A few months ago, I had dinner at the Ashby Inn with a friend of the house. After an extraordinary meal on the patio - which is one of the most beautiful dining venues I have ever seen - I wanted to come home and rave about it, but I just didn't feel comfortable with all the extra attention that was received. I knew what I had to do.
On Sunday, I made reservations at 5:30 under a fake name, and purposely sat inside so my opinion wouldn't be colored by the spectacular patio views (it was an absolutely gorgeous autumn day, and there's nothing I wanted more than to sit outside). I had no idea whether or not Tarver King or Neal Wavra would be working.
I waited at the entrance, and Neal (the sommelier and innkeeper (he runs the Inn with his wife, Star, and they have a new eight-week old!)) had just walked down the stairs and asked me if I'd been helped - he then recognized me, but didn't know who I was. We politely (me, nervously) shook hands, and he seated me in a booth. By the time he'd returned with the wine list, he remembered, so my best intentions went for naught (*). He asked me if I'd like Tarver (who I saw through the kitchen window earlier) to cook for me, and I said no, that I'd like to go ahead and order off the menu. I felt falsely auditorial and uncomfortable, but also wanted to keep some distance.
While I was looking over the lists of beers, cocktails, and wines, I was blown away by how complete the beverage program is at Ashby Inn. On the wine list, there are lots of bottles priced in the $30s, and a fair amount priced in the $20s - and these are good, interesting wines from around the world, with a fine selection from Virginia to boot see for yourself
). It's one of the top beverage programs in the area.
I ordered a half bottle of Jeff White's
2008 Glen Manor Sauvignon Blanc ($20), and while I was waiting, Neal arrived with the perfect amuse-gueule
from Tarver, a little shot of 'hot and cold hard cider', the top being cool and emulsified, trapping the warm beneath, and lending a white moustache to all who partake.Gougères
($4) with Parmesan Mornay Fried Panisse
($3) with Nasturtium Pesto
Neither the prices, nor the items, are typos. The Ashby Inn is a hyper-local restaurant, with many of the herbs in their dishes grown literally in their own back yard. Neal came over to check on things, and I was raving about both items, but especially the panisse because nobody else in the area is serving a dish like this. I mentioned that I had to get this instead of the edamame, but then he said the edamame is grown on a one-acre organic plot in Front Royal. Really? Well then ...Salted Edamame
Yes, two dollars, and as many times as I've had edamame in the past, this is the first time I've ever had edamame. Done simply with olive oil, perhaps the barest hint of apple vinegar, and coarse salt, these irregularly sized, variantly colored beauties, some still bonded at the stem, made up one of the most compelling dishes I've ever had. They were perfect. And they were two dollars!
I asked for a glass of Sherry to accompany the edamame, and Neal brought me two half pours, served blind. I thought the one on the left was a lighter Amontillado (in retrospect, I should have guessed Fino), and the one on the right (darker, more burnished) was an Oloroso - with this dish, I had a strong preference for the one on the left. So much so, that I went into a trance.
Lo and behold, one of the greatest food and wine pairings of my life: Ashby Inn's Edamame with Pearmund Cellars' Vin de Sol "dessert wine." (It actually says "dessert wine" on the label - nonsense.) It was a dead ringer for a teasingly fruity, light-colored Sherry, the kind that makes you salivate for salted almonds, and the combination was as perfect as if you were sitting in a dockside café in Nantes, having raw shellfish with a Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine. Food and wine does not get any better than this. You could spend a thousand dollars and not come up with a better pairing.
I asked Neal for recommendations off the menu, and he recommended exactly what I would NOT have ordered:Butternut Squash Soup
($10) with smoked honey, spiced cream, chestnuts, and sageRoasted Turkey
($32) with buttermilk biscuit, sunchoke vélouté, apple and pecan salad
Okay, fall, yes, but I didn't want to order Thanksgiving Dinner because I wanted this restaurant to succeed, not fail. Everyone in town is serving butternut squash soup right now, and there's almost no way these dishes were going to be outstanding.
And as usual, I was wrong.
Unapologetically sweet, the soup was as good as any butternut squash soup I've tried, and the previously clumsy second glass of Sherry (a Lustau Escuadrilla Rare Amontillado, by the way) sprang into life with the chestnuts and smoked honey.
Between courses, Neal brought out another appetizer, a Steak Tartare
($12) with triple-cooked potato, artichoke, mustard, onion, and a nugget of gold: a single, sunnyside-up fried egg. 'This egg,' he said, 'is from Flohas Farm in Orlean, Virginia. A husband and wife raise a small breed of chickens called silky click
). They own three persimmon trees and feed them persimmons.' And wow, and damned if this isn't reflected in the yolk itself - a deep, almost orange-like golden that tasted like it's infused with saffron. And the Lustau with this dish got even better (think: Sherry, egg, potato).
(*) I'm certain Tarver wished he had some naughty bits of turkey to use for my plating, but he only had breast meat left from the locally sourced turkeys - he'd reduced everything else into the gravy - but somehow he managed to take sliced breast of turkey, and make it into a world-class dish, plated with such artistry that I refused to use my cell-phone camera to ruin it. I'd ordered a half bottle of the 2008 Glen Manor "Hodder Hill" ($29) which was lovely but almost too tannic for the delicacy of this dish; it would be better with a red meat course.
But ah! There was chocolate for dessert, and nothing goes better with dry, red wine than chocolate. Spiced Chocolate Pudding
($10) with candied cereals and paw paw ice cream...
paw paw ice cream...
paw paw ice cream...
paw paw ice cream...
went beautifully with the wine, and this is where the rave takes a brief respite, because about the only thing Tarver does that I don't love is using seaweed to gel certain dishes - I remember this once from my meal before, and it was the same with the chocolate pudding. Obviously this has become common practice in high-end culinary, but both times at Ashby, there was a slight "thickness" in the skin that left me with an unfavorable tactile impression.
During the dessert course, I asked for a pad of paper, which Neal brought to the table. I then proceeded to write a long, drippy letter to Neal and Tarver, telling them exactly how I felt about their unbelievable oasis of paradise. In the note, I insisted on getting billed for every single thing, including the steak tartare, because I knew what I was going to do when I got home. Also in the note, I asked for a carryout order: a double portion of edamame ($4), the rest of the bottle of Pearmund Vin de Sol ($38), and something special for the ride home: a Padron "Anniversary 1964" ($22), Nicaraguan wrapper filler and binder, aged 6 years, 5 x 50.
On the way out, I asked Neal if I could thank Tarver. I stuck my head in the kitchen, he came over, and we shook hands. There wasn't much to say except thank you, it was awesome, etc., so I shook hands with Neal, walked out the door, took the little path leading to the parking lot, opened the passenger's door to my car, put in my carryout bag, took out the cigar and matches, shut the door, walked around to the driver's side, waited for the car light to go off, lit my cigar, stood there for a few minutes, and then looked upwards. There were stars in the sky.
(A special-occasion restaurant at everyday prices. Don't let autumn pass without dining on the patio at Ashby Inn. Raised to bold