Our Glorious Trip to Town House

We love our Wine Gourmet wine dinners.  They’re a great chance to enjoy a nice meal, promote our passion and hobnob with our favorite folks, our customers.  We have experienced delightful wine dinners at Stephen’s restaurant, Pomegranate, and Table 50 but, as high as the bar has been set, this last Saturday, we hunkered down for our most ambitious wine dinner yet.  We traveled to Chilhowie, a town so small the “Entering” and “Just Leaving” signs are back to back.  There, almost inexplicably, sits Town House, a restaurant whose executive chef was hailed just 3 months ago by Food and Wine magazine as one of the ten best new chefs in the country.

I had spent some time reading about John and Karen Shields and how they were enticed into coming to Chilhowie from the somewhat larger Chicago.  I knew that these two had been on the verge of accepting the roles of Executive Chef and Executive Pastry Chef at Charlie Trotter’s new restaurant in Las Vegas.  However, the lure of full kitchen control, proximity to their food source, and a break from the relentless spotlight common with star chefs in large cities brought them, instead, to Southwest Virginia.  Here was an opportunity for the chefs to hone their craft and an opportunity for diners, not living in a big city, to experience food prepared with substantial skill.

We piled a group of 25 diners into a bus (OK, “luxury motor coach”) that we’d hired for the evening.  Somehow, 25 separate diners making their way to Chilhowie and then facing a two-hour drive back after a full meal with wine didn’t seem like a great idea – and so, enter the bus.  We brought with us for the ride some nibbly foods, along with wine, and enjoyed a game of wine trivia.  We arrived in Chilhowie in a state of jovial camaraderie and were greeted warmly by the staff of Town House.
We were ready to let the culinary games begin.

I’ll have to confess that, though I began by taking notes as the courses came to the table, I stopped early on and decided I should just enjoy the experience. It would have been fun to have the opportunity to do a forensic analysis of the plates.  In some ways I wanted to take the dish to a place out-of-the-way, in the light and in the quiet, and study it – or better yet, ask the chef about it.  It’s the same impulse that makes a clever child want to disassemble a watch.  I wanted to fully understand, in order to fully appreciate, each of the components in the dish and how they were combined and organized for plating. Each dish contained items I couldn’t readily identify, even with the menu descriptions right at hand.  But because that kind of analysis wasn’t practical, I had to let the notion go and ponder it in hindsight – after having had time to digest it, if you will.

As each course arrived, I couldn’t help but notice the consistency of appearance.  Each plate could be admired on its own merit as a thing of beauty.  All had a deceptive “casualness” to their construction. They appeared naturalistic but were, in actuality, highly organized. Each bit of leaf and blossom, each delicate component was placed carefully with tweezers or tongs or chopsticks, there was nothing accidental in it.

Before discussing the meal, I should also take a moment to note that the service was, by any standard, exceptional.  Kyra Bishop (co-owner of the restaurant) and her staff, including Sommelier Charlie Berg, could not have been any more welcoming, gracious and attentive to our needs. No aspect of service was found wanting.

Service started with an “amuse bouche”  – a “cookie” whose sandwich was made from a flour of black olive paste and a creamy filling of olive oil and meyer lemon.

Though its appearance gave it a convincing picture of sweetness, it was anything but. The cookie was soft in texture and richly savory, earthy really. Girlfriend Beth, among others, didn’t care for it.  She so wanted a chocolaty, sugary experience because that was the visual cue but, bite after bite, it failed to deliver for her on that level.  Others, myself among them, relished these flavors and wished for more.

For our first course, a “Soup of Watermelon & Slow Cooked Tomato”.  This cold soup was a deconstructed, inspired-by-gazpacho beauty – with raw beet juice, quenelles of watermelon, a smoky slow-cooked tomato, and oysters.  Layered over the top, along with leaves of geranium and shiso, a Japanese mint, were sheets of watermelon rind as thin as a political promise.  It was the type of dish that shattered any slim hope you may have had that this would be a casual meal.  It fairly demanded your attention.

I might even call this, “discomfort” food.  It made you squirm a bit.  You had to accept a profusion of flavors, each rising and falling in their intensity like a gale-tossed sea surface.  First it was the sweet of the beet juice, then the brininess of the oyster, the herbal delicacy of the geraniums, the earthiness of the tomato, on and on.  The textures of the dish, a cascade of squishy densities, were variations on a single, soft theme.
It was also the dish about which the diners were most divided.  Some prized it as something exotic and ephemeral. Others felt that it lacked harmony, that the flavors were too disparate to manage any cohesiveness.  To me, it was much like tasting a complex wine.
In wine, I often find flavors that would, in themselves, be off-putting.  A cabernet, for example, might, in addition to its fruit, have notes of tobacco, leather, cedar, or earth. Disparate certainly but somehow these items still find harmonious expression in the glass.  To me, that’s what this dish was about, a spectrum of flavors and textures and visuals that built a sensory experience.  Whether or not you liked the experience, you had to admire the art of its construction.
With this course, Sommelier Charlie served a rosé of Malbec (Marguery Rosé).  Its deep extraction gives it more body than most rosé’s ,which the wine needed to avoid getting lost in the cavalcade of flavors associated with the soup. And its rich fruit married very nicely to the beet juice that was the “broth” of the soup.

Our next course was Corn & Crispy Pork Tail.  This plating even included strands of corn silk.


It was a delicate affair of corn-several-ways ringed by a pool of basil-infused toffee sauce. It was delightfully sweet without a hint of the cloying. The piece of cracklin’, from the pork tail, was crispy and earthy and stood in appropriate counterpoint to the sweetness of the corn.  We enjoyed Chateau Lahuc Les Tour with this course, a lovely Sauterne whose pairing with this dish was synergistic in that it too was both sweet and complex.

For a main course, we were presented with Lamb Shank Cooked in Ash.  This dish is mind boggling in the extent of its preparation. It would be nearly impossible to make at home as many items needed the support of specialized kitchen equipment and ingredients (see the link at the bottom).  It’s unlikely that your neighbor will have a cup of xantham gum or pickled green garlic or sheets of acetate available for you to borrow.  But that matters little.  What’s important is that the kitchen has done all this for you and it’s now plated and sitting between your silverware as a thing of beauty with a frilled top-piece of impossibly thin, crispy eggplant.


The lamb was rich, earthy and tender as a mother’s kiss.  It was absolutely one of those most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.  – Should I ever be facing the electric chair, I know there’s a significant chance I’ll be requesting this from the warden as my last meal.
With this course Charlie served us a Les Paillieres Gigondas.  This dense, smoky, earthy, spicy wine from the southern Rhone easily matched the bold flavors of the lamb.  If the entire meal had consisted of just this course, I would still have left the restaurant a happy man.

We finished with a dessert, prepared by Karen, – Parsnip Candy.  The “candy” consisting of strips of parsnip poached in syrup and then dried. Several strips of the candy topped a dish of parsnip ice cream, “yeast sponge”, banana and “aerated” coconut (try making that at home).

Heavenly.   Delicate, complimentary flavors pervaded this sweet-as-a-puppy final course. It wasn’t merely good, it left you wishing you could have a moment alone with the serving dish to assault it with a good licking.
With this dish, Charlie produced Phileo, a fragrant and delicate dessert wine from Barboursville Vineyards in Orange County Virginia whose flavors of peach and roses made for an exquisite pairing.

It was an evening of enormous pleasure enjoying fairy-tale foods and knocking shoulders with the folks for whom we get out of bed in the morning.  Thanks to all who went and keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming wine events.  We have plans for additional dinners locally . . .
– and we all want to get back to Chilhowie

A happy table - soon to be happier.

A restaurant full of good folks.

Check out this link for a look at the recipe for Lamb Shank Cooked in Ash.
Warning: not for the faint of culinary heart.
http://www.starchefs.com/chefs/rising_stars/2010/washington-dc/recipe-australia-lamb-eggplant-john-shields.shtml