The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Spring Dining Guide.
When Washingtonians want to get away for a splurge in the countryside, the fantasy default tends to be the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., surely the only four-star restaurant in the world to offer both a Rolls-Royce for guests and a cheese trolley that moos.
I adore Patrick O’Connell’s over-the-top confection. But it’s not the only 50-mile drive you should take if you care about memorable cooking and desire a break from reality. The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville, Va., with food by Tarver King, should go on your brag list, too.
Never been? Set on a hill in northern Loudoun County, with partial views of the Potomac, the restaurant looks like a greenhouse and features ingredients grown or raised on 40 acres of farm. Been a few years since your last meal? The multi-menu format, whereby diners opted for collections of dishes whose featured ingredients were either foraged (wild ramps), grown (vegetables) or raised (animals) has been replaced by a single tasting menu, so everyone has the same experience.
On a recent Saturday night, that meant listening to a history lesson from our gregarious server as he deposited some snacks, beginning with delectable flax-tea crackers and cashew cheese, on our bare oak table. (King thinks sound is an important part of dining at Patowmack, hence the crinkly paper holding the crackers.) While companions and I nibbled on house-cured ham with house-made mustard, and buttery mushrooms fragrant from a brush with smoked hay, our guide spoke about how long-ago members of the local Piscataway Indian tribe traded with settlers. The monologue explains the white rabbit pelt on the table, which looks natural in this environment, and the whiff of fire, an allusion to tobacco-smoking forebears. The snacks are all quiet pleasures, corn dumplings most of all. Presented on a husk, the soft purses, made with roasted cornmeal and creme fraiche, get finished with a drizzle of molasses tweaked with sassafras root.
The transition to tom yum soup for a second course is curious, but only until we spoon into the elixir — as luxurious a version of the Thai signature as I’ve had — and learn that the lemon grass and kaffir lime in the bowl were culled from nearby soil. King makes a habit of offering bread to match his soups, which explains the Chinese steamed buns tonight. The buns are models, puffy and light, presented on a rock. Shrimp butter and a pinch of Appalachian salt turn them into an insane bread course.
“The First Carrots of Spring,” an elegant garland of up to five kinds of carrots, segue to vermilion snapper, two or so bites of steamed fish garnished with preserved cherry blossoms and dried or fried sunflower, lentil and other sprouts. This fourth course is revivifying, paired with a vinegar-based blueberry switchel, shaken like a cocktail as diners watch. (Table conversation is routinely punctuated by staff members introducing courses and offering background — sometimes caution, as when a server announced, “The only rule I have all night: Don’t touch the rock,” brought out briefly to heat, say, coriander seeds for an intermezzo, and perfume the air.)
Your entree arrives on a small, smooth shared plank: chunks of perfect roasted duck set here and there, plus a small wedge salad, dappled with buttermilk and dill, in one corner. Desserts are vast improvements from years past, when King was in his deconstruction phase. One of the more fanciful sights is toasted fennel custard framed in meringue shards flavored with red wine — a radicalized creme brulee.
As at a number of innovative restaurants that don’t want to spoil surprises for their patrons, Patowmack Farm doesn’t surrender the menu until the meal is over. That’s fine by me when the script is presented as a scroll in a wooden box with different partitions, some filled with polished river stones, others with oak moss, each supporting a sweet something. The gems might include lemon-leaf cookies, Turkish delight and sassafras candy, sheer and reminiscent of root beer.
King can do casual, too. On the second Sunday of every month, he serves Sunday Supper, a three-course, family-style meal representing peasant food from a different part of the world. In the past, the chef has cooked Vietnamese in the summer, Russian in winter — well, except for this year, when events in Moscow gave him pause. (He featured Mongolian dishes instead.)
An evening at the bucolic Restaurant at Patowmack Farm calls attention to a lot of things, including the commitment of its tractor-driving longtime owner, Beverly Morton Billand, to organic farming and the notion that fine dining doesn’t hinge on table linens. Also, aroma is a great way to sustain diners’ interest over the course of a leisurely meal.
The biggest takeaway of all, though, is this: King is cooking like a rock star these days.
42461 Lovettsville Rd., Lovettsville, Va. 540-822-9017. patowmackfarm.com.
Open: Dinner Thursday through Saturday, weekend brunch; monthly Sunday supper.
Prices: Prix-fixe dinner, $94 (beverage pairing additional $50); brunch $28 to $32; Sunday Supper prix fixe $65.
Sound check: 67 decibels / Conversation is easy.
Previously (2014): 2 1/2 stars