Seasalter, Laguiole, Baerenthal, Cala Montjoi, Honfleur, Fürstenau, Sluis, and Järpen: these are just a few of the far-flung places that people travel many hours – by planes, trains, automobiles, and, if you’re foolish and crazy like me, bicycles – to reach just to have a meal.
There is not, unfortunately, the same tradition of traveling for good food in the United States. Destination dining within our borders is sadly dampened by the fact that, outside of our country’s urban centers, there’s very little food worth a special journey, or even a detour.* I explored this issue a few months ago in a post entitled “if you build it…”
So, God bless John and Karen Shields for moving to Chilhowie, Virginia, population 1,700.
And God bless the owners of Town House for bringing the Shieldses to this lonely stretch of I-81 in the Appalachia to experiment, develop, and cook what is certainly some of the most exciting food in America right now.
Together, the Shieldses and their small staff at Town House are building it. And, after the meal I had there recently, there’s no reason why people shouldn’t be inspired to travel long distances for it. Quite a few dishes that we had were worth every minute of our nearly fourteen-hour round-trip drive from Charleston.
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I had the pleasure of dining with John and Karen Shields at elBulli in January. There, they shared with me some of the challenges they face as chefs in their remote location. Chief among them is staying relevant to the rest of the world. If out of sight means out of mind, then Chilhowie is not a place you’d choose to cook for an international, or even national audience.
But neither was Yountville in 1994.
In 2010, Town House was featured well over a hundred times in local and national publications, including Food & Wine, which named John Shields one of America’s “Best New Chefs.” That’s an incredible amount of press, especially for a restaurant so far-removed from the mainstream.
But what about 2011? Would this be the year that they’d be forgotten; a new toy that has quickly lost its lustre?
Not if I have anything to say about it. What John and Karen Shields are doing at Town House right now is a warrant for destination dining. They’ve taken advantage of their situation – a quiet, bucolic patch nearer to earth and sky – to hone their craft and work amongst and with some amazing farmers and their produce.
It’s no coincidence that some of the best chefs in the world choose to isolate themselves in this way.
Town House is as much a think tank as it is a culinary playground and restaurant.
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The restaurant offers a four-course prix fixe menu with choices ($58), or a ten-course tasting menu ($110), which we had anticipated ordering. But a week before our dinner, I got an email from John: “Do you want 12 courses or 20?”
Sorrel Leaves & Finger Limes
Foie gras, anise, fennel.
Bechamel of Rancid ham.
Chilled Vegetable Minestrone
NV Champagne Barnaut, Rosé Authentique, Bouzy-France
Rose, spring onion, clove, oyster
Warm Soup of Oysters
Hakutsuru, Junmai Ginjo Sake, Kobe, Japan
Cream of the shells & consomme.
Soft Shell Crabs
Onions, seaweed, sunchoke, stewed rhubarb.
Carl Gunderloch “Diva” Rielsing, Spätlese, 2006
Heirloom Potato & Turbot
Enriched with egg, shad roe, lovage, broken mayonnaise.
Skin from the Turbot
Hidalgo “La Gitana” Manzanilla, Jerez, Spain
Sheets of Cuttlefish & Pork Fat
Scallop chips, abalone, “XO sauce.”
Hay-smoked milk, farro, milk.
Border Springs Lamb Belly
Glazed in mushroom stock, juices from apple, sassafras, malted yogurt, pine shoots.
Liquid Chocolate Bar
Ice cream of burnt embers, sour yogurt, milk & sugar.
A Curd of Sour Quince Juice & Olive Oil
Black pepper, dill, pine ice cream, toasted meringue.
Cucumber, green strawberry.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal.
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The Shieldses pedigree is evident in their cooking. A veteran of Chicago’s greatest kitchens – they both worked at Charlie Trotter’s; John also worked at alinea and Karen worked under Gale Gand at Tru – their food is clean, precise, and colorful.
Perhaps what I appreciated most about their cooking is that their food was interesting and sophisticated despite their use of molecular gastronomy techniques, not because of it.** Those techniques were seamlessly incorporated, subtly sidelined to enhance rather than upstage.
There was an emphasis on nature, in composition, plating, and flavor. Our first few courses were mostly raw vegetable dishes interspersed with a brief collection of oyster dishes that reminded me of the anthological approach we encountered at elBulli. There were oysters on a half-shell, topped with the fleshy leaves of the oyster leaf plant; a warm, grapefruit-infused oyster soup glistening with iridescent beads of buttermilk and fish roe butter; and a pretty but odd plate of preserved cucumber coils and scallions – some spiced unmistakably with clove, others anointed with horseradish oil – sauced with a rich oyster puree.
And there were many, many thoughts outside of the box, most of which were brilliant.
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Our dinner was essentially a parade of everything on the Town House menu, with one off-menu addition.
If our meal seemed slow to start, it was only because the second half of our meal was so spectacular in comparison. The first few dishes felt a bit safe, slightly standard.
But, somewhere between the meaty soft shell crabs, served with a scored sunchoke that was the spitting image of a cross-section of crab, and the squid risotto, another incredible trompe-l’oeil, there was a noticeable notch up in sophistication and creativity.
With the sheets of cuttlefish and pork fat – cleverly coupled surf and turf doppelgängers atop a smear of roasted bell peppers dyed black with squid ink (visually and texturally, you couldn’t tell where the cuttlefish began and the lardo ended) – our dinner hit its stride.
The remaining seven dishes were magnificent, each a masterpiece.
I’ll focus on four of my favorites:
At course number fourteen, there was a tender cut of pork with a crunchy, crackling crust set over a hauntingly rich X.O. sauce that left my mouth coated in a sticky layer of collagen. The flavor was incredible – a postcard from Hong Kong. And the textures were amazing as well. In the bowl were chips made from scallops and one made from chicken stock. There was also a tender slice of abalone.
At course fifteen, my favorite dish of the night: a square of beef cheek with farro, milk jam, and a creamy milk sauce that captured the sweetness of hay in an amazingly deft infusion. This was an incredible marriage of flavors made even more so with a spectacular beer pairing. The texture of the cheek was extraordinary – the meat was tender, yet the collagen and fat was at a firmer state than you’d normally find after a long braise.***
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What we liked about the desserts – there were four of them – is that they progressed from dark and heavy to light and bright, weaning us off flavor and leaving us refreshed at the end. I’ve always liked this approach, and I have no clue why more pastry sets don’t appear in this order.
Our first dessert, a rich ingot of liquid chocolate served with a smoky “ember” ice cream, was what every chocolate dessert should aspire to be. It had all the depth and pleasure of dark chocolate without the predictable and sycophantic appeal of chocolate on chocolate on top of more chocolate. Here, the overlap of bitter, smoky, and earthy qualities shared by the chocolate and the ice cream was the main focus. The campfire conceit was carried out visually with flakes of tangy yogurt and sugary “ashes.”
And at course eighteen, a stunning composition of fruits and herbs arrived under a meringue tent. Dill, black pepper, pine, citruses, and olive oil: this dessert was as beautiful as it was delicious. Woodsy, spicy, and fragrant, I can’t think of a better word to describe it other than “lovely.” Karen told us that the quince curd in this dessert was made from quince juice that she gets from a local farmer, who jars it after the harvest in the fall.
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My biggest regret about our trip to Chilhowie is that we didn’t have one more night to spend with the Shieldses. John and Karen joked with us afterward in the kitchen that they wouldn’t have anything else for us to eat. That’s okay, we assured them, we’d be thrilled to have the same menu all over again.
Obviously, we were treated very well at Town House. The restaurant has a small staff, which made the experience intimate, familial. Charlie Berg, the restaurant’s sommelier doubled as a server, bringing us food and pouring us wine. Even the owner, who introduced herself to us and thanked us for our visit, worked the floor that night, shuttling plates between table and kitchen.
The restaurant is small, simple, historic, belying the incredibly sophisticated and progressive food that is being created within. The kitchen is sizable, given the number of covers in the dining room, and well-equipped too. John and Karen Shields deserve it, and they put it to good use.
The night before our dinner in Chilhowie, Sean Brock told us that he has eaten at Town House over a dozen times. And each time, he has cursed through the meal out of awe and envy. He went so far as to say that he was worried we’d come back from Chilhowie to find McCrady’s a bore. Well, he needn’t have worried. But, despite the incredibly high bar that he and others had set for the Shieldses, the couple cleared it effortlessly.
Town House: You can’t get there quickly enough.
Yes, it’s a little far out of the way – an hour and a half from Roanoke, three and a half from Charlotte, and sevenish from Charleston. But, there’s something lovely in its remoteness, a quietude that can’t be found elsewhere. This is truly fine dining.
If there’s one restaurant in our country worth the trip right now, Town House is it.
I’m already planning my return.
132 East Main Street
Chilhowie, Virginia 24319
* I recognize that our country is littered with great little eateries along our highways and byways. But would you travel hours just to eat at any of them?
** We knew we had arrived at the right place when, in addition to a large “Town House” sign on the backside of the restaurant, we spied two large, liquid nitrogen tanks locked up next to the restaurant’s back door. And, in their kitchen, a library of additives.
*** The texture was similar to a slice beef cheek that I’ve had at bluestem that was sous vide for 30 hours at 138F. The cheek was finished off in a pan just to give the exterior a nice crust.