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Riverstead (Formerly Town House), Chilhowie, VA - Chefs John and Karen Shields Have Reopened, GM Neal Wavra Comes From The Ashby Inn

Smyth County Chilhowie Modern American

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#1 Joe H

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Posted 02 December 2008 - 01:14 AM

This is the most intriguing, mysterious restaurant in America: Chef John Shields was sous chef at Charlie Trotter's then opened Alinea with Grant Achatz as his sous chef for two years before moving to Chilhowee. Chef Karen Urie worked at Tru then later moved to Charlie Trotter's as its Head Pastry Chef for five years...before moving to Chilhowee.
http://www.townhouse..... Profiles.pdf

At the Town House Grill they are nightly serving absolute blow out dinners among the best in America: http://townhouseblog.blogspot.com/

Several weeks ago, en route to Asheville, we stopped in Chilhowee for dinner.

It is 296 miles from Reston to the Chilhowee turnoff of I 81. Within seconds of exiting the Interstate there is a huge junk yard covering several acres on the right side of the road, only a hundred yards from the town's several block long Main Street where the Town House Grill sits a few doors down. Gas stations, a convenience store or two and an aging Super Market frame the intersection along with a vacant store front. We also passed several locals chewing and spitting tobacco walking down the street near where we parked. Behind the restaurant we expected to find a garden or a stream or, at least a cornfield. There was a parking lot. With chipped cement.

I should also note that Bristol, VA/TN is 29 miles down the road while Blacksburg is an hour or so north. Neither Bristol nor Johnson City seemed to us as the type of sophisticated metropolitan area that would support the kind of creativity that graduates of Trotter's and Alinea's may have fostered. We also weren't quite certain how they sourced most of their foodstuffs. Fed Ex? This was not an area similar to Washington where The Inn sourced locally.

All the more reason to have dinner there.

They were closed. On Monday. (No wonder no one had answered the phone when I called for a reservation-they are only open 5-9 Tuesday to Saturday.)

We looked in the windows and I took pictures. A lot of photos. The interior of the restaurant seemed to match the town. Plain, brown and aging.

There has got to be a story here. A REAL story. I am also absolutely obsessed with returning to Chilhowee to have dinner here. "One whose opinion I trust," Estufarian from Chowhound, has been here. He has eaten his way around Europe and the U. S. as well as Trotter's, Tru and Alinea. He insists that he and his wife thought this is one of the five best restaurants in North America right now.

In Chilhowee, VA.

I don't know how much longer this couple will be there but I suspect I shouldn't wait too long to find out. Six hundred miles round trip for a dinner that may be a real memory...and a story for the nursing home. True cutting edge cuisine: Chicago, Manhattan and Chilhowee.

Addendum: shouldn't someone in the industry in D. C. be trying to talk this couple into moving here? To hell with Gordon Ramsay, they may be able to fill Maestro...



#2 Marty L.

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Posted 02 December 2008 - 06:48 AM

I'm sorry you were there on a Monday, Joe. It's really quite an amazing place. John Shields and Karen Urie, and the local owners, are, indeed, attempting something fairly absurd -- to create a world-class, experimental restaurant that is not in the vicinity of any major (or minor) metropolitan area. Last June, for $45 or so, I had one of the best meals of my life there -- nominally five courses, but it turned out to be closer to nine or ten distinct bits of heaven. It is, indeed, an oasis in an area where previously Wendy's was (no joke) the best restaurant around for fifty miles or so. (Ever been to Ridgewood Barbeque in Bluff City, TN, Joe? --that's the closest great meal.) The photos say it all. John and Karen are very much the students of Trotter and Achatz. They take great pride in -- have a blast with -- the elaborate, intricate creations, the "you can't possibly combine those disparate things" disbelief of their clientele. They have extraordinary senses of taste, and abilities to tease out combos that one could not have imagined but that somehow work brilliantly (OK, about 80% of the time, anyway -- not bad odds at these prices).

Truth be told, although it can be breathtaking, and shockingly delicious, it can also be too much at times. It almost overwhelms the diner, there's just so much going on. Almost not enough time to savor the novelty of any particular dish. I think that, as they become more self-assured, they will resist the impulse to be quite so bold, they'll simplify somewhat, in which case (I predict) their cooking will only improve: The wild experimentation might lead to a distilled purity that could be even better. Or not -- who knows? They could go in an infinite number of directions; they certainly aren't lacking for skills, imagination and inspiration.

It's something to behold.

Can it survive in Chilhowie? One would think not. But the owners themselves don't seem to need to turn a profit on this particular experiment, and they brought John and Karen there for the best reason of all: because they themselves wanted to be able to enjoy inspiring food in their own neighborhood.

Of course it seems obvious that J&K might end up in DC, or back in Chicago, or elsewhere -- in which case their spectacular meals will cost three times what they do in Chilhowie.

In the meantime, make sure not to travel to Asheville on a Sunday or Monday.

This is the most intriguing, mysterious restaurant in America: Chef John Shields was sous chef at Charlie Trotter's then opened Alinea with Grant Achatz as his sous chef for two years before moving to Chilhowee. Chef Karen Urie worked at Tru then later moved to Charlie Trotter's as its Head Pastry Chef for five years...before moving to Chilhowee.
http://www.townhouse..... Profiles.pdf

At the Town House Grill they are nightly serving absolute blow out dinners among the best in America: http://townhouseblog.blogspot.com/

Several weeks ago, en route to Asheville, we stopped in Chilhowee for dinner.

It is 296 miles from Reston to the Chilhowee turnoff of I 81. Within seconds of exiting the Interstate there is a huge junk yard on the right side of the road, only a couple of blocks from the town's several block long Main Street where the Town House Grill sits several doors down. Gas stations, a convenience store or two and an aging Super Market frame the intersection along with a vacant store front or two. We also passed several locals chewing and spitting tobacco walking down the street near where we parked.

Behind the restaurant we expected to find a garden or a stream or, at least a cornfield. There was a parking lot. With chipped cement.

I should also note that Bristol, VA/TN is 29 miles down the road while Blacksburg is an hour or so north. Neither Bristol nor Johnson City seemed to us as the type of sophisticated metropolitan area that would support the kind of creativity that graduates of Trotter's and Alinea's may have fostered. We also weren't quite certain how they sourced most of their foodstuffs. Fed Ex? This was not an area similar to Washington where The Inn sourced locally.

All the more reason to have dinner there.

They were closed. On Monday. (No wonder no one had answered the phone when I called for a reservation-they are only open 5-9 Tuesday to Saturday.)

We looked in the windows and I took pictures. A lot of photos. The interior of the restaurant seemed to match the town.

There has got to be a story here. A REAL story. I am also absolutely obsessed with returning to Chilhowee to have dinner here. "One whose opinion I trust," Estufarian from Chowhound, has been here. He has eaten his way around Europe and the U. S. as well as Trotter's, Tru and Alinea. He insists that he and his wife thought this is one of the five best restaurants in North America right now.

In Chilhowee, VA.

I don't know how much longer this couple will be there but I suspect I shouldn't wait too long to find out. Six hundred miles round trip for a dinner that may be a real memory...and a story for the nursing home.

Addendum: shouldn't someone in the industry in D. C. be trying to talk this couple into moving here? To hell with Gordon Ramsay, they may be able to fill Maestro...



#3 Al Dente

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Posted 02 December 2008 - 07:55 AM

There is some seriously xxx-rated foodie porn on that blog.

This was not on my radar at all. WTF? You people disappoint me-- someone's been laying down on the job. This joint has been open for over 5 years!

Michael Ollinger

 

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#4 ferment everything

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Posted 02 December 2008 - 09:06 AM

In case anybody else tried to googlemaps it, it's spelled "Chilhowie"

Me: T, t
Mission Gastroclub: T, t


#5 Marty L.

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Posted 02 December 2008 - 09:18 AM

You people disappoint me-- someone's been laying down on the job. This joint has been open for over 5 years!


Shields and Urie were just brought on board in the past year, thereby radically altering the nature of the place.

#6 Pat

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Posted 02 December 2008 - 09:22 AM

I wish I had known about this. I stayed not too far from there on a Friday night in October. It would have far surpassed the whatever it was that I got at Ruby Tuesdays :lol:

#7 mtpleasanteater

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Posted 02 December 2008 - 10:14 AM

I've seen a couple people call this "one of the best restaurants in America" now and I have a tentative plan to go in the spring, hopefully hitting McCrady's on the same trip. I'll definitely post about my meal when I go. There are a few reports about it on Chowhound.

#8 Waitman

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Posted 02 December 2008 - 10:34 AM

At last -- a decent meal between DC and Bonnaroo. Looks like I may have to pack a jacket as well as tie-dye if I make it down next year.

"Don't go braggin' about how cool and clean your kitchen is. 'Caus if your kitchen's so cool and clean, ain't nothin' cookin'!"

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#9 Joe H

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Posted 02 December 2008 - 02:03 PM

Local is genuinely excellent in Asheville, also.

#10 Joe H

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Posted 02 December 2008 - 02:21 PM

Well, now that over 300 people have read both of these threads a bit more about my obsession with this place. This blog includes photographs as well as details of their experience at the Town House Grill:

http://newmountainco...town-house.html

This is excerpted from Estufarian's lengthy report on a recent trip of he and his wife nearby on Chowhound. I should also note that Estufarian lives in the Toronto area and thought the trip to Chilhowie was "worth a special trip":

"So on to Chilhowie its been on the radar for a few months now, although still very few reviews. A great blog and excellent pedigree but could the Town House Grill deliver? And Mapquest doesnt seem to know where it is either, although its easily visible, so easy to find. Certainly an obscure location, but that makes it possible for us to reserve for a Saturday night with only a couple of days notice.
So, lets start with the bottom line. This is a serious restaurant which fully deserves the reputation it is building. In my view it most closely resembles the old Trio when Grant Achatz was there. In terms of current restaurants, I think it resembles a cross between
wd-50 (currently my favourite restaurant in North America) and Manresa. Certainly modern techniques are being used in the kitchen, but only to prepare foods that respond to the treatment. There are no gimmicks such as trapezes, pillows, or smoking plates to be seen in the dining room, although you will find freeze-dried ingredients and slow cooked low temperature dishes. And most dishes dont require instructions on how to eat them (one dish we were advised to ensure that all ingredients were included in each bite). The easiest way to see the results is on their own blog:
http://townhouseblog.blogspot.com/
(no youre not going to get all those dishes but can expect some).
The menu is relatively short a choice of a few tasting menus with 3-7 courses, but realistically anyone making a pilgrimage is going to choose the 7-course (for $75). We asked if the chef(s) would consider giving each of us different dishes, where feasible, and received a counter-offer of a special10-course menu for $100 and they would try and serve a few still experimental dishes. We ended up with 11 courses (as we reached the end of the savoury courses we were asked if we were full yet and we said we could manage an additional course). We also asked for the optional wine accompaniments and the pours were sufficiently generous that we started skipping some wines part way through. Incidentally, the wine list is extremely reasonable for a restaurant of this quality. Out of 150-200 wines about 25% were under $50 and 80% were under $100. And their reserve list (about 60 wines - more expensive) still had about 25% under $100.
The overriding impression was of the almost-perfect balance of textures within each dish (flavours were pretty good too). If I have a criticism, it was that the aromatics didnt seem to reach the heights that the appearance and textures certainly reached. But overall this was an exemplary meal probably in my top 5 meals in North America and second best this year (after wd-50). With about 15 different dishes (and several amuses) Im not planning to write a book about this meal. And as dishes are seasonal (ingredients sourced from the owners garden, local suppliers and foraging, plus the technical ingredients via FedEx), a detailed description may not be particularly helpful. Lets just say, in Michelin terms, Worth a special trip."
____________________________

Thanks also to Marty L. and several others who have helped start the cult legend of John and Karen and their investment in time, labor and creativity in Chilhowie.

#11 tjsteak

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Posted 02 December 2008 - 02:47 PM

:lol:
I came across a couple of other reviews researching; this place really looks amazing...

http://www.foodandbe...rill-redux.html
http://www.foodandbe...ouse-grill.html
Did you see this menu: PDF MENU wow...

#12 Beto

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Posted 03 December 2008 - 12:15 AM

This has me totally intrigued. I must've passed by Chilhowie at least 10 times since they've been open, since my family is in TN. Without a doubt, I'm going to schedule my next trip around a meal there.

Who's bankrolling this venture? They can't possibly be turning a profit. (I don't mean that in a negative way. I'm just flabbergasted at the thought of a place like this in the middle of nowhere.)

#13 mdt

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Posted 03 December 2008 - 07:27 AM

This has me totally intrigued. I must've passed by Chilhowie at least 10 times since they've been open, since my family it in TN. Without a doubt, I'm going to schedule my next trip around a meal there.

Who's bankrolling this venture? They can't possibly be turning a profit. (I don't mean that in a negative way. I'm just flabbergasted at the thought of a place like this in the middle of nowhere.)

Which makes one wonder how long it will actually last.

#14 Joe H

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Posted 03 December 2008 - 02:25 PM

Which makes one wonder how long it will actually last.

"I don't know how much longer this couple will be there but I suspect I shouldn't wait too long to find out. Six hundred miles round trip for a dinner that may be a real memory...and a story for the nursing home. True cutting edge cuisine: Chicago, Manhattan and Chilhowie.

Addendum: shouldn't someone in the industry in D. C. be trying to talk this couple into moving here? To hell with Gordon Ramsay, they may be able to fill Maestro..."

#15 TMFIII

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Posted 16 December 2008 - 01:30 PM

HOLY CRAP!!!!

I just found these posts. I grew up in Saltville, which is about eight miles up 107 from Chilhowie! My mother still lives there and that's where I'll be spending the holidays. I'm hella stoked to give this place a go. In fact, time to call Mom about reservations . . . .

Cheers!
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#16 pkoons

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Posted 17 December 2008 - 05:28 PM

I'm going next Friday 12/26 for a little post-Christmas dinner. I am taking some relatively unadventurous eaters from the family so I'm a little nervous, but the flavor combinations of some of these dishes sound amazing. I can't wait!!!

#17 demandalicious

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Posted 18 December 2008 - 10:29 AM

Even though I've lived in this area for more than a decade, I don't know much about Virginia - and so, I didn't realize that Chilhowie is 4+ hours away from DC until I started reading these reviews. Yikes! That is definitely out of my "radius". And with such reasonably-priced wine pairings, it requires an overnight stay, for sure. Basic Google searches turned up next to nothing with regard to lodging in that area, so I took advantage of the "concierge service" listed on their website. If you are like me, and are looking to make a weekend of your trip to Chilhowie, I recommend taking advantage of this service. The gentleman that I spoke with was named Jessie (sp?) and he was extremely knowledgeable not only about lodging but also ready to answer any questions about the menu.

#18 ol_ironstomach

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Posted 22 December 2008 - 11:44 PM

Even though I've lived in this area for more than a decade, I don't know much about Virginia - and so, I didn't realize that Chilhowie is 4+ hours away from DC until I started reading these reviews. Yikes!

People are often surprised to hear that due to its, ah, innovative shape, the distant southwestern corner of Virginia is as far away from DC as Boston is. Tuck that factoid away in your pocket for the next time someone complains that the mid-Atlantic states are "small".

Can't wait to see what TMFIII will have to say about this place...

Dave Hsu
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#19 Joe H

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 11:15 AM

To all or any who may go to this restaurant: please post your thoughts on here about your experience. Also, any comparison to one of our best restaurants.

For the record I've driven from D. C. to New Haven and back for pizza in the same day. Twice. I should have spent the night, though. I could have stopped in Trenton on the way back.

#20 mtpleasanteater

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 11:47 AM

People are often surprised to hear that due to its, ah, innovative shape, the distant southwestern corner of Virginia is as far away from DC as Boston is.


Boston is GOOD deal farther than this restaurant it. NYC is a better comparison.

Joe - I am going to try to talk my Father into driving down there after the New Year & will definitely post about it. If that fails I will go on my Spring break for sure.

#21 johnb

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 09:23 PM

Boston is GOOD deal farther than this restaurant it. NYC is a better comparison.

Not exactly. Having driven that way many many times en route to NC I am somewhat familiar with it. To be precise, from DC Chilhowie is just about 340 miles, equal to driving to Hartford, Conn., well more than NYC (and a bit further than driving to New Haven) but not quite as far as Boston, which would add another 100 miles or so. But to give iron stomach his due, the far southwest corner of VA is quite a bit further than Chilhowie, so the original Boston comment was essentially accurate, even if culinarily irrelevant.

More importantly it is about 200 miles from me. So I'm thinking about it. For the moment still recovering from the kitchen loft table at Restaurant Charlie in LV last month (more on that later), but I'm hoping to get to it soon.

#22 Spiral Stairs

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 09:31 PM

Boston is GOOD deal farther than this restaurant it. NYC is a better comparison....

To be clear, ol_iron said that the "distant southwestern" corner of VA is as far away as Boston, not that this restaurant is. By my rough Google Maps calculation, the trip from DC to the far southwestern corner of VA is, indeed, about 20 miles longer than the trip to Boston.

Carry on...

ETA: Johnb made same point faster. Curses!
Lisa Simpson: What's inside of you?
Nelson Muntz: I dunno. Guts...Black stuff... And about fifty Slim Jims.

#23 Waitman

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 10:01 PM

I am amused because I feel as though this thread is going to set a record for most posts without anybody actually eating in the restaurant.

According to mapquest -- which I consulted on behalf of a friend who's visiting in-laws near Lynchburg and needs a decent place to eat -- it's roughly five and one-half hours or so to this joint from DC which, based on my experience, would put you just north of Joe H's fvorite seat at Pepe's, in New Haven, were you headed north.

"Don't go braggin' about how cool and clean your kitchen is. 'Caus if your kitchen's so cool and clean, ain't nothin' cookin'!"

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#24 treznor

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Posted 23 December 2008 - 11:45 PM

More importantly it is about 200 miles from me. So I'm thinking about it. For the moment still recovering from the kitchen loft table at Restaurant Charlie in LV last month (more on that later), but I'm hoping to get to it soon.

Only 160 miles from me in Hickory, NC :-) And more to the point, only 70 miles from my family's mountain house in Hillsville, VA :-) We're definitely planning on getting up there soon.

Mike Felts


#25 Pat

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Posted 24 December 2008 - 10:01 AM

I am amused because I feel as though this thread is going to set a record for most posts without anybody actually eating in the restaurant.

According to mapquest -- which I consulted on behalf of a friend who's visiting in-laws near Lynchburg and needs a decent place to eat -- it's roughly five and one-half hours or so to this joint from DC which, based on my experience, would put you just north of Joe H's fvorite seat at Pepe's, in New Haven, were you headed north.

I'm really kicking myself that I didn't know about this place when I passed through there. I doubt I'll be passing by any time in the foreseeable future. To me, it seems like a pretty long haul for a meal, though I don't have Joe's devotion :D. I must say, though, that the area didn't seem as far from DC near the end of my 5800 mile drive as it did at the beginning. The last night of my trip, when I checked into a hotel maybe 30 miles or so north of Chilhowie and gave whatever information indicating that I lived in DC, the desk clerk asked: "What brings you to our little corner of Virginia?" :P.

#26 alexr

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Posted 25 December 2008 - 12:49 AM

I have done the drive from D.C. three times (and am doing it again on New Years Eve) and each meal has been truly spectacular. In terms of comparisons to D.C. restaurants, I would describe it as a hybrid between Minibar (except with better execution and flavors) and Restaurant Eve. Town House utilizes progressive techniques and the food is very modern but it remains approachable and is not simply a showcase of the techniques themselves . . . much like Schwa in Chicago. Those involved have truly created something special, and I will definitely report on my NYE meal next week.

#27 alexr

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Posted 01 January 2009 - 04:48 PM

I had a great 9 course New Years Eve dinner at Town House last night.

Marinated Oyster, osetra caviar, sorrel, jalapeno, natural juices: a light start to the meal which heightened the senses. The jalapeno flavor was there but without any heat.

King Crab on top of a Kaffir lime and grapefruit gelee with a side of coconut foam, curry, tamarind and a muscavado sugar crisp: just about a perfect dish. Flavorful and refreshing. Reminds me of Thailand.

Spiced Lobster & Its Gelee, carrot, mace infused pineapple, saffron, long peppercorn.

Hot Chestnut, Cold Quince: Black truffle puree, bacon ice cream, celery and celery foam served in a martini glass type serving dish. It was insanely good and one of the two or three best things I have ever had.

Poached Squab Breast with Thai basil, golden egg of foie gras and a root beer consume. The golden egg has a hard shell that when cracked oozes with a sweet, butter tasting foie gras jam. The squab is super tender. This is a delicious, restrained dish.

Wagyu Beef, bulgur, snail caviar, cauliflower, bone marrow, parsley: A lot of things were going on in this dish; I cannot remember what they were. The snail caviar added a nice earthy component. The beef was excellent. This was really, really good.

Gorgonzola Custard, cranberry ice cream, beet meringue, buddha's hand, walnut: Again, a lot going on but it was absolutely delicious. The beet meringue had a dry, spongy texture which worked well. The buddha's hand had an incredible, sweet flavor.

Textures of Milk, nutmeg and honey crickle: the flavor of a burnt marshmallow. A lot of cool textures including a milk crisp. One of the best desserts I've ever had, although not as good as the chocolate pudding, curly fries and mustard seed dessert I had at Town House 6 or 7 months ago.

Pumpernickel, chocolate, seckel pear, sangria: Sweet, rich and a great way to end 2008.

The wine pairings were also spot-on and even included a couple alternative beer pairings.

This is the best restaurant in Virginia, one of the best on the east coast and certainly deserves national recognition.

#28 TMFIII

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Posted 05 January 2009 - 11:21 AM

People are often surprised to hear that due to its, ah, innovative shape, the distant southwestern corner of Virginia is as far away from DC as Boston is. Tuck that factoid away in your pocket for the next time someone complains that the mid-Atlantic states are "small".

Can't wait to see what TMFIII will have to say about this place...

I'll have my report up soon, with pictures!!! Now that the holidays are officially behind me I can get to more important stuff. :P I will say that my meal at Town House was superb!

Cheers!
My rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them. -Winston Churchill

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#29 ferment everything

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Posted 05 January 2009 - 11:30 AM

The wine pairings were also spot-on and even included a couple alternative beer pairings.

You remember what the beer pairings were?

Me: T, t
Mission Gastroclub: T, t


#30 TMFIII

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Posted 05 January 2009 - 11:36 AM

I was paired a Starr Hill Lager (or it could have been an Ale) with the Candied Yam-Benton bacon-Golden Char Roe course. The dish had black sesame that complemented the Starr Hill really nicely.
My rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them. -Winston Churchill

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#31 alexr

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Posted 05 January 2009 - 12:11 PM

A shot of Westmalle dubbel before the Pumpernickel dessert to bring out the sweetness. I don't remember the other. My friend put up pics of his meal the Saturday before and our NYE at http://www.foodandbe...ilhowie-va.html. Some of the pics are better than others.

#32 TMFIII

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Posted 12 January 2009 - 04:52 PM

I've finally written up my visit to Town House. It was starting to get long so I decided to write a post about it on Scofflaw's Den. Here is the write-up.

Cheers!
My rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them. -Winston Churchill

Co-Host: The Scofflaw's Den

#33 Joe H

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Posted 12 January 2009 - 06:59 PM

Absolute pleasure to read! Thanks for sharing.

#34 alexr

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Posted 04 March 2009 - 11:35 AM

So, I got an email yesterday from Town House saying that Sean Brock of McCrady's is doing a guest chef dinner there on April 23rd. That seems like a must.

#35 ol_ironstomach

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 12:57 AM

It's hard to hide the delight of discovering that a chef really "gets it" through-and-through, especially when there's so much talent around these days and yet between the outstanding moments you usually run into a few dishes that may betray a weakness here or there. I've certainly had many a meal that got off to a promising start, only to lose some of its shine from inconsistency or a baffling dish or two. Bleeding edge cuisine is especially fraught with pitfalls. Both Manresa and WD50 come to mind: consummate craftsmanship, but some unsteady choices among the knockouts.

That's what makes Town House an even bigger surprise. I didn't arrive early enough for there to be sufficient time to take the nine-course dinner I'd hoped to, but even from the four-course meal (with several "extras") the signs were unmistakeable. Chefs John Shields and Karen Urie "get it", and in spades. Their work is clearly inspired by the new Catalan cuisine movement, but with thoughtful nods to a number of other great food cultures.

Let's start with the "official" dishes comprising my meal. I forgot to ask for a copy of the menu to keep, so some of these names may not be correct...I've gleaned what I could from the online menu and their blog. Exhibit A: "spring pea and oyster soup"
TH_springpea_sm.jpg
I'm going to be blunt. This modest starter dish is a microcosm of Town House's awesomeness. There's a range of texture from the snap of the peas to the soft and silky quenelle of smoked salmon ice cream to the consomme beneath. A healthy dose of really perky fresh wasabi lurks under the left side. Despite their top billing, the oysters play an ensemble role here. There's a range of temperatures too, from just-warm to ice cold. No two spoonfuls are alike - different flower and herb garnishes tend to sneak into each bite. The presence of a single basil bolt cannot be an aesthetic accident...only in Spain have I seen it used this way for its intensity of flavor.

Maybe it was an accident. Exhibit B, my vegetable course: "white asparagus"
TH_whasp_sm.jpg
Now, I liked the classic and minimally adorned white asparagus that Krinn used to do at 2941, arranged into a cylinder and tied off with a chive. But now look at this frickin' rockstar. You can see some choice pieces in there, but it's playing in this insane melange of foams and sauces and "broken mayonnaise". But what kicked this one up again was the slight sweetness imparted by the one caramelized sauce, and by the decorations. That piece up top isn't spun sugar, it's spun honey, and the honey flavor made a difference. Again, the arrangement guaranteed that no two bites were identical.

Main dish time. Exhibit C: lamb
TH_lamb_sm.jpg
Glass artist Josh Simpson renders tiny oceanscapes and worlds with about the same level of detail. The reddish meat is a piece of lamb shoulder that's been cooked sous vide for three hours before being assembled into this complex dish. Some of the pieces then seem to have been further dusted and seared or broiled to produce a crisp surface texture. You can also see a half-dozen or so grains being used, although the main contributor is bulgur wheat.

What you cannot see is that the palate weight on all of these dishes was remarkably restrained. It would have been too easy to play up the fat, to beat you senseless with pure unctuousness, but these dishes all had bold flavors AND great balance. I don't know how long each one lingers in development before making it to the menu, but none of these seemed like a rough draft.

Finally, for dessert I chose the "yeast sponge cake"
TH_dessert_sm.jpg
Some serious temperature and texture variations were at work here: creamy, crumbly, waxy, silky... I was puzzled by the smoked flavor every time I took a bit of the sponge cake, almost reminiscent of bonito flakes, and then I remembered that Benton's bacon makes an appearance in this dessert. It's unconventional, and by turns sweet and savory.

There were other dishes as well, notably a piece of medium-rare hamachi topped with fresh uni and strips of kombu, and "tastes of spring" - tiny cylinders of shaved pickled(?) spring vegetables standing in a vegetable consomme. Their blog refers to it as "chilled vegetable minestrone" but I thought it was more like a deconstructed gazpacho, minus the tomato. I thought for a moment that the hamachi dish suffered a misstep as the sliver of uni was virtually lost under the flavor of the fish...until I took a sip of my riesling, which focused the uni into sharp relief. Another of those aforementioned nods was the parting gift - the flavors of Umbria condensed into a bittersweet chocolate truffle with olive oil and lemon zest.

Of course, nobody is 100% perfect. I'll dink them on calling their (tasty) roll a ciabatta. It's in the shape of a small ciabatta, but lacks the crisp crust of a proper ciabatta, and could use a more open hole structure. Otherwise, there was a notable absence of missteps. My four course meal turned out to be eight; they're happy to do whatever number strikes your fancy, arranged in advance. One lucky diner has requested a 20-course blowout next week.

Joe H gets my thanks for putting this on our collective radar. Town House is worthy of your serious attention, folks. The creativity level is high without falling into the "hey isn't this technique neat?" trap. The closest analogs to this cuisine in the DC area right now would be Komi, Teatro Goldoni, Volt, and perhaps one or two of Jos Andres' joints, and right now Town House is playing at a higher level of complexity than any of them. It's good enough to be in Barcelona, and I doubt if there are more than 50 potential customers people living within two hours of their front door who would understand what that means. Whereas now I can't imagine a drive down the lower half of Virginia's I-81 that didn't include a visit.

Dave Hsu
--------"Cuisine represents a knife edge that separates attractive stimulation from death."--- Art Ayers


#36 Joe H

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 12:29 PM

"I don't know how much longer this couple will be there but I suspect I shouldn't wait too long to find out. Six hundred miles round trip for a dinner that may be a real memory...and a story for the nursing home. True cutting edge cuisine: Chicago, Manhattan and Chilhowie.

Addendum: shouldn't someone in the industry in D. C. be trying to talk this couple into moving here? To hell with Gordon Ramsay, they may be able to fill Maestro..."

Thank you, Ol_ironstomach! There are far too many incredible reports on this couple that there must be someone in the D. C. area taking a serious look at trying to convince them to move here. Isn't there?

#37 Waitman

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 01:45 PM

The closest analogs to this cuisine in the DC area right now would be Komi, Teatro Goldoni, Volt, and perhaps one or two of Jos Andres' joints, and right now Town House is playing at a higher level of complexity than any of them. It's good enough to be in Barcelona, and I doubt if there are more than 50 potential customers people living within two hours of their front door who would understand what that means. Whereas now I can't imagine a drive down the lower half of Virginia's I-81 that didn't include a visit.

My encounters with attempts to put Barcelona on a plate have left me less rapturous than others -- I've had some excellent stuff, but I find can get a little cerebral for my taste, and there is, as they say, a fine line between clever and stupid.

Nonetheless, in accord with O-I's observation, the instant I decided to drive to Bonnaroo, I knew I was going to force my friends to join me at Town House. I guess I'll be packing -- I don't know, fine linen shirt and a pair of good shoes? -- along with the tie-dyes and sandles.

It is my fervent hope that it will live up to the worst stereotype of wank cuisine and that I can thoroughly trash it upon returning, thus launching bitter and prolonged food fight. :D

"Don't go braggin' about how cool and clean your kitchen is. 'Caus if your kitchen's so cool and clean, ain't nothin' cookin'!"

-- Jesse Jackson


#38 Marty L.

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 05:48 PM

As I suggested somewhere way up-thread, I think you'll likely find something to trash, if only because their ambition and unorthodoxy is is so unbounded -- but I'm also confident you'll find much to praise.

And yes, linen shirt is plenty -- it's a fairly casual place.


My encounters with attempts to put Barcelona on a plate have left me less rapturous than others -- I've had some excellent stuff, but I find can get a little cerebral for my taste, and there is, as they say, a fine line between clever and stupid.

Nonetheless, in accord with O-I's observation, the instant I decided to drive to Bonnaroo, I knew I was going to force my friends to join me at Town House. I guess I'll be packing -- I don't know, fine linen shirt and a pair of good shoes? -- along with the tie-dyes and sandles.

It is my fervent hope that it will live up to the worst stereotype of wank cuisine and that I can thoroughly trash it upon returning, thus launching bitter and prolonged food fight. :D



#39 Al Dente

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 08:31 PM

Nonetheless, in accord with O-I's observation, the instant I decided to drive to Bonnaroo, I knew I was going to force my friends to join me at Town House. I guess I'll be packing -- I don't know, fine linen shirt and a pair of good shoes? -- along with the tie-dyes and sandles.

Be sure to dine out on the WAY BACK from the festival after acquiring Hunter S. Thompson-esque quantities and varieties of mind altering substances which you'll ingest in the parking lot as a sort of amuse.

Michael Ollinger

 

“The United States of America is awesome. We are awesome. But we’ve had this discussion. We’ve closed the book on it. The reason they want the discussion is not to show how awesome we are. It’s to show us how we’re not awesome.”  --Awesome words of wisdom from Faux News's Andrea Tantaros.

#40 Waitman

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 08:56 PM

Be sure to dine out on the WAY BACK from the festival after acquiring Hunter S. Thompson-esque quantities and varieties of mind altering substances which you'll ingest in the parking lot as a sort of amuse.

Yes -- 600 miles of greasy chain food to munch out on, once you get past the cops waiting by the entrance ramp! Fortunatley, being 30 years older than everyone else at the festival is almost as good as a disguise. And the blue blazer...

"Don't go braggin' about how cool and clean your kitchen is. 'Caus if your kitchen's so cool and clean, ain't nothin' cookin'!"

-- Jesse Jackson


#41 Heather

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Posted 08 June 2009 - 08:29 AM

As I suggested somewhere way up-thread, I think you'll likely find something to trash, if only because their ambition and unorthodoxy is is so unbounded -- but I'm also confident you'll find much to praise.

And yes, linen shirt is plenty -- it's a fairly casual place.

How casual is "fairly casual?" Wondering whether to throw a dress in my bag...

#42 ol_ironstomach

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Posted 08 June 2009 - 10:14 AM

How casual is "fairly casual?" Wondering whether to throw a dress in my bag...

How about meet-a-friend-for-drinks casual? I wouldn't wear a sweatshirt here, but you don't really need to aim for dress casual. Here's an interior view:
TH_interior_sm.jpg

Dave Hsu
--------"Cuisine represents a knife edge that separates attractive stimulation from death."--- Art Ayers


#43 Waitman

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Posted 15 June 2009 - 10:16 PM

Had a great time but definitely hit or miss in both food (they seem to have a way with fish, but I hope whoever invented Sous Vide spends eternity in Hell at exactly 156 degrees) and service (delightful one-man floor show but, after eight hours on the road, leaving us to swill wine for hours on end between courses tends to result in loudish -- if not loutish -- behavior). I'd suggest that they've a ways to go before they can be metioned in the same breath as a dozen DC restaurants. On the other hand, they're trying hard and they're almost certainly the best restaurant for about a 400 mile stretch of I-81 between Front Royal and Knoxville.

More, later.

"Don't go braggin' about how cool and clean your kitchen is. 'Caus if your kitchen's so cool and clean, ain't nothin' cookin'!"

-- Jesse Jackson


#44 Joe H

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Posted 16 June 2009 - 04:06 PM

Our anniversary is July 7th. This afternoon I called the Town House Grill to make a reservation after we decided that my obsession was so focused that it would only be appropriate that we drive the 600 miles roundtrip and celebrate there.

They are closed essentially the first three weeks of July.

Somehow, some way, some day I will eat there.

#45 sheldman

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Posted 16 June 2009 - 08:42 PM

Our anniversary is July 7th. This afternoon I called the Town House Grill to make a reservation after we decided that my obsession was so focused that it would only be appropriate that we drive the 600 miles roundtrip and celebrate there.

They are closed essentially the first three weeks of July.

Somehow, some way, some day I will eat there.

I'm afraid you might have a harder time now that the NYT is on the case.
NYT article

#46 Joe H

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Posted 16 June 2009 - 11:34 PM

I'm afraid you might have a harder time now that the NYT is on the case.
NYT article

A lot of people read this board. If this thread and several other posts on boards such as CH have helped then I am extremely happy for them. To the best of my knowledge "Estufarian's" post on CH of October 11th of last year is the first significant recognition of this couple's excellence. http://chowhound.cho...m/topics/562498 Estufarian and his wife flew from Toronto to Carolina and incorporated this as the primary focus of their trip because of what they had heard about it. I do not believe there is another post on a major board anywhere about this restaurant. I started this particular thread after my wife and I stopped there to walk in for dinner in the last week of October-two weeks after Estufarian's visit-and they were closed. Again, I wish them the absolute best. Again, isn't there someone in the industry in the D. C. area that can lure them up here?

And, does anyone else think that John Shields looks like Fabio in the New York Times photo?

#47 Beto

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Posted 17 June 2009 - 11:57 AM

Again, isn't there someone in the industry in the D. C. area that can lure them up here?

According to the article, "in the middle of nowhere" is exactly where they want to be. From the looks of it, the owners are willing to let the restaurant run in the red, such is their passion for food. If I were a chef given carte blanche to be as creative as I wanted to be, budget be damned, why would I want to leave that gig?

#48 Waitman

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Posted 18 June 2009 - 12:26 PM

[I'm hoping that Heather, who stole the menu but hasn't been able to pass it along, and Mrs. B, who forbade me from taking notes with my phone, will fill in some of the blanks and help my memory where I might have got things wrong.]

After 60 years of interstate highway bypasses, manufacturing job loss, farm consolidation, manufacturing efficiencies and the like, the odds of stumbling across a small town with enough money in its pockets to maintain any semblance of charm the way you might in France or Italy -- have become very long, especially in Appalachia. Still, it's something of a surprise what hellhole Chilhowie ("Valley of Many Deer") seems to be. You kind of expect that the Town House would be on a nice street with a couple of old frame houses, some big-ass elm trees, and maybe an antique shop or two. But its block of Main Street has largely been abandoned, and behind it lies a parking lot vastly larger than needed for the restaurant, the train tracks, and a McD's. The route into town save for a nice, though modern, church is lined with the kind of businesses that operate from corrugated aluminum buildings and transport their wares on faded pickups. Provence it ain't.

So, it's bit of a shock to turn out of the rain into a comfortingly-colored room with a "water treatment" and somebody like Arcade Fire on the sound system: five large-ish, loud-ish Bonnaroo-bound road-trippers almost an hour late joining two tables of what appear to be local gentry or maybe Richmond bankers and their wives out for a tour of the Blue Ridge and a couple of rounds of golf. Immediately concerned by the low turnout, we started ordering oceans of wine in hopes stimulating the local economy (little did we know that the Times was doing its part already and that soon both locals and the Broo Crew alike will have to stand in line behind blas New Yorkers talking about how much better Wylie does it) by keeping the restaurant afloat.

(The wine list, by the way, offers a good spread of wine, from pretty cheap to pretty expensive and from Virginia to everywhere else. Not having taken notes, I'll just say I enjoyed the 5 or 6 bottles we ran through, without being blown away by anything save an impressively broad-shouldered Albarino, and that the whites are served damn cold [local preference?], so keep the ice buckets at bay).

The dining room was run by Charlie, a tolerant and talented host and sommelier. I asked after Kyra (Bishop), whom I took to be the hostess during a couple of extremely pleasant phone conversations, but who turned out to be with her husband Tom an owner and who was out that night, preparing to marry off her son the following Saturday. For the most part, we put ourselves in Charlie's hands and waited to see what came out.

And waited. If there was one annoying thing about the experience it was that during the first part of the meal, timing was agonizingly slow while courses were small enough that you felt hungrier by the time the next course arrived than you'd felt before the previous course was served.

I direct your attention to slide five of the New York Timesslide show for a picture of our first course, a bright beginning for both eye and palate to the meal as well as one emphasizing taste over technique. There's a lot less playing with the food going on here than I'd been led to believe, which is fine with me. I have a limited tolerance for whimsy, especially self-conscious whimsy, but the kitchen tricks here all seemed to work out fine.

In fact, two of my favorite dishes were a bit tricked out. One was a fish roe (which fish, I forget, but larg-ish eggs with a pronounced fishy flavor, still in their gooey fish-uterus slime) tossed with pineapple and topped with avocado that had been frozen in liquid nitrogen [a la the banana in slide 9] and blended into a powder. The dish arrived in a glass with a birdbath top, mist rising impressively from the avocado, which brought an odd crunch to the whole vaguely Caribbean assemblage. Oysters in a cucumber foam were delightful, as well. Indeed, with the fish Mrs. B had for the entrees fish arrive via FedEx, we discovered an assertive roulade of some sort, I would have been tempted to say that the sea creatures were the strongest part of the meal, but then I remember the peaky-toe crab, which was bland enough that I only remember it because a variant of it is in slide 3.

The one dish that everybody wanted more of was strange combination of mango [in place of the cantaloupe, in slide 6, and I don't recall rice, but the windowpane garnish was there], peanut butter, tamarind, ginger and so on that tasted like a candy bar from a health food store, but in a good way. The one thing I wanted less of was my entre, a piece of lamb that had been sous-vided into submission. It had the texture of lean brisket and a flavor I've already forgotten, and was wrapped in a thin slice of a substantially more interesting as I recall Charlie describing it lightly cured lamb heart. I shoulda had the fish.

The second dessert was intriguing as hell, chocolates mousse (for lack of a better term) spread across the plate, atop a lighter cream and a sparse grove of herbs planted upright in the oblong pool [much like, but not exactly like slide 13]. If the mango peanut butter thing was sweeter than a savory course might be, the herbs gave the choco a savory touch, which didn't seem to work until about half-way through, and then seemed to work very, very well.

Having arrived at eight, we had the room to ourselves for most of the meal, served not only by Charlie, but by the cooks who apparently go both ways, lifting the gracious service up another notch. Charlie patiently answered a dozen questions, held forth on the difficulty of finding an after-work beer with the team in rural Virginia at 11PM ("isn't there some roadhouse meth bar near by?" I helpfully suggested, and it appeared that there is, but it wasn't to their taste) and introduced us to the sous chef who is also in charge of the excellent soundtrack.

A lot of you know, there are many restaurants in America where the lack of local competition gives them a reputation and a status that they don't deserve. In most places the "best restaurant in town" is laughably mediocre. But the Town House almost lives up to its billing here on DR and probably exceeded my own more cynical expectations. It is surely the best restaurant on the I-81 corridor, but I think it has a way to go before becoming the kind of destination restaurant the Inn at Little Washington is/was.

It has high aims, and one suspects that they are capable of hitting them. And, in the mean time, I am eager to go back on my next road trio south. Bonnaroo '10 anyone?

"Don't go braggin' about how cool and clean your kitchen is. 'Caus if your kitchen's so cool and clean, ain't nothin' cookin'!"

-- Jesse Jackson


#49 Heather

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Posted 18 June 2009 - 01:42 PM

Charles, you did an admirable job detailing our meal, and I will fill in the (very) few blank spots once I get the menu in front of me. The chocolate dessert mentioned was the one thing that stands out as a "miss" but everyone else at the table loved it - go figure.

The slow pacing killed my enjoyment of most of the food, because I was too hungry to savor the courses properly once I had a plate in front of me. My lack of enthusiasm for tasting menus is well documented elsewhere on the website, so I won't bore y'all by ranting some more, but this is a serious flaw. With luck, by the time we get back down there before Bonnaroo '10, the kitchen will be concentrating more on getting the flavors in balance and plates out within a reasonable time, and less on the foams, airs, and 50 exotic garnishes that adorn each dish.

#50 WARojas

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Posted 27 July 2009 - 07:35 AM

Town House chefs Shields and Urie--fresh off their honeymoon/Michelin-star devouring trek across Europe--will discuss their unique hospitality trajectory during this week's Grill Warren chat (Thursday, 11 am-??).

Meanwhile, my review of Town House, which is included as part of a broader piece on Virginia's meteoric rise to the top of the new cooking heap, appears in our August issue (on local newsstands now).

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming...
Warren Rojas
Dining Editor
Northern Virginia Magazine





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