Chilhowie, Virginia: farmhouses and…fine dining?

Although I write about food for a living, it takes a lot to get me to make a pilgramage to a restaurant. For me to fly from Seattle to the East Coast, and then drive across a state (staying at a campground down the road from a correctional facility, en route), I need more than just the promise of a great meal.

Town House, in the far corner of southwestern Virginia, is that sort of place. Six hours drive from Washington DC, the acclaimed restaurant is located on quiet Main Street in rural Chilhowie (pop. 1,827). Twenty miles from both the Tennessee and North Carolina borders, Chilhowie is pure Americana. Pastoral imagery abounds: dairy cows grazing in rolling pasture, dilapidated barns and silos, weathered buildings shedding peeling paint. There are shady groves, creeks, wineries, mountain biking and hiking trails (this is Appalachian Trail country) and sleepy little villages. It’s like an episode of “The Twilight Zone;” where you’re driving along, and bam! It’s 1930. I’m originally from the strip-malled badlands of Southern California, so it’s easy to see why this region appealed to me.

In addition to the Appalachian Trail, there’s the Virginia Creeper Trail, Hungry Mother State Park (do names get better than that?), great fly fishing, a flock of community theaters, galleries, and museums in nearby Marion, Abingdon, and Bristol. It’s an absolutely beautiful, little-known part of the U.S.. But certainly, Town House isn’t the only rural destination restaurant (Virginia also has The Inn at Little Washington, and The Barn at Blackberry Farm is just outside of Knoxville, two hours from Chilhowie). It is, however, a lot more rural than most non-urban, fine dining destination restaurants.

I don’t give a hang about eating at a place based on its hipster credentials, or because it’s on the checklist of self-proclaimed “foodies (a term that needs to be banished from existence, in my opinion).” A dinner at Town House gave me an opportunity to explore the Virginia countryside, but I was also curious to see how chef John Shields was pulling off a somewhat eccentric menu in such a remote location. I also loved that he and his wife/Town House pastry chef Karen Urie Shields–who aptly describes her desserts as “whimsical”–develop their ever-changing menu around seasonal ingredients that are foraged, or sourced from local family farms and food artisans.

Destination restaurants have always intrigued me. It’s hard for a meal to live up to the hype, but sometimes, it’s about the experience as a whole. An absence of atmosphere and sense of place can kill a meal, even if the food is divine. I’ve also had bad food transformed by the right dining companions (I’m recalling a remote Tuscan osteria I ended up having to hitchhike to. The food was godawful, but what would have otherwise been an abysmal, depressing experience was turned into a wonderful night by the arrival of ten boisterous Icelanders who invited me to join them). Still, given the time, expense, and effort required to dine at a destination restaurant, there’s a lot of pressure on the chef and staff to execute nothing less than a stellar performance.

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The majority of Town House diners come from Roanoke or Knoxville (Roanoke is also two hours away, and has a small airport), or DC. Others, like my boyfriend and I, make a road trip of it. We drove down from northern Virginia, turning the six-hour drive into a three-day camping trip, broken up by an overnight at Town House’s sister property, Riverstead (276-646-8787). The two-bedroom guesthouse (there is no staff on-site, if these things matter to you) is located on a 30-acre hay farm, four-and-a-half miles from the restaurant. The painstakingly restored, 1903 farmhouse is a draw itself, and blissfully free of gag-inducing accoutrements like dolls, frilly, Victorian-era decor, and cutesy signage.

Earlier this year, thirty-three-year-old John was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Chefs,” and he participated in June’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen (a three-day bacchanal of seminars, tastings, demos, and more tastings). Yet he’s been drawing crowds with his “inspired cuisine” since he filled the chef position at Town House in 2008. Prior to that, the restaurant had a humdrum menu that John has described as “from another era.” He and Karen, 32, credit farmers and producers on the menu, which, ironically, is a rarity in rural areas. As John, an intense young man (the skater shoes and slightly baggy jeans he wears with his chef’s jacket are nothing less than endearing), explained to me, “People often comment on how it must be hard to get good products, living out here. We respond by saying, ‘Where do you think big cities get their food from?’”

As for why they left the big city to try experimental cuisine in rural Virginia, John says, “We knew it would be a challenge, but we never wavered with the menu once we moved forward. We stuck to our guns, because we believed a true identity was what would make this restaurant stand out. Our staff and employers are passionate, as well, so the biggest challenge has been the lack of dining options for us on our nights off! We’ve been most surprised by the amazing reaction people have had to what we’re doing.”

The couple met in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, where John was sous chef, and Karen was pastry chef. In 2005, John became sous chef at Alinea (he credits chef/owner Grant Achatz as his mentor). In ’08, Trotter hired John to run his (since closed) Las Vegas restaurant. It was while waiting for that restaurant to open that the Shields’ decided they were ready for something more low key. A “chef wanted” ad at Town House kept popping up on Craigslist, so they went to Chilhowie (they were initially unable to locate it on a map) to meet with owners Tom and Kyra Bishop. The rest, as they say, is history.

My boyfriend and I arrived at Riverstead just as a thunderstorm hit, which was great, because the two-story farmhouse is my idea of a slice of heaven. The expansive front porch affords a view of pasture and the neighboring farm, and a short path leads down to the South Fork Holston River. Waiting for us inside were Karen’s chocolate chip cookies, a full kitchen stocked with coffee and tea, and a note directing us to the refrigerator. There, we found part of our pre-checkout breakfast: Mason jars of freshly-squeezed orange juice, Karen’s farro (emmer wheat) cereal with dried cherries, and two soft-boiled eggs. The kitchen itself is a dream: robin’s egg-blue walls, commercial-grade stainless appliances, weathered oak butcher block, and vintage cookware displayed on the matching shelves. The living room is a bit more genteel, with antique rugs and original oak floors, and a sofa by the fireplace.

Our sunny room took up half of the second story. Like the rest of the house, it’s a charming mix of old and new: gleaming white bathroom with stainless fixtures, wood paneling, retro-black-and-white tiled floor, clawfoot tub, glass-encased shower, and two vintage-style sinks. A nightstand beside the plush, king-sized bed held a bottle of wine, and a glass dome-covered cheese plate. I work in a cheese shop, so I was thrilled to see a farmstead selection from nearby Meadow Creek Dairy. Their award-winning Grayson is a sticky, stinky, Jersey milk washed-rind with a luscious, buttery interior. It was accompanied by Karen’s panforte, a dense, chewy, sweet similar to fruitcake.

To fire up our appetites, we headed down to the river for a stroll, before consulting Riverstead’s thoughtful “local activities and attractions” sheet. We headed up to the Appalachian Trail entrance at Elk Garden for a short hike, and then drove back down through the picturesque “town” of Wilkinson’s Mill, with its wooden swinging bridge, abandoned buildings, and old timey convenience store.

At last, it was time for our dinner reservation. A major plus of staying at Riverstead is that you can have a glass of wine or five during your meal, because round-trip transportation to Town House is included. The restaurant is located in a 100-year-old brick building that once housed a dry goods store. The interior, with its dark, polished wood floors, tables, and chairs, faux tin ceiling (actually cleverly-disguised sound-reducing tiles) and contemporary art fixtures blends local history with minimalist modern design. Diners can choose a one-to-three-course menu composed of a la carte items, a $58 set four-course, or the $110 ten-course tasting menu, which offers a choice of starter, main, and dessert. We decided on the four-course (a hell of a deal, I might add). Wine is separate, but you can request they be paired with your meal.

Not every dish worked for me. A “soup of cherries” with bronzed sardine, sweet and spicy ginger, tomato, and “almond bread” (more of a foam) was just too out there for my liking. On the other hand, “scrambled egg mousse ” with smoked steelhead roe, birch syrup, sweet spices, and preserved ramp was delicate, decadent, and beautifully executed- an orgy of flavors and textures. Peekytoe crab roasted in brown butter with lime, salt cod, vanilla, and sea grapes came with ethereal puffs of caramelized onion, and lamb shank cooked in ash, with black garlic marmalade, salsify, and burnt onion was deep, complex, and soulful. It was while savoring that dish that it clicked for me; how John’s food fit into the context of this tiny corner of Appalachia. Not all of the ingredients are local, or even domestic, but even when he’s using something high-end, like foie gras, there’s an earthy sensibility to his food that somehow makes sense in Chilhowie.

We ordered both of Karen’s desserts, because they sounded so poetically strange: Powdered chocolates with steamed yuzu sponge, bergamot, and an “aromatic” salad of herbs, and the unexpectedly lovely combination of strawberry ice cream with braised artichoke and pink peony sorbet. Before we headed back to Riverstead, Karen stopped by our table with a still-warm galette of shallots and goat cheese (from local Ziegenwald Dairy) for our breakfast. After her desserts, a tart seemed deceptively simple, although great pastry is anything but.

That galette is one of the most outstanding things I’ve ever eaten. Buttery, caramelly, comforting. It may seem strange that a homely tart and a soft-boiled egg eaten over a sink were the highlight of my trip, but that’s the thing about destination dining. At its best, the place and the food are a reflection of one another.

Karen’s Hot Breakfast Cereal
Unbelievably easy, delicious, and nourishing, this is my favorite new breakfast for fall.

Serves 2-3

1 cup Anson Mills farro piccolo (If you can’t find at your local grocery or speciality food store, you can purchase it online from the online Town House shop or Anson Mills)
4 cup water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoon grade B maple syrup
1/3 cup toasted sunflower seeds
1 cup of your favorite berry or other fruit, or dried fruit

Combine the farro with the water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20-30 minutes until most of the water is evaporated. Meanwhile, toast the sunflower seeds at 350 degrees, for 10 minutes. Season farro with cinnamon, salt, maple syrup, sunflower seeds, and fruit. Enjoy warm or chilled.

My trip was sponsored by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.