The Peach, the Orange, and the Quiet – Town House – Chilhowie, Virginia
Once upon a time in America to desire gourmet dining meant one destination: not New York City, but midtown Manhattan. Slowly the appetite for culture spread from Gotham’s gut, and cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago opened their own bathhouses of gastronomy. Diffusion marches on, and in 2010 we find destination dining in small-town America, Main Street meals. After dining fabulously well in June Restaurant in Peoria Heights, I ached to extend my range. (Restaurants in the same category are Revolver in Findlay, Ohio and Volt in Frederick, Maryland, although Yountville, California, home of the French Laundry, is a town as small as others, but a tourist destination, not a designation for Peoria). During a month in Highlands, North Carolina, I planned a three hour trek to Chilhowie, Virginia to sample the fanciful cuisine at Town House. Prior to 2007, Town House had been a small-town grill, but that year John Shields (sous-chef at Alinea) and his partner – now his wife – Karen Urie (Shields) (pastry chef at Tru) moseyed down to Southwestern Virginia (his home neighborhood, I believe) to reimagine Town House.
Town House is not rural, nestled in comforting woods with neighborly owls and bears. It is found on a small town main street. Its environs are not impressive in themselves (no need for valet parking). The design of the restaurant, modern and sleek, would suit Park Slope Brooklyn. The restaurant seems plunked down: a gastronomic room that happens to be in Chilhowie, not particularly indigenous (although some ingredients are local).
Town House offers four menus: a short a la carte menu (one salad, three entrees, and a dessert); a four course prix fixe (two choices for each course); and a ten course tasting menu ($110). We selected the latter, and added two intriguing courses from the prix fixe, a blessing as these were among the best courses. We also had a mini-version of Charlie Berg’s excellent wine pairings (not staying in Chilhowie, value seemed the better part of valor). Although I do not cover wines, they were well-chosen and a creative match (only the Foggy Ridge Cider was from Virginia).
I divide Chef Shields’ dishes into two: an ecstatic elegant minimalist style and the now-common modern cuisine, with busy plates covered with carefully shaped and processed ingredients. Chef Shields does busy food very well, but in a style that is often seen (this is also the style of Pastry Chef (Karen) Shields. What I will remember from here until hospice are the whispering dishes (Chilled Vegetable “Minestrone”; the Orange from Valencia; A Minimal Preparation with Peach; Scrambled Egg Mousse; and, from column B, Corn and Crispy Pig Tail. It was not that the other dishes were bad; they weren’t; they were impressive and represented the style well, but a few lacked focus (the desserts had this quality). At times the whole was less memorable than the sum of the parts. Town House cuisine pays respectful attention to texture (including, at times, temperature), but to my surprise, with a few notable exceptions the dishes were not visually stunning. The kitchen’s palate runs from white to tan to beige to brown and back again. It is not only the moderate lighting that makes Town House a challenge for photographers.
Soon there appeared a savory cookie of cocoa and black olive – a post-modern Oreo with Meyer lemon compote and parmesan cream. While I was impressed with the citrus cream filling, I found the cookie to be dry with a slightly oily mouthfeel. I should have revived my own oreo memories: removing the cookie and licking the cream.
It is dangerous to serve the best dish of the evening as the opening act. But at Town House this is surely the case. Chef Shields’ “Chilled Vegetable ‘Minestrone’” is an astonishing dish. It is a canonical creation, perhaps in the class of Keller’s Oysters and Pearls, or Michael Carlson’s Quail Egg Ravioli. Yet, Shields’ minestrone cannot truly be compared with this pair. Both are lush while Shields is restrained: Agnes Martin in a bowl. Like every goodly, godly stock the liquid is complex while appearing simple. This “soup” consists of 11 different (root) vegetables, rolled as small cylinders. We are served radish, beet, carrot, leek, and a chorus of others. Each has its color, creating a stunningly beautiful dish in a minimalist vein. Tasting each pipe, I realized that each had been cooked in its own herbal bath. The diner who ignores the vegetable consommé misses a high point of vegetable cuisine. It is a perfectly imagined dish, a virtuoso display of genius.
The second course seemed a scoop of orange sherbet sitting lonely on a plate: “The Orange from Valencia.” Here was orange puree, flash frozen. A tennis ball crammed with a savory mixture of shellfish – mussels, shrimp, and other oceanic nummies. Perhaps it was the surprise of a seafood bombe, but this was another wondrous dish. The contrasting temperatures and textures, combined with the cunning acidity of the orange puree, permitted a dish that provided a dramatic contrast with the minestrone, avoiding being overshadowed.
Soup of Cherries with “almond bread” (frozen almond milk), slow oven-roasted tomatoes, cucumber water, ginger, and sardines was the most challenging dish of the evening, perhaps of the year. Some 35 years ago I was served a dish at Larry Forgione’s An American Place on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. At that moment of culinary promiscuity, American chefs were attempting to develop a lusty American cuisine, using an array of traditions in a style that would become institutionalized as fusion cuisine. Forgione, then something of a celebrity chef, sent out a multi-layer tortilla torte with barbeque beef, corn, tomatoes, and salsa, and others ingredient I have striven to forget. The dish was a mess, a clashing composition of tastes and textures (my wife was served a stunningly velvet sole with sorrel beurre blanc). In contrast, my dish nearly inedible for all the right reasons. If art need not be pretty (think Richard Serra, brutalist architecture, and challenges to decorative art), must food taste good? Must all dishes be “comfort food”? I have discussed Forgione’s dish more than any other that I have eaten. Shields attempts something similar with his combination of cherry, tomato, sardine, and frozen almond ice. The ingredients bounce and slam around the plate: it is a hip-hop hors d’oeuvre: in your face before being in your mouth. There are some dishes (the minestrone) that I wish that I could eat every day, and there are some dishes that are once in a lifetime experiences. Sardines are not good bedfellows, but they have rough style. Sour, tart, oily, sweet, acidity, smooth: this dish was like no other most nights. Memories are made of such strains.
Scrambled egg mousse, a paean to breakfast, was fourth, and was another success. Although Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck places his breakfast dish – bacon and egg ice cream – at the end (perhaps to remind us how long we have been at table), this mousse is still an appetizer, and a lovely, quiet one. The scrambled egg mousse is served over smoked steelhead roe, sorghum, sweet spices, preserved ramp, and rye bread. I thought that the dish must contain bacon – it does not – but it captures most of the flavors that constitute bacon: sweetness, smokiness, saltiness. The texture is silky as one cuts into the mousse, hiding (as in the orange) complex deliciousness below.
Peekytoe Crab in Brown Butter and Lime with “caramelized onions,” banana, curry, and cider vinegar was in the style of modern cuisine’s symphonic dishes. Here was perhaps the most typical modern dish of the night. Chef Shields works with three basic ingredients: crab, banana, and onions, and then shapes them in various forms, textures, tastes, using multiple cooking processes. It was a virtuoso combination, but my concern with this presentation is that one never gets the same bite twice: there is not enough time to think about taste and texture before other tastes and textures intrude. Like many of the dishes the colors on the plate were shades of off-white.
The sixth dish was, for me, the most troubling dish, although one that I am reassessing. It was the dish for which I registered a complaint to Chef Shields; perhaps I spoke too rapidly. I was served a “Risotto” of Squid. Whenever one finds quotation marks on a menu, anxiety is about. This dish appeared a petite risotto, but one absent rice. The rice was squid cut as rice (surely a labor-intensive task). My first reaction was not happy. I would have preferred risotto sans quote marks: real Arborio rice is heavenly starch. In terms of sheer enjoyment I have not changed my stance. Yet, a week later I still think about the dish. The squid was deliberately chewy (some might say rubbery), not the meaty grilled calamari of Greek cuisine. By leaving out the rice, the dish had a creamy, aquatic purity. It was still my least favorite dish, but I can appreciate the choice. Perhaps it had something of the let-us-do-it-because-we-can sensibility, but it had a textual punch.
Now I received the first “extra” course: Corn and Crispy Pig Tail with basil-infused buttermilk, toffee, popcorn, and cocoa nibs. Like the crab this was a dish that is very much in the register of modern cuisine: a focus on the possibilities of corn with a butt wag to Fergus Henderson’s snout-to-literally-tail cuisine. This presentation brought to mind a stalk of corn, and is stunning as this style gets. The textures – gelatinous, smooth, stringy, chewy, meaty, liquid – were showy. Here was something other than a mish-mash, but a set of ideas. Corn and Tail is dramatically different from the quieter dishes (Shields works with several distinctive cooking styles), but is a vivid composition.
The foie gras royale, confit and crisp chicken skin (covered with a patch of fresh berries – a batch of fresh perries?) was easily the most vibrant presentation of the evening (my photograph shamefully lacks justice). What is not to like about duck liver and blackberries? Nothing, of course. To say that it was nothing special seems to demean the dish, but only in contrast. It is a dish that makes diners happy in three-star cuisine.
And then naked came the peach (“A minimal preparation of peach roasted in beef fat and chanterelle mushroom bouillon”), a second extra dish. If the minestrone had been out of stock, the little peach would have stolen my heart. I would be raving about this roast slice of fruit. If peach were filet how would it taste? Shields is a consummate consommé master. This was almost as perfect a two-bite dish as could imagine, so beefy, so woodsy, so filled with the orchard. Astonishing!
The entrée was Lamb Cooked in Ash with Smoked Eggplant Cream Puree, Miso, Black Garlic, Bonito, and pulverized potato starch. Shields serve a meat dish that is textbook, so filled with paper-like ingredients it was. Much was thin, wrinkled, and crackly, the floor of an academic office. I was stunned in its play with textures and its reflection of ash. Perhaps its bustle was overshadowed by the peach, but I cannot deny my pleasure throughout.
The two desserts, created by Karen Urie Shields, formerly of Chicago’s Trotter’s and Tru, are much in the modern style (her bread is simply delicious). First was Parsnip Candy with Aerated Coconut, Yeast Sponge, Banana, Maca Crumbs (maca is, apparently, an herbaceous root plant from Peru: a slap in the face of locavores?), and Lemongrass. Most impressive was the wonderful set of textures in this dish, another symphony in off-white. However, after a week it is hard to recall the tastes involved.
The second dessert was Blueberries and Lychee with Peony Sorbet (wonderful), goat yogurt, coriander berries (very distinctive), and crispy milk skin (the Shields could open a culinary paper mill). I love lychee and so I was pleased with the dessert, but it revealed the limits of modern cuisine, perhaps it was too impressive in its fireworks. If one preparation is astonishing, sometimes having five or six on the plate makes amazement routine.
My unasked-for advice for a brilliant ending is to create a dessert-equivalent of the minestrone. Choose eleven fruits, shape them beautifully, serve with a light, off-sweet consommé, and remind us again just how simple food can be complex. Or, if not, a nugget of veal served as a nectarine.
It took three hours to arrive at Town House and three hours to dine and three hours to return home. Three hours of expectation, three hours of reminiscences, and three hours of pure joy.
132 East Main Street
Chilhowie, Virginia 24319
The restaurant has an associated guest house for those wishing a full wine tasting.Vealcheeks