We didn’t intend to drive 60 miles for gruel, but boy, are we glad we did.
Empty nesters with a tolerant cat, my husband and I found ourselves heading west on Interstate 66 on a recent Saturday afternoon. Our pursuit: destination dining. If twinkling lights and tinsel and the smell of a fresh-cut fir happened to deck the halls where we’d made a reservation, even better. We appreciate the sights and smells of the season.
Kindred spirits welcomed us at the Ashby Inn and Restaurant. To compare it with grander accommodations in Hunt Country would be unjust, but it’s certainly the biggest deal in Paris, Va., pop. 71. After all, the place was called Punkinville until it was renamed sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century to honor the Marquis de Lafayette.
The Ashby’s a charmer, with a total of 10 rooms, situated in a shallow valley with views of gentle slopes and modest residences. As you turn into the property just off the John Mosby Highway, it’s easy to assume that the inn has a military connection as well — perhaps to Turner Ashby, a Confederate general. We were assured, however, that the Ashbys who built this house in 1829 were not related to him.
Innkeepers Neal and Star Wavra, both alums of the tasteful, elegant Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, have seen to it that holiday decor at the Ashby doesn’t assault the senses. And so we were drawn first to the front room, a library. Brass fireplace fenders and a smooshy caramel-leather couch, wing chairs you can sink into, a tidy Christmas tree and pine roping on the mantel make for one cozy space.
Now, we think that a fine meal and an underrated wine cellar are reward enough. On this night, the promise of a comfy bed meant that we could linger, and keep sipping. November and December, in addition to summer weddings, constitute the Ashby’s high season. Yet we were able to book the last room in the main house on short notice. (There are four rooms in the schoolhouse building across the road, renovated by former owners John and Roma Sherman).
The Victorian Room is, as it turns out, blessedly doily-free. The inn’s low-key elegance carries through in the room’s warm tones of coral and moss green, the muted cabbage-rose of the drapes and the sedate plaid of the bed canopy. Small touches weren’t lost on us: the gracious owners’ note in the guest book; two snuggly robes; stemware for sampling a port-style wine made for the Ashby by the Vint Hill Craft Winery not far away; just the right amount of creak in the wood floors.
We fell asleep to rain patting the tin roof, which worked better than Ambien. Breakfast (included) was served on the Ashby’s sunny enclosed porch. Any of the five dishes would beat anything we’ve ever had at any other inn. Exhibit A: the small apple croissant where, say, a mega-muffin might have sat. I ordered a pretty plate of poached eggs with rye bread pudding, kale, turkey, mustard hollandaise and pickled okra. My Earl Grey stayed suitably hot, thanks to a thoughtful tea service tray.
I wouldn’t deprive you of a dinner recap; just saving the best for last. Tarver King has run the kitchen at the Ashby for the past three years. He’s the kind of chef whom other chefs make it their business to watch. Seventeen local farmers and purveyors were listed on the evening’s menu, and Neal Wavra, in his capacity as sommelier, paired wines with the four courses. About one-quarter of the cellar’s 400 selections, or 2,000 bottles, is from Virginia.
A 2009 Jermann Ribolla Gialla complemented my snack of salsify puree and toasted baguette. A seemingly simple entree of poached chicken breast and broccoli puree highlighted the quality of those ingredients. Dessert was a cocoa pound cake with stout gelato, barley honey, creme fraiche and espresso crumble.
You’re wondering about that gruel, aren’t you? Not the thin stuff of Dickens. The chef created the first-course dish by cooking oats, bulgur wheat and flaxseed in a mixture of apple cider, milk and butter. He finished it with pecorino-Romano cheese and chestnut puree and served it in a rustic bowl with crisps of chicken skin, sour apple butter, sage leaves, marigold petals and red mustard greens.
It had balance and beauty. Yes, we asked for more.
The Ashby Inn and Restaurant
692 Federal St.
Rooms from $155 to $295,
breakfast and WiFi included.
A biweekly staff review of East Coast and regional lodgings.