an outdoor patio and multiple small dining rooms, each with its own charms, although my preferences are for the light-filled, lemon grass-colored porch; the booth-lined main dining room; and the aforementioned Tap Room, its low ceiling set with thin beams, its banquettes cloaked in forest green. What each space shares in common are little brass plaques marking where VIP customers prefer to sit. (The Ashby clearly attracts a bunch of swells. Inches from where I was ensconced on my last visit, I saw evidence of a Duval, a DuPont and a Gore having preceded me there.)
Whitaker’s menu gives diners lots of options, albeit at prices that read as if they’re in the District. A customer can eat as few as two courses for $60 from the a la carte menu or as many as six courses for $100 on the chef’s tasting menu, thoughtfully offered sans meat for $90. The tasting menus, which include most of the a la carte dishes, are the way to go if you want to see the chef’s range in one sitting. Plus, it would be unfortunate to miss, say, the petite asparagus-arugula salad with its ringlets of crisp raw onions, thimble of tangy Greek yogurt and trumpet blast, courtesy of a dot of Meyer lemon puree. Like a tip from Warren Buffett, the combination tantalizes.
While the setting is country, the food is a little rock-and-roll. Consider the smoked cabbage course on the vegetarian tasting menu. In a nod to where he’s been, Whitaker finishes the plate, featuring the tender hearts of green cabbage, with drops of barbecue sauce. The tang, usually associated with meat, is a delightful tease.
To cut a piece of sweet halibut and spear it on a fork with a spongy morel and poached rhubarb is to be bear-hugged by spring — and to appreciate that there remain a few ingredients that can be had only in their season. Duck cooked sous vide gets a hard sear in a hot pan before the breast is paired with white asparagus, softly crisp leeks and an elderflower sauce enriched with muscatel and veal stock. A more robust sauce, relying on red onion and port, also graces the plate and begs for another duck fat roll (you know, for mopping).
Pork belly, from the a la carte list, is a thick bar of fat and funk aligned with a row of mustard seeds, pineapple brunoise and greens from the garden, splashed with a bacon vinaigrette. The accents amount to a calling card from the chef: “The English love their chutney,” jokes Whitaker.
His kitchen serves cauliflower as a steak, pan-seared and thickly sliced but cooked a little softer than preferable, so it goes mushy under the weight of a knife and fork. Candy-sweet cashews do the entree no favor. The draw on the plate turns out to be an egg hidden beneath a tumbleweed of fried thread-thin beets.
There’s a lot going on in even some of the simpler-sounding dishes. But the chef knows what he’s doing, at least most of the time. A few constructions call for refining and consistency, most of all the wan mushroom soup, poured over unlikely companions of quinoa and celery root. The dish was once served to me with a froth of hot cream set off with a stencil of a mushroom on top (nice!), another time sans the whimsy (artist’s night off?). Similarly, not all the order-takers are created equal. “I learned so many new words today!” one of them shared after describing one of Whitaker’s more involved creations.
What tends to stick in your mind, though, are the evening’s many niceties, including the sommelier who manages to bridge two different tasting menus with a single bottle (Elizabeth Spencer’s plummy grenache) and the restrooms sure to bring a smile to any woman who’s ever had to wait and wait for her turn. (The doors are marked “Men and Women” or “Women.”) The unusual desserts include a fluffy Japanese cotton cake — think cheesecake, but lighter — adorned with mascarpone ice cream, strawberry fluff and biscotti crumbles.
Not everyone loves the grape-shaped gum drops that precede the check, but you have to appreciate the thought behind something made using local wine and presented on a map of area wineries.
Buy local, it suggests. We bite — and road trippers should follow.
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692 Federal St., Paris, Va.
Open: Lunch Wednesday through Saturday, dinner Wednesday through Sunday, brunch Sunday
Prices: Dinner two courses $60, three courses $70, four courses $80, six courses $90 (for vegetarian) to $100
Sound check: 67 decibels / Conversation is easy