No sooner have we left our keys with the valet at the entrance of the Salamander Resort in Middleburg than we’re verbally high-fived by a manager who asks how he can help us.
“We’re here for dinner at Harrimans,” I tell him.
He beams, makes a sweeping gesture with an arm and invites us to follow him through a capacious lobby and down a long hall that gives us glimpses of the youthful inn’s tavern, the Gold Cup Wine Bar, and a 24-stool cooking studio set off with breakaway panels of chefs in action.
In the 90 seconds or so that it takes to deposit us at the entrance to Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill, our temporary emcee gives us a crash course in the resort. We learn that owner Sheila Johnson (whom everyone here refers to as “Doctor” Johnson, in recognition of her multiple honorary degrees) maintains a residence nearby, and that the restaurant we’re about to enter is named for the late ambassadors Averell and Pamela Harriman, who once called the surrounding 340 acres home.
There’s a lot of background to digest; the most amusing details concern pets. Salamander not only offers a “yappy hour” for dogs on Tuesday, our host reports, but horse-sitting services.
At the moment, after a drive of more than an hour from Washington, all we want is a drink. My companions and I are eager to be seated, but our reservation is nowhere to be found. Several young women stare at a computer screen, scanning it repeatedly for the misplaced request, which we know we have because we confirmed it the day before. Behind the search party is a sea of empty tables, which makes me wonder why the minders are making us wait and watch while they hunt and peck instead of just letting us sit down.
The hexagon-shaped dining room is enormous. Reinforcing the equestrian theme are spare black-and-white paintings of horses flanking the entrance and a single saddle on a tall pedestal in the center of the room. From our linen-draped table, practically broad enough to encompass multiple Zip codes, we spot an illuminated stable in the distance. The pastoral scene is dimmed by tinny elevator music in the background.
Three of us order cocktails; after an epic wait, only two drinks materialize. The third, a server informs us, is “coming from another outlet.” (Another outlet?) When the glass is finally delivered, it turns out to be a shot of Sazerac whiskey rather than the requested Sazerac cocktail. The thirsty member of my group clarifies that he wants the New Orleans classic. “Can you tell me what goes in it?” asks The Server From The Other Outlet. Uh-oh. “I’ll take a Manhattan,” my friend replies.
Both the server and the menu play up the restaurant’s farm-to-table intentions. Todd Gray, the chef-owner of Equinox in Washington and the resort’s culinary director, is referenced in tones nearly as reverential as those used for Dr. Johnson, whose garden, we’re told, is the source of basil for the pastas and apples for the fruit plates. Dishes are divided among poetic-sounding headings. “From the Tidewater,” reads one. “From the Foothills,” entices another. A welcome from the kitchen, risotto fritters, is similar to what patrons of Equinox are offered as they peruse the menu.
Despite our awkward introduction to the restaurant, my posse is looking forward to dinner this Saturday in late September. Gray says that he’s been working on the project for a decade, after all; pre-launch, he hired Chris Edwards as the chef de cuisine in charge of Salamander’s wine bar and main dining room. Edwards hails from the glass-tented Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville, where his “pantry” consisted of 11 acres of farmland, and his very good cooking was informed by his time at the late and revered Maestro in Tysons Corner and El Bulli in Spain.
Unfortunately, nothing we eat tonight even hints of that worldly résumé. Sweet diver scallops crunch with grit and share their plate with bok choy so vague that you wouldn’t recognize the vegetable with your eyes closed. Smoke is the lone flavor we detect from a plate of grilled shiitake mushrooms garnished with sesame brittle, cloying in its sweetness. Potato gnocchi with duck Bolognese — a case of the bland leading the bland — has us looking at our watches, too.
Even basic dishes prove lackluster. A “barbecue spiced” hanger steak of Kobe beef shows no sign of having been seasoned with anything sassier than salt. The meat is chewy. A pork rib, minimally garnished with a garlic clove and a bit of slow-roasted tomato, arrives dry.
Cauliflower tossed with golden raisins and capers makes a respectable accompaniment, but we didn’t log 50 miles to fill up on a side dish.
Harrimans has been open three weeks when I make my maiden visit, and its youth and inexperience reveal themselves throughout the evening. Managers float in and out, forever asking how everything is, interjecting themselves just in time to step on the punch line of a joke or interrupt the climax of someone’s story. The cheeriest of the cast is the sommelier, although she seems not to have read her own wine list. It offers a white wine that she insists she sells only on the banquet menu, until I point out its presence on the list at Harrimans.
The restaurant’s flaws are made worse by food that is tepid when it should be hot and a bill for three that comes close to $400 once drinks, wine, tax and gratuity are factored in. The cooking and the service are a dash better on a subsequent visit in mid-October, but neither food nor hospitality are without their off moments. After we place an order for blue cheese tater tots, our waiter repeats the request back to me. “Tots for you. Tots. I just love saying it!” Eating the side dish, crisp with Japanese bread crumbs and sharp with Stilton cheese, is more fun than hearing the waiter read it back to me.
From the grill comes a fine tuna steak; out of the fryer emerge onion rings worth polishing off. Oysters on the half-shell are also satisfying, but raw seafood reveals more about shopping habits than a chef’s kitchen prowess.
If Harrimans aims for a discerning clientele, it needs more lures like its caramelized Vidalia onion soup, a deconstructed recipe that finds a delicate Gruyère custard, a crisp Parmesan tuile and smoky bacon crumbles in a broth richly flavored with veal stock and short rib jus. The first course, “from the foothills,” is a lovely concert of flavors and textures.
Johnson, a vegan, can dine reasonably well in her signature restaurant, which lists eight or so meatless dishes. Indeed, the main course that everyone at my table wanted more of on my last visit was a simple-sounding grilled local eggplant. Lightly oiled and paired with mushrooms sauteed in a rich reduction of miso, vegetable stock and porcini juices, the arrangement had done a Houdini by the time plates were cleared.
With some caveats, desserts leave a sweet impression. Endings include a fanciful many-layered chocolate cake that should lose its overly smoky bacon ice cream, and pillowy beignets served on a plate scattered with caramel popcorn and peanuts (think Cracker Jack) with a dipping sauce of garlic and cream that tastes better than it sounds.
The early diagnosis: Harrimans needs assistance. Is there a doctor in the house? Everyone on staff insists that there is; she needs to be paged, stat.
500 N. Pendleton St., Middleburg. 540-326-4162. Open for dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily; brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. Dinner entrees, $22 to $36.