Thursday, August 4, 2011

Town House - Chilhowie, Virginia. The best restaurant in America?

*So after publishing this post I reread it and - while its certainly a love letter to Town House, I'm not sure that I really conveyed how spectacular this meal was. For some time now I have felt...burned out (?) on fine dining or food of the caliber. Too often I get so excited about it and in the end its just okay. I've found that almost without exception chefs today are trying to wow their customers with bells and whistles - that is with new techniques or service trickery (eg: the candle on the table is actually butter for this course) if it is more important than the food itself. And while the food at Town House is certainly contemporary and utilizes many modern techniques..the food is the star, not the technique. Every dish I had...every component, every ingredient belonged and served a improve the overall dish. Every bite was delicious before anything else. Now...with that being said..:

So for a while now I have been drooling over the serious food porn on Town House's blog. I can't quite remember where or when exactly I first heard about the restaurant or the blog but its been some time. I essentially wrote it off as being out of the way enough that I probably would never wind up eating there. Then this past May I was asked if I would be willing to drive some kitchen equipment from upstate New York to Dallas - where my friend Caitlin would be competing at the ACF National Convention. I immediately agreed to do this and knew right away that this was my opportunity to make a pit stop in Chilhowie. This was certainly going to be the only time in the near seeable future that it would be on the way to wherever I am going.

For those of you not totally up to speed with the Town House story... It goes something like this. John and Karen Shields - alumni of such great restaurants as Alinea, Charlie Trotters, and Tru - decide to leave Chicago to take over a restaurant in rural Virginia...aka the middle of nowhere. They're given carte blanche to do as they please...and the rest is ..history.(?) 

 Now since they took over in 2008 (I believe) there has been some pretty steady buzz. Every now and then Id see a write up here and there - almost always from people who I know and/or trust - saying that this place is one of the best restaurants in America and that it is absolutely worth the trip to eat here.  Now that I've had the chance - I can say that without a doubt it is worth every bit of hassle required to get there. I cannot stress how incredible it was - one of the best meals I have ever had...and certainly the best restaurant meal I have ever had. I have been very fortunate in that I have dined at many of the best restaurants in America and I do not hesitate to say that Town House has surpassed them all - by quite a bit. I haven't been able to stop thinking about the meal I had and I am anxiously awaiting the next chance I get to be there.  

Theres not much I have to say about the food beyond how incredible it forgive me for my...lack of words here (as well as my redundancy) because...for the most part I sound like a baffling idiot:

It was a pretty hot day so I started with a nice cold beer; Starr Hill Northern Lights IPA - recommended to me by sommelier Charlie Berg. Like everyone else in the world I love IPA's and this was a great example - Id love to try more brews from Starr Hill.  

My first course, or amuse, or whatever:
 Oyster leaf - Ive read a bit about these guys but this was my first opportunity to try one...and it was pretty awesome. The texture is that of a hearty green but the flavor is identical to an oyster. Awesome.

Course 2: 
 Flowers - An absolutely stunning salad of flowers and crispy fried artichoke - with an artichoke emulsion poured table side. This is when it really hit me that I was in for a treat. This was so much more than a plate of flowers -  it was a delicately composed salad with a beautiful play of flavors and textures. Everything on the plate served a purpose and nothing was there to just look nice. This was delicious.

Course 3: 
 Zucchini Gazpacho - Razor clam ice, green tomato, green bean, pickled coriander, zucchini...just amazing. Another essentially perfect dish that captured summer in ways that I hadnt imagined possible. Green, fresh, briney, crunchy, refreshing...just unbelievable. 

Course 4:
Barbecued Eggplant - Lemon, basil, black garlic, ashes of smoked mussels. If I were force to pick a favorite dish of the night this would probably be it. But...thats like picking a favorite movie or song...or child. Its just unfair. This was served chilled - which I was not expecting and was simply an explosion of flavor. SO good. 

Course 5:
 Sweet Corn, Chicken, Lovage - Crispy chicken skin, corn silk, chicken liver, chicken reduction. This was incredible.

About this time bread and olive oil were brought to the table. I was told the bread was ciabatta, which I have always thought of as being an airy, chewy, high hydration bread with irregular crumb structure. This was not the case here. Because of this I looked into ciabatta a bit and came the realization that it - along with pretty much all Italian food, is a very regional thing and can vary greatly ..from a dense, tight loaf to what I just described...and everything in between. ANYWAY - the bread was very nice!  

Course 6:
Lobster in Brown Butter & Butter Whey - Spring onions, shellfish cream, lime, crisp scallop, pork stock. Well this was every bit as good as it sounds.  

 Course 7:
Squid 'Risotto' - A risotto made without any rice or diary..Among the very best risottos I have ever had. Ive read a bit about the process of making this dish and was very excited to finally try it and...well like I said, it was incredible. Perfectly toothsome, runny, sweet...great. I feel bad for whoevers job it is to prepare the squid to look like rice!

Course 8:
 Beef Cheek Pastoral - Cows milk skin, toasted garlic, horseradish, grasses, hay, tongue, crispy tongue. Seriously awesome. The meat was all perfectly cooked and hugely flavorful...the accompaniments all provided wonderful contrast...and get it? grass - hay - beef - about 'what grows together goes together'...brilliant. 

Course 9:
 Border Springs Lamb Shoulder & Wild Blackberry - Glazed in black malt, barbecued beets, licorice, black olive, caramelized yogurt...While it was not as beautiful to look at as the other dishes - it certainly made up for it in flavor. This was without a doubt the best lamb I have ever had. 

Course 10:
 Liquid Chocoalte Bar - Burnt ember ice cream, sour yogurt, milk, sugar, chocolate soil. A very nice dessert - the highlight of which was the burnt ember ice cream. I would kill for this recipe. It was most similar to a smoked ice cream I had at Boka - but not nearly as overwhelming in the smokey flavor department. Man I would love to have some now...

Course 11:
 A Curd of Sour Quince, Olive Oil, Black Pepper - Dill, pine ice cream, pine shoots, toasted meringue, blueberries. Just look at this dish:
 It was so beautiful it hurt to eat it. 

Course 12: 
 Broken Marshmallows - Cucumber (slush), softly whipped cream, preserved green strawberries, geranium, lemon verbena. My favorite of the dessert courses. So light, so delicate, and beautiful. Just wonderful. 

Course 13:
Cocoa and Black Sesame Chewy Meringue with Wasabi and Lime - Just awesome. 

I also want to acknowledge Charlie Berg and Jeannie Barrett who ran the front of the restaurant with such warmth and care...and were so genuine about everything..its really rare to come across people like this in this industry. This place is something special and I cannot recommend it enough. Go here now. Seriously...You will thank me later. 


  1. Beautiful photos.

  2. Thank you! This was my first time using this camera at a restaurant

  3. How did they react to you taking photos of the food?

  4. I had asked about it when making my reservation - they more or less so encouraged it. I tried to be as respectful as possible and did not use any flash and only took quick snaps as to not let food change too much from its intended temperature

  5. That Flowers dish looks stunning (more so than most of their food!) I, too, felt like i was writing a love letter after my Town House review - but it's just that good!

  6. i'm really glad that you loved it! One thing I find really cool is that of all the dishes you had and I had when I ate there, there was only 1 that overlapped both - the incredible squid risotto!

  7. I had almost the same menu a couple weeks ago, and it was extraordinary as usual. Although, I'm slightly disappointed that they have taken the Chilled Vegetable Minestrone off the menu. As good as the Flowers salad is, CVM is my all-time favorite dish.

  8. I dined at Town House in June and at Alinea a week ago. I found my experience at Town House to be much more enjoyable. The service was much better at TH. Alinea's food is in a way more novel, but the overall composition of the menu and flavor of the dishes was better at Town House.

  9. @ ChuckEats & The Monger - I really enjoyed the flower dish quite a bit - it takes quite a bit of understanding to be able to construct something so delicate and beautiful that also tastes as great as it did. I was bummed about not having the Minestrone but Id rather see a chefs menu change and evolve continuously as Town Houses seems to than have some courses stay the same forever because they are popular.
    @Docsconz - The risotto was so good!
    @ Anon - Yeah, not sure if you saw my write up about Alinea - but I dined there in February this year and was largely unimpressed. That could be for any number of reasons but what I do know is that not only was I more comfortable at Town House, but the food was better than Alinea in terms of taste, quality, presentation, etc... That being said, I am not trying to bash Alinea as I do have a world of respect for Grant Achatz, his team and everything they do but I would not go back to Alinea and I cannot wait to go back to Town House