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Nathan Miller: From Bean to Bar, Chocolatier Serves Up Artisan Chocolates with an International Flair

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

dsc_0050Chocoholics, take note: Chef Nathan Miller offers quarter-inch squares of chocolate nirvana to anyone who wants to taste the difference between cacao grown in Peru versus cacao sourced from Africa. Truth be told, he offers samples to all who want to try his fine chocolates.

Miller not only makes his own truffles, chocolate bars and pastries, but also sources his cocoa beans – three or four tons per year – from farm cooperatives throughout the world. The creative combination of flavors and of ingredients grown with sustainable agriculture practices netted Miller a win at the national Good Food Awards in January for his Ghana 70 percent chocolate.

Miller says there were about 1,500 entries in the Good Food Awards. He appreciates the challenge of competing, but he also likes to see what people are making and how chocolate is changing. For example, Miller uses a stone cylinder and wheel to grind his beans and bring out different flavors of the chocolate.

Some of his chocolates are comprised solely of organic cacao, organic cane sugar and organic cacao butter, a treat for those of us accustomed to mass-produced chocolate. The simple ingredients let the skill of the artisan chocolate maker – the bean roaster – shine through.

Other of Miller’s chocolates might have crushed house-made gingerbread or locally sourced Pennsylvania pretzels or coffee or chili in the mix. Many of his chocolate bars are named with the source of the beans – Ghana, Belize, Hispaniola, Peru, Madagascar – along with the percentage of chocolate in the bar. Others are named with the special flavor.

But the best part of his shop lies in the glass jars lined up behind the counter.

Halfway hidden by the counter, the glass jars – ranging in size from a gallon to a less than a cup – house chocolate samples. Miller serves up each sample with a long pair of tongs, happy to discuss his art with the samplers. He says it’s important for clients to be able to try samples of chocolates to taste the flavor and feel the “mouth” of the chocolates.

I indulged in many of the delightful morsels. The melt-in-my-mouth sweetness of the buttermilk chocolate, either the 45 or 55 percent varieties, is my choice for the perfect chocolate bar. Both are made from the Ghana cacao beans. Initially, when I slip the chocolate into my mouth, it is just another little lump, but as it warms and begins to dissolve, the flavor of the buttermilk sneaks through.

The gingerbread chocolate bar is made from the 55 percent buttermilk chocolate, the Ghana beans showing themselves in yet another bar. Miller starts by making the gingerbread, then grinds it up to add flavor to the chocolate. The effort to make fresh gingerbread, only to grind it up as an ingredient in a chocolate bar speaks to the commitment to quality ingredients. I am expecting little bits of gingerbread, but the reality is more sublime. The chocolate smells like it tastes – another of my favorites – with a flavor reminiscent of gingerbread at Christmas.

The pretzel and cherry chocolate is similarly subtle with a fine creamy texture, but with flavors of pretzel and cherry – even down to a bit of saltiness. The little chunks of cherry give a punch of flavor when I bite down on them.

Miller started creating his award-winning chocolates in his Chambersburg basement in 2010. He soon outgrew that mini chocolate factory, so he opened his first shop about 18 months ago. These digs have a large production area and a patio as well as a tasting and dining room, with savories, coffee and chocolates for sale.

Miller’s creations start with finding the best sources for cacao beans. He buys beans from small farmers’ cooperatives, where farmers may grow the cacao seeds or harvest them from the forest.

“When you choose to make chocolates, you don’t know that you’re getting into the import/export business,” he says as he goes into detail about how the farmers harvest the beans.

The farmers cut the pods off the plants. On the spot, they may pull the beans out of the pods filling sacks with the hulled beans. The sacks may go onto the back of the farmer’s animal – or if he’s wealthy – into his truck to take to the fermentation area. Fermenting may take place in bucket, in a pit covered with leaves or in a box, which gives the farmer better temperature control. After fermenting, the beans are dried, and then shipped.

Some of the beans end up in Pennsylvania, where Miller says it’s easy to tell the quality of the beans when he picks out moldy or rotten beans. Hand-sorting beans was time intensive, so a sorting machine was one of the first things on his “buy” list, crucial to a growing business.

Roasting is another area where Miller finesses the flavor of the chocolate. He roasts his cacao beans long and slow.

Miller steps into the production area to bring out spoons coated with his new chocolate variation that is still molten. The not-even-cooled-yet chocolate coats the spoons, dripping down the side. The warm chocolate skips the melting phase of other tastings, and instead sends an immediate spicy zing to my taste buds.

The 70 percent Belize chocolate is a sharp contrast to the 44 percent buttermilk chocolate. It’s stronger and darker, almost bitter. While the Belize chocolate is still the seemingly simple recipe of the three ingredients, Miller says he’s constantly tweaking how he roasts and grinds the beans to get the perfect flavor.

That is one of the advantages of being a small shop. Larger chocolate manufacturers have to be 100 percent consistent, ensuring that each bar is precisely like every other bar. The artisan can change recipes, looking for improvements and ways to enhance the experience of the chocolate.

Miller has the credentials to talk about food with expertise. After culinary school in Hyde Park, New York, Miller apprenticed in Germany, then on to New York City, eventually landing in Boulder, Colo., as a dessert and pastry chef. He’s a believer in learning the basics.

“If you have a good base of the classics, you can make anything,” Miller says. “It’s a foundation of creativity.”

The coffee-flavored chocolates are a testament to the nuance of his chocolates.

Miller finds complementary coffees from local roasters or from friends back in Boulder. Two of his coffee-laced chocolate samples reflect the difference between coffees – a difference as vast as the difference in cacao beans.

Named for the coffee companies that provide the beans, Greenstreet Espresso is another chocolate variation using the Ghana beans, but the espresso flavor is oh so different from Boxcar Coffee Chocolate – named for Boxcar Coffee Roasters. Miller talks fondly of sampling the coffees through his espresso machine before turning them into chocolates. He has to know the flavors.

His enthusiasm was inspiring, so after tasting chocolates, we tried the mocha, which was so thick it was like drinking a dark chocolate torte cake.

The centerpiece of the restaurant is a long communal table that seats 16. Almost everything in the restaurant is recycled. The metal ceiling came from a bar in Carlisle; the lights came from a local manufacturer.

After trying more than a half dozen chocolate flavors – and benefitting from the post-chocolate caffeine buzz – we tried two of the savory croissants. The ham and Brie had the perfect balance between bread, meat and cheese. The outside of the croissant was crispy brown, but melted as I bit into it. The inside flaky layers had more substance, well for a filling lunch. The spinach and goat cheese croissant had a similar balance, and Miller’s fiancé Chelsea Russo explained that the cheese was sourced locally from Pipe Dream Fromage.

Nathan Miller’s Web site has groupings of chocolate bars for sale, such as the “single origin inclusion” set that includes all chocolates made from Ghana beans and all with additions of some kind whether its gingerbread, espresso, chili/streusel, buttermilk or simply everything. His descriptions give a sense of the differences between the chocolates. As I read about the notes of caramel, coconut and dates in the Ghana chocolate and the hazelnut, heavy cream and brown sugar notes in the Belize chocolate, I realized how much fun it can be to learn to recognize those flavors, which isn’t easy for someone who thought they knew chocolate, but is now working to identify the nuances of cacao tastes from Belize, Peru and Ghana.

All chocolates are not created equal. The beans, the roasting and the care in fair trade sourced ingredients sets Nathan Miller apart from other chocolatiers. The samples may be an opportunity to learn to differentiate the subtle flavors of the artisan chocolates – or they may just be an opportunity to decide what you love before picking out a bar to take home.

Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email tplettie@visuallink.com.


Nathan Miller Chocolate

140 North Third St., Suite 3

Chambersburg, PA 17201

717-496-8229

www.nathanmillerchocolate.com


Other tasty venues in the area:

Trickling Springs Creamery

www.tricklingspringscreamery.com

The Creamery Store has a wide range of organic and small farm dairy products, including hand-scooped ice cream. Sample spoons are available, but I found that the pistachio ice cream was as smooth and rich as silk. So good.


Norwegian Codfather

www.norwegiancodfather.com

Nathan and Chelsea recommended this European food market, located in downtown Chambersburg. Sadly it was closed by the time we arrived, but it looks like there are plenty of yummy goods to tempt foodies.


Roy Pitz Brewery

www.roypitz.com

This boutique brewery shares a back hallway with Nathan Miller, making an easy transition from chocolate to beer, where an affordable four-beer sampler lets you try a selection of their specialty brews.


The Butcher Shoppe

http://www.mybutchershoppe.com

If Nathan Miller is closed and you need a chocolate fix, check out The Butcher Shoppe, a grocery store with a range of locally inspired foods such as perogies, sausages, homemade soups and, of course, Nathan Miller Chocolate.

 

 

 

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Many Cups of Tea: Tales from Magnificent Venues Throughout the Valley

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

dsc_0035Tea is warmth. Studies may tout the tea’s health benefits, but tea is about warmth.  The teapot’s warmth is an ancient and tribal warmth – connecting friends and family, good conversation and the warm memories of cozy surroundings. Afternoon tea is taking a break, a pause in the day; calm minutes set aside to sip slowly, savoring the presentation of savory sandwiches, scones and pastries. In a go-go-go world, the peace and quiet can be a balm for the soul – even when we are on our own.

Coach & Horses, Tea-Lover’s Paradise

A tea lover driven by a desire to sip and sample has few places more appealing than the Coach & Horses Colonial Tea Room. Their focus? Tea.  The menu lists more than 50 varieties of black, green, white tea, oolong, rooibos, fruit, herbal and yerba mate teas; all of the tea is loose leaf.

The staff is a font of information about tea service, tea place settings and teas in general. The historic building has a down-to-earth feel with visible log cabin beams upstairs. The upstairs is worth a trip, even if you are seated downstairs. The log and plaster layers add even more charm to the rooms. Shelves display jar after jar of tea blends, all labeled with the Coach &  Horses brand.

It is one of the few teas we have found offering a “bottomless” pot of tea –meaning a fresh pot of tea with fresh tea leaves, at your request. Experimentation is encouraged. Every diner is welcome to try different teas.

dsc_0155Each pot is big enough for about three delicate china cups full of tea or perhaps one more cup if you add cream and sugar. The waitress or waiter steeps the tea upstairs, only serving the tea after it’s steeped to perfection for between three and seven minutes. They are willing to steep longer or shorter to meet your tastes. After steeping, the leaves are removed, so the taste is always right on target – never weak or bitter. The staff-intensive process works to the advantage of the diner.

Our waitress carries as many as six teapots at once, admitting that coming downstairs with full teapots is harder than going up with empties. Still, she said her coworker could carry eight.

She glowingly described the most popular teas. We tried two – the decaffeinated Darjeeling and the Pomegranate Pear – along with two others, the Chocolate Delight and the Yunnan, a black tea. We traded cups to sample more varieties.

The Pomegranate Pear looked red and fruity in the cup, while the Darjeeling was a nice rich brown, a duo that could suit almost every tea-loving palate. The Chocolate Delight had a stronger chocolate flavor than any tea we’ve tried; by adding milk and sugar, it tasted almost like hot cocoa, but not quite as rich.

As we moved into tea, round two, we generally stayed with our favorites from the first round. Linger, and your cold tea can be replaced with a new pot of hot tea. “Bottomless” really was a core value at Coach & Horses.

We experimented by trying a pot of the Lapsang Souchong, described as a smoky flavor created when the tea leaves were dried over pinewood fires. It’s intense smoky taste was unlike any of the other teas, bringing back memories of campfires. In the end, it probably wasn’t something we would order often, but it was interesting.

While the tea may take center stage, the food deserves attention.

dsc_0131About the same time that the first pots of tea arrived, the waitress delivered strawberry-banana scones. Full-size scones, with big hunks of early summer fresh strawberries were hot out of the oven. The scones barely held together as we sliced off wedges and slathered them with clotted cream and strawberry preserves. The scones were a highlight (after the tea of course). While there were many delicious items yet to come, the scones stood out with a crumbly yet moist texture consistent with some of the best scones I’ve had.

The presentation of sweets and savories appealed to our visual aesthetic, accentuated by the intimate décor and a grand piano in the corner and wall stencils that added to the ambiance. The few windows let in streams of light here and there. It’s a charming environment to sit for a couple hours, drink tea and catch up.

Our second course, after the mouth-watering scones, was a tiered tray of goodies. Sandwiches came in ovals, circles, rectangles and squares. The cucumber sandwich showed itself well with marbled bread.  Rounds of oranges, triangles of watermelon and elegantly edged circles of kiwi offered fresh alternatives to the sandwiches.

The ham croissant was a delicate mix of ham, cheese and mustard sauce. The croissant was flaky, on par with the European varieties, as one of several mini sandwiches – this was clearly not a safe place for someone on a low-carb diet.

Coach  & Horses serves high tea, as well as a regular lunch menu and a Sunday English breakfast, and a la carte items. All meals come with the “bottomless” tea pot. But, because the Coach & Horses chef makes everything to order for the tea, advance reservations are essential. The food tends more toward the sweet than the savory, but the flavors go beautifully with the tea and are filling. On our first visit, my husband opted for a lunch –  a flaky-crusted chicken pot pie – but came to regret that choice after seeing the tea treats.

In the end, we had to take a box of leftovers home. Even though the “tea” was our lunch replacement, there was more than we could eat.

Road Trip: Keswick Hall

dsc_0031The approach to Keswick Hall, near Charlottesville, makes you feel as though you are approaching a European villa. The lovely yellow façade sets the stage for the elegant interior and expansive views.

High tea is served in a rear dining room with a wall of windows overlooking the golf course and rolling rural Virginia hills. The tables are set with linens and silver, and beautiful yellow orchids, reminiscent of the entrance outdoors.

The tea menu is simple, with a nice selection of 15 or 20 loose leaf teas, plus an optional addition of wine or champagne. The waitresses gave us time to view the menu, but were always available to answer questions. There wasn’t any hurry as we considered our tea options. We were celebrating my mother’s 80th birthday, so the pacing was perfect.

Making the right tea choice – and coordinating choices with the rest of our party – was essential, since each of us would only get one pot of tea, which was a bit of a disappointment in an experience that was otherwise almost perfect.

When the tea came, however, the challenge of a choice was forgotten, as the waitress poured our first cup from a lovely, heavy silver teapot. The tiered trays of goodies included a bottom row of savories, a middle row of breads and a top tray of sweets and chocolates.

I had clued in the staff that it was a special event for my mostly vegetarian mother, and the savories included deviled eggs and bite-sized pimento cheese sandwiches that would appeal to her. The pimento cheese had a good blend of cheese and pimento, and the bread was perfectly fresh and soft.

The scones were savories. The texture was crunchy and a little dry, but the scone was a great vehicle for tasting the butter and jam. The madeleines, however, hit a home run with smooth texture and soft interior.

Fresh berries accompanied both the breads and sweets. A range of blueberries, raspberries, sliced strawberries and blackberries not only added visual interest to the platter, but were a delightful treat.

On the top shelf, the chocolates were a final hit of energy. Unlike the other treats, which had identical items for each member of our party, the chocolates were all different, some with a crusty shell, others with a creamy filling.

By now, our tea leaves had steeped for more than an hour, so our tea had a much stronger flavor, but we had swapped pots and had the opportunity to try different flavors. To the credit of the staff, we never felt hurried as we spent two and a half hours enjoying the tea service.

We thought we were done, but it turned out that they reservations department had really taken note when I mentioned mom’s birthday. They brought out a beautifully plated berries and chocolates, with “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate on the plate. With a surprised Mom, and a happy party, it was the perfect end to the tea, especially for my mom who has asked why she should eat anything that’s not chocolate.

Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email tplettie@visuallink.com.


Many Great Choices

As the holidays approach, many tea rooms offer special holiday teas, which we have attended at Salamander Inn and Rosemont Manor. The elegant surroundings and holiday decorations can only be described as stunning. Be sure to call to confirm times and make reservations.


Salamader Inn

Middleburg, VA

(800) 651-0721

http://www.salamanderresort.com

Two-story ceilings with a wall of windows looking out at the countryside make the main room a lovely setting. Tables line the windows, while sofas and upholstered chairs offer comfy seating in the center of the room. A box of bagged tea selections offers perhaps a dozen choices, with some caffeinated and some decaffeinated. While the staff is game to bring extra hot water, the setup seems geared for those who want a single pot of tea. The food selection is extensive, with open-faced roast beef sandwiches adding a meaty treat to the usual choice of finger sandwiches, scones, etc.


Historic Rosemont Manor

Berryville, VA

(540) 955-2834

http://rosemont1811.com/teas/

Rosemont Manor, in Berryville, has a structured tea, with specific seating times, and predetermined teas shared by the table. We’ve been to their holidays teas on two occasions and adore the gorgeous classic seasonal decorations. The spring teas have their own charm with the azaleas and spring flowers blooming throughout the property. The tea itself is served in light-filled sunrooms and parlors that feel as though you’ve been invited to a friend’s home. The beautiful and historically significant building, along with the manicured grounds adds to the special feeling.


Coach &  Horses Colonial Tea Room

Winchester, VA

(540) 323-7390

http://of-tea-i-sing.com

The traditional service, charming colonial surrounds and friendly staff contribute to Coach & Horses’ charm, but the “bottomless” teapot and the extensive tea selection are standouts for tea lovers – to say nothing of the large portions that are deliciously filling.


Keswick Hall

Charlottesville, VA

(434) 979-3440

www.keswick.com

The floor to ceiling windows, a silver tea service and tableware, delicate orchids and the option of wine lend a sense of elegance to Keswick Hall. The food selections were an excellent balance of sweet and savory.

Beer Tasting: Ruminations on an Unscientific Adventure in the Realm of Local Brewing

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

20160424_beer-55By Tim and Pam Lettie

We set off to write about beer breweries – a hot trend in the food industry – but wanted to find a way to talk about the beer in a meaningful way. While we have eight decades of beer drinking experience, we like dramatically different types of beer and wanted more input. For help, we enlisted four of our friends in a semi-random taste test.

We purchased two bottles of light-colored beers from each of three Purcellville breweries –  Adroit Theory, Corcoran and Belly Love – for a total of six bottles.

This wasn’t meant to be scientific to the point of definitively pointing at a beer and pronouncing “yeah – that’s the one – it’s the best.”  After our experience, some of the beer world’s alleged objective rankings of fair, good, better, best now seem rather suspicious. Our biggest strength was our willingness to talk trash and make our taste differences known.

We tried White Noise and Angel’s Trumpet from Adroit Theory, Three-Nine and Blue Ghost from Corcoran, and Narcissist and Shut the Fook Up from Belly Love.

The favorite of almost everyone in our group was the Three-Nine. The runners up ranked as follows: White Noise, Angel’s Trumpet, Narcissist.

Two beers that did not make our coveted “best of” lists were Blue Ghost and Shut the Fook Up. We were definitely drawn in by the catchy names.

On our journey into beer tasting, we were surprised by three things:

  • the difficulty in describing the taste of beer
  • the factors that influenced taste, and
  • the differences in perceived taste within our group

Describing Beer

Wine tasting begs a kind of professional seriousness. We gaze across expansive vineyards, in tasting rooms that are cathedrals for the gods of grapes, and wax philosophic about life and the hints of oak barrel aging in our last sip.  

Beer drinking by contrast is in darkened pubs or cellars devoid of distracting spiritual atmosphere. These surroundings encourage us to speak in raised voices and gulp, chug and slosh our beers and lower the level of discourse. While wine itself takes center stage, beer is usually content to sit in the wings and act to enhance a mood, but not create it. Few proposals are finished with a toast of lager.

We don’t always bear down on how we taste beer. Fortunately, there are a number of online guides for beer tasting. Scholars have written about how language affects the way we think. For a starting vocabulary for our beer tasting, we printed lists of adjectives used to describe beer – a beer tasting crutch.

The Three-Nine was well liked by our group. We used words like bright, light, mild, fresh, citrus; we made notes about it being best on a warm summer’s day. Perhaps because the hints of flavor or aroma were more muted, no one limited it as a beer with a certain type of food.

By contrast, some of the IPAs had the characteristic hoppy taste that lingers and were tagged with peppery, minty, lingering and lemony.  Given the boldness of their flavor footprint our informal review group paired these with Indian, Thai and just generally spicy meals.   

It was insightful to hear a friend’s descriptions and then go back for a 2nd or 3rd taste to discover that those taste experiences were available to us, if we would just dig a little deeper.  Flavors like earthy and mushroom sometimes did not form at first, but came in the after-taste; some of what makes beer is that lingering flavor on the palette. While we expect much from wine in smell, taste, and that flavor left on the palate, we can get that from beer too if we are open to it.

Factors to Influence Taste

Speaking of smell, the olfactory experience was fascinating. We experimented with holding our noses and denying the taste participation of smell. Unexpectedly, the taste of beer is dramatically colored by smell. So, that lifted glass, held for a split second below our noses, is not just a kind of window-dressing to set-up the taste experience. It IS the taste experience.

Also influencing taste is the appearance of the beer, both in the bottle and our glass. Bottle labels are the brewer’s first path to our tongue. We start expecting something based on what we see. If a bottle promoted mango – then we tasted mango. Likewise, labels with weird Picasso-inspired women braced us for something different. Even a beer’s actual appearance as turbid or milky could steer us away from adjectives like clean and mild and set up expectations for bold and lingering.

We generally kept away from our mobile phones during our tasting, not wanting to color our experience, until we discovered the Narcissist described as a “helles” beer. A quick look-up revealed comparisons to Oktoberfest beers, to be imbibed in German beer gardens. The prescribed description resulted in shared visions of festive gatherings and of a beer less bold and capable of a longer afternoon full of simple pleasures.

Differences in Perceived Taste

One person’s bold flavor is another man person’s objectionable flavor – described in terms of yeasty or bitter. While we shared some common views, some of the bitters (the hops content of the IPAs for example) served to divide us. These differences were tough to predict. To everyone’s surprise, one of our tasters emptied a-beer-that-shall-not-be-named onto the lawn. The rest of the group was shocked that she wouldn’t just pour the brew into another person’s glass; she said it was just too bitter. Others liked it just fine.

In looking at these local brew pub options we came across some very different beers and some very different ways to present these beers. In our entertaining and eating out we are entering a world of choice and variety and quickly exiting our world of consistent expectations.  We seek out nuance and the new experience. Our local brewers offer us easy access to a much desired world of taste and adventure.

 Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email tplettie@visuallink.com.


Planning a Beer Tour

Beer brewing is just coming into its own. The atmosphere of the breweries is more casual than that of wineries, but a comfortable and relaxed environment is a common theme among the breweries on our very partial listing. We only managed to visit a few of the many wonderful small breweries in our area. Check their websites for special events, hours, tours and tastings. Many have trivia nights, deals on growlers, and live music offerings to draw in a larger clientele.


Belly Love

725 E. Main St.

Purcellville, VA 20132

540-441-3159

http://www.bellylovebrewing.com

20160424_beer-41For a small town, Purcellville has a booming brewery business. We visited three of the breweries at least twice to get a feel for the different times and crowds. Belly Love has a small outdoor space that welcomes dogs; our yellow lab was treated to a bowl of water while we sipped our brew. Inside, the large dining room with brick walls is centered around a large L-shaped bar. With the most extensive food offerings of the Purcellville breweries we visited, they were hopping on Friday night; even on a Saturday afternoon, many of the tables were full. On the menu, the brewers wings were our favorite tasty treat. Nice and glazed with a sweet-hot flavor.


Adroit Theory

404 Browning Ct. Unit C

Purcellville, VA 20132

703-722-3144

http://www.adroit-theory.com

20160424_beer-28The most industrial of the breweries, Adroit Theory is tricky to find, since it’s hidden around back of a prefab office building with its patio jutting into a parking lot filled with Mack trucks. None of that was a deterrent for those in search of a beer, however. On the Friday night we visited, there were a mere handful of guests, but on a warm Saturday afternoon, it was hopping. There was a busload of drinkers, every table inside and out was full, and the energy was infectious. Adroit Theory touts its barrel aging as its claim to fame. They don’t prepare food, but have some prepackaged options, occasional food trucks, local delivery pizza or bring-your-own food. Each beer sample is sold separately in 3 oz. portions.


Corcoran

205 Hirst Rd.

Purcellville, VA 20132

540-441-3102

http://www.corcoranbrewing.com

Around the back of different professional building is Corcoran Brewing Co., a partner business to Corcoran Vineyards. The tasting room feels like a pub: dark walls, tabletops sitting on barrels, free popcorn and games to play while you sip. The patio has wrought-iron furniture and green carpet, but nearby picnic tables back up to a secluded wooded area. Pizza and pretzels are the only foods available for sale – fine as snacks if you want to nibble while enjoying a brew. Beer samples are sold in flights of five. You write your choices on a piece of paper that you get back with your samples – a nice way to help you keep track of your selections. The Irish Red was our favorite on the evening we visited.


Starr Hill

5391 Three Notched Road

Crozet, VA 22932

434-823-5671

http://www.starrhill.com

We first visited the Starr Hill Brewery shortly after it moved to its current location in the former ConAgra plant in Crozet. The owner personally gave us a tour of the brewing facility. How times have changed! Starr Hill has an extensive tasting room, food trucks, live music and a thriving business.


Backroom Brewery at Sunflower Cottage

150 Ridgemont Rd

Middletown, VA 22645

540-869-8482

http://www.backroombreweryva.com

The Backroom Brewery has a nice, but limited selection of food. We’ve tried the turkey reuben (good), the bratwurst (also good), the triple tapenade (great for sharing) and the portobello flatbread and the soft pretzel (can’t go wrong with this). The venue at the Sunflower Cottage Herb Farm makes the outdoor seating particularly relaxing with pastoral views across the fields. Many of the beers are flavored with basil or chili pepper or cilantro, etc., to give different taste combinations.


Roy Pitz

140 N Third St

Chambersburg, PA 17201

717-496-8753

http://www.roypitz.com

With an extensive menu, this Pennsylvania brewing company is worth a visit. We only went once about a year ago, but we are ready to go back!


Flying Dog Brewery

4607 Wedgewood Blvd.

Frederick, MD 21703

301-694-7899

http://flyingdogbrewery.com/

The Flying Dog is our aspirational brewery. Their website says that beer cheese and pretzels are the main food offerings, but aren’t put off by the limited choice. Their beers are sold throughout our region, and we like them.

 

Magnolia’s: Modern Cuisine a Highlight of Historic Mill Restaurant

 

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

20160408_magnolia-24Trending culinary menu options and historic atmosphere don’t often go together. Yet few of our country or Valley restaurants can rival the combination at Magnolia’s at the Mill in Purcellville.

The exterior is reminiscent of the building’s roots as an old mill. A sunroom and patio off to the side increase the seating capacity.  Our favorite rooms are the large and irregular historic interior rooms showcasing 12- to 16-inch rough-hewn wood columns and beams. Frank Lloyd Wright shaped the expectations of guests to the homes he designed with low-ceilinged entryways. A tight entryway foyer contracts your expectations. Then, entering the dining area, you are lifted with broad expansive access to light and natural materials.

Walking into the main dining area, you feel the entire footprint of the old mill. The heavy wood and the roof vaulting up three stories give a sense of the spacious seating beyond. Looking up, you can see details of the old mill, often subtly lit to add to the ambiance. The tables along the closer wall are curved booths, so all of the diners face into the main dining room.

Inside, the wood rafters and paneling add warmth and coziness with pulleys, belts, wheels, and pipes harkening back to the restaurant’s origins as a mill. The remnants of the mill serve as artwork for diners who look up toward the ceiling. A sunroom and patio off to the side increase the seating capacity, but our favorite rooms are the historic interior rooms.

Up a long flight of stairs is additional seating, including a separate room that can comfortably seat a larger group in a semi-private area.

The open kitchen and the hanging artwork along with the wood add a modern and hip feel to the historic building. During happy hour the bar hums with the sound of after-work chatter as the bartenders and staff move fast to get the evening’s libations to the clientele.

The waiter brought us the extensive beer and wine list. Ever interested in the local offerings, my friend selected a local merlot. The waiter offered his suggestion, saying that a less expensive Spanish bottle was the best deal going – great taste for a great price. We appreciated the cost savings and went with his recommendation. It was delicious.

We didn’t have bread with our meal, but on other occasions, we have indulged. The bread is a relatively thin bread with hints of salt. It melts in your mouth as you dip it in olive oil and sip your pre-dinner cocktail.

The menu mentions all of the local farmers who sourced the local products in the meal. During the summer and fall, the specials menu often features salads and entrees exclusively based on locally grown ingredients and locally raised meats.

One inviting and comforting element on the dinner menu is the availability of pizzas and burgers, in addition to the more elaborate entrees. Simple selections have no doubt contributed to Magnolia’s being a regular “go to” for the local clientele, as well as a destination for diners from further afield. With one member of our party gluten-free, this was our first look at the gluten-free menu – a rare option.

The special soft-shell crab was a temptation, as was a salad. We had tried the burgers on previous visits. They were cooked perfectly with a nice crispy bun. The shrimp and grits were another family favorite, but this time we decided to try something different: Cioppino and pizza with a gluten-free crust. We would split, to get the chance to try both options.

The cioppino came in a bowl piled high with seafood, swimming in a thick tomato broth. Two toasted pieces of French bread graced the top of the seafood, their buttery crusts glistening in the light of the dining room. The mussels, calamari and fish were tender and channeled the flavors of the broth. Two unusual additions to the classic cioppino were the asparagus and broccolini. I loved having a few extra veggies in the stew.

The gluten-free Kennet Square pizza had a downright brilliant combination of arugula, bacon, mushrooms and gruyere. The toppings were as indulgently decadent as they sound. But, the gluten-free pizza crust tasted a bit like cardboard. With so many outstanding menu items, that is one to avoid. The regular pizza is the perfect thickness with a crisp bottom and soft crust. The pizza offerings change regularly, so other pizza favorites – like a white sausage pizza – weren’t available any longer.

The salads are another highlight of the menu. The regular menu salads are classics, often with a bit of a twist.

For lunch, the Hickory Grilled Flank Steak Caesar is one of my favorites. The steak is tender, the dressing delicious and the salad toppings – French fries and blue cheese – stand apart from standard Caesar salads. My only recommendation here is to get the dressing on the side, since they give you more than you’ll need.

After dinner, the dessert wine and cordials menu is extensive with selections of brandy, cognac, port, sherry, scotch and rum to suit every palate, to say nothing of the range of coffee drinks and my after-dinner favorite, tea.

I went with the peppermint tea. Our waiter, always looking out for our needs, offered two tea bags for the little pot. It was a refreshing beginning to the end of our meal. Yet, the best was yet to come.

The dessert menu makes for tough choices. There had to be one chocolate dessert for the table, but that wasn’t enough. Would we choose something fruity? Or bready? Or creamy?

For our chocolate selection, the gluten-free Chocolate Story was just about perfect. Here’s the menu description: Flourless Chocolate Cake, Chocolate Ganache, Chocolate Mousse Toasted Meringue, Caramel Sauce. If anything, it was chocolateier than described. The different textures went well. The toasted meringue created a brown-tinged crown over the cake and ganache; its bit of crunch went well with the silky cake and ganache.

The Zabaglione also was a hit. A delicate crispy shell housed a very soft custard topped with berries. The combination of sweet and crisp was a palate pleaser.

Throughout the year, Magnolia’s hosts special events with wine dinners, beer dinners, fixed price menus and holiday specials. We went for our anniversary last year, casually let them know we were celebrating, and they had a menu customized with the date and a congratulatory message. At the end of our meal, they presented us with the menu nicely rolled up with a ribbon – a charming reminder of a special dinner.

Magnolia’s has such an extensive menu that it can fit many needs, whether it’s a special occasion or a quick bite or an after-work meeting at the bar.

Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email tplettie@visuallink.com.


Magnolia’s at the Mill
198 North 21st Street
Purcellville, VA 20132
540-338-9800
http://www.magnoliasmill.com/

 

Dutch’s Daughter: A Sunday Brunch for All Ages

 

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

20160110_dutchsdaughter-3A visit to Frederick’s Dutch’s Daughter is a step back in time. The honey oak paneling and mouldings, the thick patterned carpet are reminiscent of grandma’s house on Sunday afternoon.

The brunch buffet is upstairs, but fortunately the classic restaurant is housed in a new building, constructed in 2000, and an elevator is available for anyone who doesn’t want to climb the staircase. A hostess on each level helps orient you to the layout.

Upstairs, almost two dozen waiting chairs line the foyer, a testament to the popularity of the brunch. Fortunately, we had reservations for our feast, so we were quickly shown to our table.

The first glimpse of the buffet seemed manageable, but the depths were only apparent on a deeper look. This was our third visit, but we hadn’t been here in years, since we decided to wean ourselves off the caloric allures of a buffet.

For the first stab at the buffet, each member of our group had a different strategy. One went for the salad; another went straight to the carving station, but my husband and I began with the star of the buffet: The crab dishes.

Off to the side were tables that held cream of crab soup, Maryland crab soup and the crab dip, along with accompaniments like toasted bread and crackers. These temptations spoke to us, and apparently many others. In fact, there sometimes were lines just to get to the crab, so Dutch’s Daughter set up two tables of the popular crab dishes to allow better access.

It was the perfect place to start.

The cream of crab soup was creamy with little spicing, great for those who don’t like much heat. But, to kick it up a notch, my husband put a dollop of the spicier crab dip into the soup. It was delicious with just enough punch. I tried the Maryland crab soup instead, balancing the rich crab dip. The soup had a dark rich broth and was packed with vegetables. The crab flavor was present and complemented the nice intensity of the Old Bay-style flavoring that I associate with Maryland crab soup. The crab dip was almost too rich for me, but it was thick with crab and cheese and went well on the toast.

By this time we were relaxing into the event that is Sunday brunch with soft notes of upbeat jazz music piped over the sound system. While the $1 bloody Marys didn’t interest anyone, the $1 mimosas were appealing. The price of brunch included tea, coffee and soft drinks that our waitress brought as needed.

The entree highlights were the prime rib, the biscuits with chipped beef gravy, and the baked chicken with cheese, asparagus and mushrooms.

The prime rib was carved to order – as big or as small as you want. In our party, my daughter prefers her prime rib rare (or medium rare), while my father-in-law preferred well done. Both enjoyed their cuts, which says a lot. The meat was juicy, with accompanying au jus, horseradish and creamy horseradish on the side.

20160110_dutchsdaughter-11Half of the buffet was devoted to traditional breakfast items, but I only had room to try one: Biscuits with gravy. The biscuits were toasty crisp on the outside, while the inside was soft and fluffy. The cream gravy with chipped beef was salted perfectly and had plenty of meat. The biscuits were just dry enough to sop up the flavorful gravy.

The other half of the buffet line was devoted to entrees. The nicely cooked chicken with asparagus and mushrooms was bathed in cheese; a fork would cut through it. The flavors blended well, but still left us longing for a more veggies. While two of the pasta dishes had significant vegetables, we longed for greens. The salad bar was one option, but was nowhere near as inspired as the crab and other entrees.

No buffet worth its salt can be described without mention of the deserts. I asked the prime rib carver what he recommended, and he was unequivocal: The peanut butter cream pie was the best. How could I turn down such adamant advice? The peanut butter cream pie had just the right flavor of peanuts in a creamy whipped pie, with plenty of whipped topping and a crushed cookie crust.

That was just one of many choices, however. Dutch’s Daughter had something in a wide range of textures and flavors. This is where many in our party gave into the gods of sugar, chocolate and cream.

The platter of chocolate-covered strawberries appealed to both the fruit-lover and the chocoholic. The chocolate was soft and milky, with a certain sweetness. Meanwhile, the coconut cake was moist and tasty. While the frosting was a little sweet, a layer of pineapple created a moist barrier between the layers of cake.

But chocoholics had myriad other choices as well. The chocolate mousse pie was light and fluffy with chocolate shavings on top. If that wasn’t enough chocolate, brownies were a worthy addition, to say nothing of the frozen yogurt with assorted toppings. The excess is, after all, what draws us to good buffets – it’s not exercising self-discipline, but the delicious giving into temptation that makes us remember a buffet.

Of course this is not all excess and indulgence. Often in family dining, we trim dollars off our bills by subtly discouraging the appetizer or dessert. Yet, what often creates lasting and fond memories is the lingering at the table in the warmth of that second dessert. So for us, what better way to begin 2016 than with a leisurely afternoon filled with family time and the many wonderful choices of a brunch spread.

Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email tplettie@visuallink.com.


Dutch’s Daughter

581 Himes Avenue

Frederick, MD 21703

301-668-9500

http://www.dutchsdaughter.com

 

 

Lucky Corner: Expansive Menu Offers Vietnamese Delights to Suit Every Palate

 

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

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The Vietnamese restaurant Lucky Corner is one of the most popular restaurants in Frederick, according to online rating sites.

In 1982, Pha Huynh strapped his baby daughter to his back, left his wife and son behind, and became one of the boat people – a refugee from South Vietnam. It was a time that he describes as “hard, very hard.”

Luck was with him, however, because he found work in the United States and earned money to send back to his family. A decade later, he was able to bring his wife and son to join him.

In 2006, Huynh made the leap to restaurant chef/owner, a natural transition for him, he says, since many members of his family back in Vietnam were restaurateurs. The location he picked after studying various venues was to purchase the Lucky Corner Vietnamese Restaurant in Frederick.

“I had to do something for myself,” he says, in English still accented by Vietnamese. His assistant manager, Tan Pham, expands on Huynh’s comments, pointing out the ideal location with low rent on the outskirts of downtown, and every city dweller’s dream, a parking lot.

Today, Lucky Corner is one of the top rated Frederick restaurants on the online restaurant-rating sites – not just the top Asian restaurant, but one of the top 1 percent of all restaurants. Huynh speaks with pride of the 45-minute wait for dinner on Friday night.

So what does this little Vietnamese restaurant do to attract so many fans: Is it the fresh vegetables, some sourced locally in the summer months? The authentic pho? Grilled meat salads? Rich French coffee or Thai iced tea? The curries?

The variety of food choices is certainly one reason for Lucky Corner’s popularity, while the friendly service has to be another. On an earlier visit, our waiter seemed delighted to offer recommendations and even chopstick training. He says that the trick is to hold one of the chopsticks stationary, then move only the second chopstick to grasp the food. Taught with a laugh and a smile, we all had out chopsticks in hand to try out the new technique, much to his amusement.

While the service might leave a lasting positive impression, the vast array of menu options will keep you coming back, whether you have an adventurous palate or prefer simpler flavors. This is not a one-trick pony.

In many cases, the entrées were flavorful in ways different from Chinese or Thai restaurants, with optional sauces to take the experience to a higher level adding a dash of flair, a bite of vinegar or a punch of hot pepper.

Huynh defines the Lucky Corner’s cuisine as “fusion” with Mexican, Thai, Chinese and French influences, while his roots are deeply Vietnamese.

“In my mind, I see my parents cooking,” he says, describing his youth, when many family members owned restaurants and shared recipes. The authentic Vietnamese food is saltier and sweeter than Americans would like, but Huynh learned to adapt international flavors to suit U.S. tastes when he worked for a large hotel in D.C.

For appetizers, the Crispy Crabmeat Cream Cheese Wontons are a creamy texture filling wrapped in a fried pouch. The crispy crunch is a nice contrast with the filling; the crab flavor is mild, but strong enough that it doesn’t dominate the cream cheese. The spice is minimal, the heat nonexistent, but it is still flavorful. The complementary mango fish sauce piques our interest with a hint of heat.

A more unusual offering is the Duck Pot Stickers, which have a distinct and refreshing cilantro flavor. Often duck announces itself with a distinctive and gamey flavor, but not so here. A well paired sweet sauce is more dominant and plays well with the darker tasting duck.

If you are only mildly hungry, an appetizer along with the small pho is enough for a meal. The traditional Vietnamese soup has a clear, yet flavorful broth and is only slightly salty and packed with noodles. A plate of add-ons on the side – hoisin or sriracha sauces, basil, jalapeño, lime wedges and bean sprouts – allows diners to embellish the soup to suit their tastes. The soup itself is deceptively simple, but the option of adding sauces or herbs, makes pho a kind of Asian comfort food.

For those who prefer less spice, the Seafood in Hot Pot has the Asian flavor profile, but little in the way of heat. Served in a traditional metal pot, the seafood flavor balances perfectly with the stir-fried vegetables. The vegetables bring fresh garden flavors to the dish, making it feel like a healthy meal while still being filling.

A very different seafood experience – also served in the charming metal pot – the Caramelized Catfish comes in a rich brown sauce, with steamed vegetables on the side. Although the menu specifically mentions the black pepper in the sauce, the peppery flavor isn’t dominant. The sauce is rich and makes for a satisfying dipping sauce for the vegetables, which are steamed perfectly: Done, but not mushy.

Yet another seafood dish, the Shrimp Curry – rating two out of three peppers for spiciness – came with green vegetables and wispy shredded carrots on the top and shrimp swimming along the sides. The inviting presentation didn’t telegraph the mild spiciness. The red curry and coconut sauce was a good carrier for the vegetables and shrimp, along with the steamed rice that was standard with most of the entrees.

The Cubed Beef Steak on the other hand, showed off the French influence. Sautéed with butter and red onions, and served with salad greens, the dish could have been served in a Paris bistro. The marinade left only a mild flavor in the meat, but a small dish of salt and pepper, along with a second dish of dipping sauce, were options to tweak the flavors to suit the diner.

No one in our party opted for the children’s menu, but the offerings were simpler or smaller versions of regular menu items – no chicken tenders or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches here. But, the tamarind chicken, a small pho or grilled chicken would appeal to many younger diners, and perhaps would offer a way to introduce Asian flavors.

Lucky Corner’s beverages are notable as well. Scents of hot jasmine tea waft across the table, adding to the warm atmosphere. The flavor is soft, with just a hint of jasmine. But the tea choice doesn’t stop there. There’s an iced delicacy as well.

The Thai iced tea, served in a tall drinking glass, looks red as the light shines against it. Sweetened creamer forms a separate layer on the top, but easily mixes into the tea. The resulting beverage is sweet, almost cloyingly so, but a wonderful complement to the spicy Thai food.

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Even the coffee was an unexpected pleasure. Our group tried the French coffee, which turned out to be thick and flavorful. Sweetened with condensed milk, it somehow wasn’t as sweet as I expected. The strong coffee flavor dominated. The French brought coffee to Vietnam, but the tradition of lingering over coffee continues.

Lucky Corner uses an old-fashioned brewing method for the coffee – no percolator, no espresso machine and no foaming milk.

The coffee brewing starts with a big dollop of condensed milk in the bottom of the coffee mug.

On top of the mug, the brewer sets a metal cup called a “phin,” the de facto coffee filter with small holes in the bottom. Then, the coffee goes into the metal cup, with a filter press on top. Next, in goes the almost boiling water. Oh so slowly, the water goes through the coffee, then drips into the mug below. More hot water is added, followed by more dripping. Eventually, the coffee and condensed milk are stirred, and then served, often over ice.

The coffee-making process happens in the kitchen, so the diner only tastes the final glass of rich Vietnamese coffee. Pham says the process can take an hour, as the coffee gets thicker and thicker. This is not a quick cup of Joe; this is labor intensive and meant to be savored.

The coffee was the perfect closing to our meal. We shared a flan, swimming in a caramel sauce, garnished with a flower cut from a strawberry. Presentation was a highlight, as the dessert was otherwise nondescript, although the flavors blended well.

Altogether dining at Lucky Corner is an adventure for the palate. And those far-reaching tastes, cultivated 8,000 miles from here, are likely to be cemented in your memory by the experiences of your other senses – the fragrances of steaming dishes carried across the dining room, the unique and colorful presentations, and the friendly smiles of the waiter.

As for Huynh, he works side-by-side with his son, Trung, testing out new recipes, switching up the menu to hold the interest of his regulars.

“It’s a long journey for him,” says Pham.

Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email tplettie@visuallink.com.


Lucky Corner Vietnamese Restaurant

301-624-1005

North Market Street and 7th Street in Frederick, Md.

 

Element: Eclectic Menu, Friendly Atmosphere, Great Food

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

dsc_0052A new site is in store for two of Front Royal’s more innovative restaurants. Element and Apartment 2g are moving to a new location in the city.  The current location will be getting a facelift and opening as another concept, likely in the fall according to one of the owners, David Gedney.

There are so many reasons that we go out to eat. It’s a way to connect with friends and a way to try new food combinations or sometimes it’s just a way to enjoy having someone else prepare and cleanup after a meal.

At Element in Front Royal, especially on the weeknights when we visited, it seems to be about the camaraderie. The clientele is predominantly local. Diners greet one another with the words, “Hey, how are you doing? What have you been up to?”

The variety on the ever-changing menu could be one reason for the repeat customers, although the comfortable atmosphere no doubt contributes as well.

The restaurant seats no more than two dozen diners; the tables closest to the window have nice natural light, while the tables further back have romantic lighting from candles and indirect light from track lights that highlight the eclectic multimedia artwork hanging on the walls. Along the north side of the restaurant, bench seats with a soft velvety cushion line the wall. The deep colors and sleek art contribute to a modern feeling that hints of bohemian energy. In the very back, a bar seats a few more diners.

As we settle in to try the latest creations of chef/owners David and Stacy Gedney, we start with the beverage list.

The beer and wine list had a wide selection, which is enhanced by a large rack of wines for sale at retail prices. If Element’s wine list wasn’t sufficient, diners could select one of the dozens of bottles for sale then pay a corking fee to have them served with dinner. The special Spanish rioja with an affordable $6 per glass price tag, written on the specials chalkboard in pink, looked like a good way to start the meal.

For a starter, our choices ranged from a cheese tray or a traditional Caesar salad to Korean beef tacos. According to our waiter – it was his first day – the salads are the most popular; he hadn’t seen anyone order the beef tacos yet that evening. He laughed as he explained his limitations.

Always interested in cultural flavors – and curious what kind of fusion we’d find in a Korean taco in Front Royal – we decided to buck the trend and try the beef tacos.

Our waiter was enthusiastic about our choice, when he delivered the two tacos that comprise the appetizer portion. Tender beef slices still dripping with a Korean sauce were centered on the 6-inch soft flaky flour tortillas – the perfect size to split among the three of us. The sweet-spicy combo was a great one-two punch for the taste buds.  A carrot, cabbage and red pepper slaw added a nice crunch, all while adding a slightly sweet flavor profile. The tacos really did look Mexican, but the Korean taste shone through – and it really was Korean rather than a generic Asian flavor.

In dining out what quietly calls us back to a restaurant is the sense of trust established between restaurant and diner – for example, the menu’s description versus the food delivered to your table. In accurately delivering on Korean tacos we are then subtly encouraged to consider future ethnic adventures. The Gedneys change up the menu at least seasonally, but also change it based on what sells and what customers like. While we may have been one of the first to try the Korean tacos, the international flavors are one of the alternatives they like to offer diners.

“I am inspired by different cuisines all around the world. Our menu reflects that by covering a variety of selections to choose from,” David says.

As diners, we benefitted from the Gedneys’ experimental bent. The Shenandoah Valley is often better known for mountain vistas and country cooking, rather than ethnic food diversity.

Our waiter was more than willing to put in our appetizer and drink order, while we continued to peruse the seven or so entrée selections, which included selections that were beef, pork, seafood, chicken and quail, although the quail wasn’t available during our visit. Our party of three opted for a chicken, a scallop and a pork dish.

The chicken was the most traditional of the three: Pan-roasted chicken with mashed potatoes, spinach and au jus. The flavors were comforting, without a dominant herb or spice.  The thin au jus carried the poultry flavor into the potatoes, while the sautéed spinach resting atop the dish gave a splash of color and a complementary earthy flavor.

The pork on the other hand was stuffed with cheese and served over a bed of angel hair pasta and marinara sauce. It was a large portion with the tender pork dominating the plate. The marinara was thick and chunky with a rich tomato flavor reminiscent of summer’s best tomatoes.

The scallops were the subtlest of the three. Beautifully seared to a golden brown crust, the inside was evenly cooked throughout and still moist. Arranged in circle around a center of citrus-laced orzo with just a hint of kale and dappled with an orange beurre blanc sauce, the citrus flavors punctuated this dish but still blended nicely with the ocean taste of the scallops. The sometimes-bitter taste of kale didn’t come through at all, with the sweeter tastes dominating.

According to their Web site, David trained at The California Culinary Academy and attributes his love of cooking to his parents. Stacy has foodie roots as well. Her mother had a small cake business, and Stacy started her own catering business when she was in high school, preparing bagged lunches for local business people. She attended The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

The couple met at the Inn at Little Washington where Stacy was morning kitchen supervisor and David was lead sauté. They changed jobs, but continued to live in the valley. When the Front Royal location was available, it presented the couple with an opportunity.

“We grew to love the town and decided to make it home for us and our business,” David says.

The couple grows a wide variety of herbs and produce, but not everything. During the housing crash, cost and quality were considerations when the duo was planning their garden.

“Stacy and I used to work at the Ashby Inn and really enjoyed working with the products we grew,” David says.

Element is only one of chef/owners David and Stacy Gedney’s establishments. They also serve up a prix fixe menu upstairs only on Saturday nights in a restaurant dubbed Apartment 2g. The offerings there are even more upscale.

“Apartment 2g was our first restaurant. It was open five days a week. We did tapas two nights a week, our five-course prix fixe on Friday and Saturday nights, and brunch on Sundays. We would typically be full on Friday and Saturday, but tapas and brunch were more sporadic. Apartment 2g’s mission was to serve fine food without pretense. Element’s mission was to reach a broader customer base than Apartment 2g by providing a casual bistro type environment,” says David.

That leaves another restaurant to try on another evening. Tonight, we were trying Element.

At Element another dining option is take-away meals – particularly with the bottled wine sales and the lunch menu – Element offers the alternative to take a meal home or to pack up to picnic for the nearby Skyline Drive.

For dessert, our group of three decided to share two desserts: The Nectarine and Cherry Crisp and the Raspberry Chocolate Mousse Pavlova. The crisp was served bubbling hot with whipped cream, the flavors light and refreshing. Recently cut herb sprigs graced the top of the plate. A staff recommendation for the Raspberry Chocolate Mousse Pavlova was right on target, appealing to the chocoholic in each of us. The homemade chocolate mousse in a meringue shell with raspberry coulis was delectable. The size alone would recommend it, but the taste would really draw you in. Not too sweet, but with a combination of crunch and creaminess.

So yummy.

Our dinner extended to over two hours, but the friendly comfortable atmosphere and good pace of food service hit the spot.

While the dining room added coziness on the drizzly spring day when we were dining, an al fresco patio dining opened up recently. Not only did it open up the opportunity for outdoor seating, but also doubled the seating capacity of the restaurant.

But with a new location in the offing, diners will be able to find the same delicious food in a completely new Front Royal location. Since the opening date is a moving target, call to see exactly what – and where – the Gedneys are cooking.

Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email tplettie@visuallink.com.


Element

http://jsgourmet.com/element/

540-636-9293

Element soon to move to new location in Front Royal

 

 

 

Domestic: Chef Creates Comfort with a Twist

 

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

If Shepherdstown is too far afield, owner Doug Vaira operates a second restaurant focused on using local ingredients. Vaira’s Charles Town restaurant, Dish, is online is http://www.wvdish.com.

dsc_0075Last fall, Desiree Garcia walked into Domestic as the new executive chef. Twenty-four hours later, the Shepherdstown bastion of modern home cooking had a complete menu makeover. The evolution continues as Garcia brings quality ingredients and contrasting flavors together to create 21st century comfort food.

The friendly staff, ambience and Web site suggest that Domestic is the place where you can relax and “come as you are.” The menu is a creative interpretation of childhood favorites, sourcing ingredients locally whenever possible. Yet, the Domestic experience is never simple mashed potatoes and gravy, or traditional fried chicken. Each dish has a surprise, a tension between old and new. While the choices showcase childhood favorites, reminiscent of mealtimes with family and friends, the addition of Cajun spices or new food combinations give sophisticated diners a chance for exploration.

The restaurant’s two rooms are a study in contrasts. Diners enter through the bar, where table seating is also available. A map on the wall describes wines; dim lighting makes it a place where regulars might feel at home. The far end serves as a stage for bands that liven up the atmosphere.

A right turn brings diners into a slightly brighter dining room, with minimalistic modern décor, wood shelves against the back wall stacked with memorabilia. The chandelier of repurposed glass bottles casts interesting shadows across the ceiling, while a barn door acts as the canvas for an abstract painting. All of this evokes a feeling that Domestic is definitely not about the quick bite. It’s a place to slow down around the dinner table amidst good food and drink, recalling our collective memories about home and family where we linger and unwind.

The menu item that best illustrates the blend of tradition with a modern flair may be the macaroni and cheese. Sharp white cheddar cheese sauce clings to cavatappi pasta, with the perfect balance of sauce. Full strips of applewood-smoked bacon garnish the side of the bowl, while slightly sweet and delicately browned caramelized onions accented by diced chives and the crunch of the breadcrumbs atop the corkscrew pasta.

The sweet-savory flavor combination is  a theme that Garcia explored throughout the meal, often combined on the same entrée, a creative mix calculated to surprise and to please. Consider the Monte Cristo, a deep-fried sandwich of ham and cheese dusted with powder sugar and accompanied by jam. Garcia hasn’t decided if it will make the cut and become a regular menu item, so for now, diners wanting to give it a try will have to keep an eye on the specials’ menu.

One of the seasonal dishes on her tasting menu for the evening was a grilled quail, butterflied and served on a bed of brown rice with wilted greens. Fresh roasted cranberries punctuated the dish with color and tartness, while clementine poppy seed sauce added a sharp, yet sweet, citrus flavor. The sweet sauces and savory quail work well together and hit the perfect balance. Biting into one of the cranberries releases a rush of juice that rewards the diner, without overpowering the quail.

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Blackened shrimp with Andouille sausage and white cheddar grits have a bit of zing.

Quail is one of the ingredients that Garcia tries to source locally, therefore making it a dish only found on the list of special offerings. The challenge with local sources is that they change constantly, she says. Prices change. Availability changes. She says she’s worked hard to build relationships with her suppliers, to ensure consistent high-quality ingredients. She laughs as she tells the story of the 3 a.m. phone call from one of her suppliers, who was out of a key ingredient for the next day’s menu.

 

Garcia describes a hamburger, talking about the importance of using quality ingredients. She uses her hands to show the layer upon layer of flavors, the layer upon layer of ingredients – each one something that she has selected for its ability to blend or to stand out from the other ingredients. The careful selection of each layer – from the house made bread to the local bacon to the Maytag blue cheese – shows her thoughtful preparation.

Consider the buffalo fried oyster (think buffalo chicken wing sauce) served on an oyster shell with a dollop of blue cheese dressing. The oyster shell is positioned on a bed of peppery arugula. The presentation was not only impressive, but also made for a terrific blend of flavors. The creamy blue cheese dressing contrasted with the spicy burst of flavor from the buffalo chicken. My only regret was that it was hard to get at the arugula, and I didn’t want to leave a bite behind.

In the words of server Kayla Conrad: “Desiree is not afraid to try new things” – or to spice up old favorites with a little kick. The kick is evident in the blackened shrimp with Andouille and sharp white cheddar grits. A spicy sauce reminiscent of Louisiana creole cooking added a little zing to the dish.

Even the regular menu has plenty of interesting variations on traditional favorites. Fried chicken livers, for example.

Fried chicken would grace almost anyone’s comfort food list – especially anyone living within 100 miles of the Mason-Dixon Line. Domestic takes this classic in a different direction using fried chicken livers, served on a house-made biscuit and resting on black pepper cream gravy. Sweet pepper relish dots each corner of the plate and accents the savory fried chicken livers.

Ending the meal, bread pudding gets an update as well. Garcia uses croissants as the basis for a bread pudding that ends up flaky and flavorful. An intense dark chocolate punctuates the otherwise sweet dessert, served atop a mild bourbon sauce that walks the line of adding flavor without overpowering the delicate croissant.

With so many choices, Domestic is a place to graze and to sample a diverse menu, perfect for sharing. The options for libations are plentiful, offering a selection of wines, cocktails and a well-rounded list of beers on tap and in the bottle.

The new interpretation of home – Domestic.

Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email tplettie@visuallink.com.


Domestic

117 East German Street

Shepherdstown, WV 25443

304-876-1030

http://www.wvdomestic.com

 

 

 

Lot 12: Fine Dining in a Warm and Comfortable Venue

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

dsc_0018Strolling toward Lot 12, we feel the peaceful evening settling in around us. Closing our eyes, the soothing aroma of late fall wood smoke wafting through chilly air seeps into our subconscious.

Climbing the steps to the front entrance of the house, walking past the wrap-around porch, looking out over the park and homes below, then strolling through the entryway, we feel at ease. The sense of home and comfort overtakes us.  

The hostess reinforced the sense of ease as she escorted us to our table.

From our table at the front of the dining room, we look out on the orange setting sun, while dimmed interior lights and muted conversations hum in the dining room next to us.

We bask in a homey interior, where two-toned neutral paint colors are separated by a dark brown chair and crown moulding that serves double duty as a picture hanger, with artwork by the chef’s parents, Jan and Jonathan Heath punctuating the simple wall colors.

A cheerful and welcoming waitress brought us bread and olive oil before our meal, but ever vigilant of the effect of carbs on our middle-aged frames, we, like the growing numbers of carb-weary boomers, sought out other appetizer options.

With a menu as eclectic and varied as the Lot 12 menu, we looked for expert advice, quizzing our waitress about her favorites.

For our appetizer, tuna or duck?

For our entree, coq au vin or cioppino?

For dessert, creme brulee or apple crostata?

 We opted for the rare ahi tuna roulade appetizer. The slices of raw tuna wrapped around homemade nappa slaw gave the appearance of sushi bites, but each bite contained the delicious crunch of fried wontons. The slaw on the side, along with the seaweed salad, were topped with the welcome crunch of fried wontons. The three tuna roulades sat on a sea of creamy wasabi dressing drizzled with a hint of ponzu, a tangy Japanese citrus-soy blend. The wasabi flavor was muted by the cream, without wasabi’s typical strong punch, but complementing the rice vinegar dressing on the slaw.

We were in a Saturday frame of mind, but it was actually Sunday. Even on a Sunday evening, three-quarters of the tables were full. We were lucky to arrive early and trade in a middle-of-the-room table for an intimate table for two in front of the big windows overlooking the porch and the park. A two-foot wrought-iron dragonfly hung inside the window, adding an artistic accents to an already charming view.

The two-person table next to us featured a bench seat complete with a variety of pillows.

Fresh off a tasty Asian appetizer, our waitress brought an unexpected – but always welcome – treat: A palate cleanser. The icy little mound of peach-ginger sorbet with a delicate little spoon created a clean slate for sampling our dinner entrees.

As the evening darkened, we settled in even more. The lights in the restaurant dimmed, and the table-top candles were lit. Dimmed, recessed lights gave the room a warm glow – not too bright, but enough wattage for dining, while the candle gave a flickering yellow light to the place setting.

Encouraged and emboldened by the success of our waitress’s advice on the tuna roulade, we forged ahead. We had taken her advice on the appetizer, and that turned out beautifully. I don’t know how the alternative would taste, but her recommendation of the tuna was right on target.

Thus, we went with her suggestions for the entrees as well. It was refreshing to have a server who quickly commented on having sampled all the entrees. She engendered trust, explaining that as a perk of working at Lot 12, she got to try the desserts as well as starters and mains. With so many delicious sounding items on the menu, it really helped to have knowledgeable guidance.

Our entrees were a delight. Multiple servers brought our dishes and sides, so all of our selections arrived simultaneously – hot and ready to eat. We opted for two seafood dishes, the rockfish special and the cioppino, although so many of the other options – crisp roasted duck, coq au vin, or even the vegetarian gluten-free risotto cakes – were totally tempting.

Vegetarian and gluten-free dishes are regulars on the menu, according to the Lot 12 Web site.

The rockfish special with risotto had a tart vinegar dressing. The risotto was plump, and redolent with evidence of a delicious stock. The rockfish was nicely prepared, seared to seal in the juice, but still flaky and flavorful. We always enjoy sampling different risotto as it can be a measure of the kitchen. Risotto is moderately difficult to make – the window of time for pulling it off the heat is narrow – and shortcomings are not easy to mask. For the experienced and adventurous chef, it’s a means to showcase what differentiates them from their brethren. We were more than pleased with the risotto’s unique seasoning and soft creamy texture that accented a not-often-available rockfish.  

The cioppino was a well assembled assortment of perfectly cooked seafood. The lightly browned scallops were eye catching, while their taste was tender and sweet. The accompanying shrimp were pleasantly firm. Mussels and clams, in their shells, added to the visually beautiful plating. Two crusty airy pieces of grilled garlic bread graced the side of the bowl, like sails in a red sea of thick broth. This broth, unlike the San Francisco variety we typically experience, let the tomato and seafood stock compete, with neither over-shadowing the other.

Though somewhat elegant, Lot 12 has a relaxed atmosphere. While most diners dressed in business casual attire, jeans wouldn’t be out of place. The white linen tablecloths added a distinguished air to the restaurant, but the couple next to us brought a young child and was welcomed, though there were no high chairs or crayons available for the young family.

The Lot 12 Web site offers a history of the house and of the town of Berkeley Springs. It says that Berkeley Springs began as the Town of Bath in 1776, near the natural warm springs in the area. The Web site continues: “Only a few street names and minor boundary adjustments have occurred over the centuries. Lot numbers from the first land sale are still used on deeds, and plaques note the original 1777 lot owner. Lot 12 Public House was built on the original Lot #12 within the Town of Bath.”

With the post-entree warmth flowing through our bodies, we turned our attention to dessert. When we couldn’t decide between a range of desserts – chocolate torte, creme brulee, apple crostata. The chocolate torte was a given with my husband as a chocolate lover, but for our second sweet treat, we went with the waitress’s recommendation again, to good effect. The creme brulee got her nod.

The melted sugar crust on the creme brulee made a pleasing crunch, when the spoon broke through the surface to the thick custard below. Fresh plump blueberries, a strawberry and whip cream graced the top.

The torte was dense, rich chocolate. The vanilla bean sauce and whipped cream more than made up for the slight dryness of the torte. This timely spot of sweetness was an outstanding end to the meal.

For the accompanying tea, I went with the organic peppermint, which was served in a pot, and was loose leaf. One pot equalled about three full cups.

In the back of the restaurant, etched glass doors offered separation between public areas of the restaurant and the service area and coffee service. The next side door opened into the bar. A red glow permeated the whole bar, where Chef Damian Heath was conversing with diners.

The owner’s dedication to environmental  concerns shows itself in the bathroom, where a large basket held rolled up towels that served as environmentally friendly hand dryers. On the walls, Jan Heath linocuts featured dogs.

Lot 12 delivers on the promise of “seasonal upscale comfort cuisine, utilizing local sourced farm fresh ingredients” touted by their Web site. The food is excellent, the atmosphere relaxed, the service is prompt and knowledgeable and the aura is comfortable.


Local Arts

Berkeley Springs has a thriving arts community that includes Chef Damian Heath’s parents, Jan and Jonathan Heath, whose artwork graces the walls of Lot 12. The Heaths’ Washington Street studio is open Saturdays and Sundays. Visit the Web site for details at www.jheath.com.

 


Lot 12 Public House

Open Friday through Sunday in winter

117 Warren Street

Berkeley Springs, WV 25411

(304) 258-6264

http://www.lot12.com

Berryville Grille Features Casual American Fare with Fresh Ingredients

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

dsc_0009

The sandwich board on Main Street in Berryville lists the day’s specials, but that is only a hint of the underlying passion for food.

 

From the time she was a child, Heidi Grubb-McClemens loved food, but it took until she was 30 years old before she chose to follow her passion.

Heidi says she attended culinary school in San Francisco, spending a couple years absorbing herself in everything related to food. She recalls her time in school not only as “grueling,” but also “the most rewarding two years.”

She tried working in fine dining, then spent 11 years as a corporate chef, eventually moving to Berryville. The long commute wore her down, but helped drive her decision to try her hand at owning and operating a restaurant.

Thus, the Berryville Grille was born six years ago, part of Heidi’s commitment to casual family-friendly food.

The specials – published on that sandwich board out front of the restaurant –are a creative outlet for Heidi. The day we visited, the special was pepper-crusted ahi tuna with a puttanesca sauce on grilled polenta.  Her enthusiasm was infectious, describing the multiple kinds of tomatoes, the way the cherry tomatoes are added at the end and cooked only by the heat of the other ingredients. For this particular Italian dish, Heidi made up the recipe as she went – nothing written down, no way to exactly recreate the dish.

While cooking may be one of Heidi’s passions, sourcing the ingredients that comprise those dishes is another love. The puttanesca sauce with its blend of tomatoes, Kalamata olives, capers, fresh basil, onion, relies heavily on what local farmers can provide.

“I live for the heirloom tomatoes every year,” she says gesturing to the sauce. “These came off the vine this afternoon. Nothing sets off a piece of fish like that.”

She says she’s a frequent visitor at the Berryville Saturday Farmer’s Market, but says sources run deeper than that. Chilly Hollow Farm, Shallowbrooke Farm, Mackintosh Fruit Farm, Briars Farmstead and Audley Farm have been among her local suppliers. The freshest ingredients drive the specials menu.

“You take what nature gives you and go with it,” she says. While a puttanesca sauce is Italian, Heidi’s description of her style is more general.

“Everyone asks me what cuisine I make, and I say ‘mood’ cuisine,” she says.

I also pick food based on my mood, and the menu at the Grille a variety of entrees, salads, and sandwiches. Salads are a staple of my meals there, and can suit whatever feeling I have on a particular day.

For comfort food, I get the Buffalo Chicken Salad – not the healthiest alternative, but it is so good. The fried chicken tenders are slathered in spicy Buffalo wing sauce, with the perfect hint of spice. The tenders still crunch, however. Served over mixed greens, they are the focal point of the meal. The blue cheese crumbles on top, along with the chunky blue cheese salad dressing, are the perfect complement. It’s a traditional pairing, but one that works.

For a healthy alternative, I get the spinach salad. The grilled eggplant is subtle and never bitter. The feta, tomato and chickpeas blend beautifully with the lemon vinaigrette. The chickpeas give me that full feeling, so it serves well as a vegetarian entrée salad.

For a nacho fix, I get the Pulled Pork Salad. I feel virtuous when I see the plate of greens, then I feel happy when I snag a bit of pulled pork. The salad has so many of the ingredients associated with Mexican food that it brings back those nacho memories.

The salads and entrée specials are only a small part of the menu. Every day, the Grille serves up a homemade soup as well. Chicken tortilla, creamy onion, black bean and broccoli cheese are a few of the contenders. When we visited, cream of mushroom soup was on the menu.

The soup was thick and creamy with a smattering of mushroom chunks. As a mushroom lover, I wanted more, but overall the soup was flavorful and a nice warm way to start the meal. Entrees come with either a house salad or soup.

Having standard items, along with a smattering of ever-changing specials adds excitement to the menu. On some visits, I have just ordered a series of appetizers. The range of flavors and ingredients make them a rewarding meal.

For the appetizers, my runaway favorites are the Tempura Tuna Skewers and Asian Sliders. The tuna skewers are six-inch long rectangles on a stick, lightly battered and fried – but available rare enough to keep that delicious Ahi taste. The accompanying seaweed salad and dipping sauce round out the appetizer.

The Asian sliders are cute mini-hamburgers, but the combination of the seasonings and the spicy mayo is reminiscent of countries on the other side of the world, with strong hints of Thai spicing. Since the sliders come as a trio, they are well suited for easy sharing.

Another of my favorites comes off the sandwich menu – and there are similarities here with my salad favorites. The buffalo chicken wrap puts all of the salad components into a flour tortilla, a “hands-on” and more filling alternative to the salad. The bright flavors still shine through.

The vegetarian option, the Portobello Panini, marries eggplant with Portobello mushrooms and roasted red peppers. Hummus gives the sandwich a little moisture holding everything together. Both are accompanied by potato chips.

The restaurant itself is a soft and soothing palette from which to serve food. The mustard-colored walls have a warm feeling, accentuated by the subtle lighting. Tables in the front windows are perfect for lovers of natural light. Overlooking the sidewalk in downtown Berryville, the view from the tables is pleasant and makes them a prime location. The trio of lights hanging over the table glow a pleasant yellow highlighting the modern pattern on the shades.

The building itself was built in the 1800s. Historic photos line the walls

The Berryville Grille serves breakfast every day, but Sundays are the busiest, going through 12 dozen eggs in three hours. Running a restaurant that’s open seven days a week isn’t easy, Heidi says, but she has found a sweet spot.

“When you do what you love, your passion takes over,” she says.

 

The Berryville Grille

9 East Main Street,

Berryville, VA 22611

http://www.theberryvillegrille.com

(540) 955-4317