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A fall favorite at the Skyland Resort in the Shenandoah Mountains

Jordan Wright
October 10, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
Photo credit Jordan Wright 

The view from Skyland Resort

The view from Skyland Resort

When G. Freeman Pollock founded Skyland in 1894, he had been in and out of bankruptcy so many times he couldn’t possibly have envisioned the immense popularity it would have subsequently gained. Luckily for us his son George, an ardent naturalist, saw the raw beauty of the land as a draw for tourists. But in 19th century Virginia the remote destination had no trails and no roads, and it was such an arduous journey that guests would stay for several weeks or more. Today, however, to enjoy and explore the resort within the Shenandoah National Forest, we can just hop in our car and arrive in little more than two hours, ready to bask in (and document with our personal devices) the glorious foliage of autumn at a whopping 3,560 feet above sea level.

Driving along Route 211 past Warrenton and Sperryville we stop at roadside stands decorated with pumpkins, cornstalks and pots of colorful mums, and stock up on apple butter, cider, sorghum and honey. As the road turns up the mountain and onto Skyline Drive, ever more lavish displays of fall color come into view – red from maples, dogwoods, black gums and sumac, yellow from yellow birch, tulip poplar and hickory, orange from beech and sassafras. Stop at one of the many overlooks for gloriously scenic photo ops.

800 million year old rock formations on the Stony Man Trail

800 million year old rock formations on the Stony Man Trail

Arriving at Skyland Resort we picked up a few refreshments from the Grab n’ Go located beside the restaurant. Be sure to try the homemade brownies and blackberry lemonade. Since we were earlier than our check in time, we decided to make the most of our visit. Four short marked trails are easily accessible from the resort’s parking area – Miller’s Head, a 1.6 mile round trip, Limberlost Trail, a 1.3 mile circuit (ADA accessible), Stony Man, 1.6 mile loop trail and Little Stony Man, a 0.9 mile hike. We chose Stony Man Trail, a gentle that hike winds through dappled glades carpeted with ferns, drifts past 800 million-year old rock outcroppings draped in mossy lichen, and climbs to a height of 4,010’ where a spectacular view of the Piedmont and Old Rag Mountain are revealed. (More dramatic photo ops here.)

Ferns along Stony Man Trail

Ferns along Stony Man Trail

At this altitude you’ll see and smell red spruce and balsam fir, rare for southern climes. Breathe deeply and tune into the sounds of the forest, a practice the Japanese call “forest bathing” or “Shinrinyoku”, a sort of natural aromatherapy said to increase relaxation and boost the immune system.

Back at the lodge we had relaxing dinner in the Pollock Dining Room, which boasts a breathtaking view of the Shenandoah valley. The resort is proud of their new chef and has been hosting wine dinners with nearby vineyards. In November three unique pairing dinners are planned – one to feature dishes paired wines from Ducard Winery, another with Old Hill Cider and the final dinner of the season is slated to be a whiskey pairing.

Linguini with shrimp and scallops - Blackberry Ice Cream Pie at the Pollock Dining Room

Linguini with shrimp and scallops – Blackberry Ice Cream Pie at the Pollock Dining Room

 

Night programs here are just as popular as daytime tours offered by the Park Rangers. We chose the stargazing evening given by astronomers from the Charlottesville Astronomical Society. “Night Skies in the Big Meadows” begins with a talk on the constellations we would see before convening at an open field that afforded expansive views of the galaxy. Astronomer Richard Drumm, known as “The Astronomy Bumm”, awaited our arrival with telescopes at the ready. Unfortunately it was too overcast to see, no less identify, even the Big Dipper, so we asked a lot of what we thought were “smart” questions and learned about controlling light pollution.

Skyland horse-stable

The following morning bright blue skies accompanied hearty breakfasts, and after finding some locally made crafts in the gift shop we headed to the stables for a guided horseback trail ride (ponies are available for kids). I was very impressed by the overall care with which the stables, tack and horses are kept and that our young guide, Jeremy, was knowledgeable about horses, local plants and the history of the area and kept up a lively conversation throughout the two ½ hour ride.

Stirring the apple butter

Stirring the apple butter

Before heading for home we spent a few hours at the Annual Apple Butter Celebration (the resort provided a shuttle to take us to and from) where we watched the old fashioned method of making apple butter in a large copper vessel, tasted four varieties of the local hard cider from Old Hill Cider at Showalters Orchard, and gobbled up apple-smoked pork sandwiches and candied apples – all to the lively sounds of bluegrass bands.

Carmel and candied apples a the apple butter celebration

Caramel and candied apples at the Apple Butter Celebration

For more info visit www.goshenandoah.com.

The Forager King at The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm

Jordan Wright
October 8, 2014
Special to DC Metro Theater Art
Photo credit – Jordan Wright 

The potager

The potager

For many years Ferran Adria’s now shuttered elBulli held the title of “The Best Restaurant in the World”.  Since then the fiercely sought after accolade has gone to his former student Rene Redzepi, Chef/Owner of Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Four years ago Redzepi’s publisher Phaidon sent me a copy of his coffee table size cookbook. “Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine”, which at the time I included in my “Best Cookbooks of 2010”.  The book continued my interest in the science and artistry of elegantly prepared wild foods.  In 2002 I’d read French chef and forager extraordinaire Michel Bras’s book “Essential Cuisine” and saw how a Michelin-starred chef could elevate wild local plants, locally caught seafood and humanely raised animals to their highest culinary purpose while at the same time employing a flower-strewn, naturalistic style.

A grazer since childhood, I munch on violets, honeysuckle and the early blossoms of the redbud tree.  And if I’m lucky enough to find them I still chomp on wild ramps, dandelion leaves and the tender watercress that pops up along small streams and culverts in the spring.  I consider it homeopathic and secretly believe it’s what keeps me from seasonal allergies.

Tarver King is a chef who answers the call of the wild too.  When we first met he was cooking at the Ashby Inn in Paris, Virginia where he wedded molecular gastronomic techniques to simple, local ingredients and spent many hours putting up jars of glistening cantaloupe jelly, pickled vegetables and berry jams from ingredients he picked from the bounty of a small garden behind the inn.

Chef Tarver King

Chef Tarver King

After gaining experience in such legendary kitchens as The French Laundry, Le Bec Fin, The Inn at Little Washington and the Woodlands Inn & Resort in South Carolina.  King now has found is roost in the kitchen at the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm where he is the architect of the menu.  Using the bounty from owner Beverly Morton Billands vegetable and herb gardens, wildcrafting “weeds” and morels from the nearby woods and sourcing from the 40-acre farm where Billand raises chickens, ducks and beef cattle, he has a myriad of options at his command, including fish from the sustainable catches of local East Coast fishermen.

King’s commitment to local, seasonal and organic, as well as his compelling artistry has not gone unnoticed by the industry.  He was named “Grand Chef” of the year by Relais and Chateau, received the RAMMY award as “Chef of the Year” 2013 and this year earned the coveted title of “Best Chef – Mid-Atlantic” from the James Beard Foundation.

Reflecting his keen attention to land, sea and farm, the menu is divided into “Found”, heavier on seafood, “Grown”, some meat but largely paleo, and “Raised”, which leans more towards meat protein.  Each affords the diner with amuses bouche, noted as “snacks”, and a five-course progression menu of the chef’s design.

Snacks before dinner - Gougeres - Beet Cream

Snacks before dinner – Gougeres – Beet Cream

Some of the menu’s descriptors – smoked kraut, cicely gastrique, lambs quarters, sorrel soda, chicory root custard and hyssop ice cream – reveal the adventure.

Seared Wahoo with ramp chimichurri

Seared Wahoo with ramp chimichurri

King, who spends three days a week cooking and the rest experimenting, started us off with delicate gougeres and a beet cream toast, followed by Scallop Mi-cuit, a semi-cooked scallop enhanced by creamed corn, chanterelle puree, and lambs quarters, a wild edible.  Crispy Shrimp is sauced with cicely gastrique, ratatouille puree, fennel fronds and mustard cream – each element contributing to the nuanced whole of the dish.  My dinner partner who opted for “Raised” was busy devouring the Pork Fried Chicken with whey and mustard butter, smoked kraut and pole beans, which preceded Beef Cheek with whipped grits, grilled beets, horseradish and nasturtium leaves.  A happy carnivore, indeed.

Beef Cheeks with whipped grits and nasturtium leaves

Beef Cheeks with whipped grits and nasturtium leaves

The dining room is an enormous brick-paved, all-glass greenhouse (sans plants).  A separate white-tented space for outdoor dining features a view of the river and Harpers Ferry Bridge beyond and is decorated with nosegays and candles.  Very romantic.

 Chicory root custard with cocoa nib crumble, puffed rice and whipped fromage blanc

Chicory root custard with cocoa nib crumble, puffed rice and whipped fromage blanc

Courses came swiftly delivered by attentive and gentile wait staff, who re-described each dish as it was set forth.  We finished a spectacular evening of gastronomic delights and surprises with a lovely Silver Needle Jasmine white tea from local purveyor Shab Row Tea Emporium in nearby Frederick, Maryland.

Reservations, of course.  www.PatowmackFarm.com

The Island of Dr. Moreau at Synetic Theater

Jordan Wright
October 7, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Synetic Theater has taken H. G. Well’s science fiction classic The Island of Dr. Moreau and morphed it into a frighteningly realistic maelstrom of horrors, just in time for Halloween.  For those who like being terrified by a mad scientist whose muse is a vengeful half human half feline fiend, sit back and settle in for a wild ride and a landscape filled with vivisected beasts – the good doctor’s engineered experiments.

Alex Mills as Parker and Paata Tsikurishvili as Dr. Moreau - Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Alex Mills as Parker and Paata Tsikurishvili as Dr. Moreau – Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Alex Mills plays Parker the hapless shipwreck victim, washed upon the shores of a Pacific atoll thousands of miles from civilization and light years from reality.  When he recalls that the doctor was blackballed from the scientific community for his gruesome experiments on humans, he begins to fear for his life amid the zombies – – as well he should.  To understand what machinations are transpiring within the laboratory he forms a friendship of convenience with Moreau’s dedicated assistant Montgomery (Dallas Tolentino) who between nips from a silver flask, assures him that the doctor will save the world by designing a better, more efficient human being.  “All he creates is suffering and the deification of himself,” Parker declares.

Paata Tsikurishvili plays Dr. Moreau with evil swagger and a studied nonchalance. “The law is not to eat flesh and not to go on all fours,” he warns the six beasts, insisting they parrot his edicts on command.  When he delivers the lines, “The crafting of living flesh has been around for a long time,” and “Real progress can only be achieved by someone as remorseless as myself,” we begin to see what a hideous monster he really is.

The beasts. The Island of Dr. Moreau -  Photo by Johnny Shryock

The beasts. The Island of Dr. Moreau – Photo by Johnny Shryock

Irina Tsikurishvili creates the spectacular choreography that interweaves the plot with the characters’ action and Set Designer Phil Charlwood’s massive metal sculpture in the shape of a butterfly wing (Parker is a lepidopterist) that the beasts use to clamber on, keeps them in sight but removed from the scene.  Kendra Rai’s breathtakingly phantasmagoric costumes reflecting the tormented creatures’ many excisions, alterations and freakish attachments, serve to magnify the ongoing suffering and torture of the bizarre beasts.

This is heightened by Brittany Diliberto and Riki K.’s multi-media, electronic light show accentuated by lasers, glowing chemicals and theatre-filling galaxies to accompany the original, unearthly synthesizer score by Irakli Kavsadze.

Paata Tsikurishvili as Dr. Moreau and Pasquale Guiducci as Sayer in The Island of Dr. Moreau -  Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Paata Tsikurishvili as Dr. Moreau and Pasquale Guiducci as Sayer in The Island of Dr. Moreau – Photo by Johnny Shryock.

It’s all a harmonic exercise in sci-fi weirdness, calibrated to raise goosebumps on even the most hardened futurists.

Through November 1st at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington in Crystal City.  For tickets and information call 1 800 494-8497 or visit www.synetictheater.org.

Evita – Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
October 6, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Sean MacLaughlin as Juan Peron and Caroline Bowman as Eva - Photo credit Richard Termine

Sean MacLaughlin as Juan Peron and Caroline Bowman as Eva – Photo credit Richard Termine

When we mention the names Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber we are floating around in the pantheonic stratosphere of most beloved collaborators ever to hit the stage, and their blockbuster Evita is certainly one of the finest and most memorable shows they have ever written.  Drawing on the talents of Tony and Olivier Award-winning Director Michael Grandage, and Tony Award-winning Choreographer Rob Ashford to present the seven-time Tony Award-winning musical, the Kennedy Center brings this reinterpretation of the original Broadway production to a new dimension – and it is simply smashing.  There is so much to remark upon and so many to give credit to, but I must start with Lighting Designer Neil Austin and Projection Designer Zachary Borovay who create a mood that reflects the period.

It is 1952 at the funeral of Eva Peron.  Considered the spiritual leader of the people of Argentina, she was a highly controversial figure.  The curtain opens to reveal old newsreels projected across the backdrop of the stage. The First Lady who had risen from a life of poverty by her wits and beauty, and a series of ever-more influential lovers, had achieved her greatest success by marrying Juan Peron.

A haunting black-hooded, candle-lit chorus is chanting a requiem for her through a smoky blue haze.  It is a very dramatic opening, both ghostly and reverential.  The scene then shifts to a lowly tango hall in the provinces where Eva, at 16, became a nightclub singer with dreams of a life in Buenos Aires.  The shabby spot is lit with strings of bare light bulbs and bathed in sepia – the atmosphere appearing as though lifted from a vintage photograph.  In a later scene Austin uses amber-lit chandeliers to evoke the period.  Scenic & Costume Designer Christopher Oram continues the theme with muted-colored retro dresses for the women further expressing the drab shades worn during the Depression era.

Caroline Bowman as Eva - Photo credit Richard Termine

Caroline Bowman as Eva – Photo credit Richard Termine

From the moment Caroline Bowman (Eva) enters the stage her presence is  riveting.  Captivating and lithe, almost balletic in her movements, with a voice that is strong, fluid, totally capable of the huge range expected by the part.  But why do her low notes disappear, the high notes sound screechy?  When the dialogue begins everyone sounds garbled.  If you didn’t know the lyrics or the story, you would struggle to make out what they are singing or, for that matter, saying.  I can’t explain it, but others around me in the orchestra section were having the same reaction to the poor audio.  One can only hope it will be corrected by the time you read this review.

Yet there’s no denying the magic on stage.  The fireworks between Eva and Juan (Sean MacLaughlin) begin with the song, “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” and by the time the next number “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is sung, Eva and Juan have formed their alliance, for better or for worse.

“One has to admire the stage management,” Che sarcastically remarks before Eva arrives onto the balcony of Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.  In one of the show’s most heartrending songs, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” we witness her narcissistic manipulation as she cannily humbles herself to the adoring crowds.

Max Quinlan is brilliant as Che, Eva’s protector and reality check.  In his memorable duet with her, “High Flying, Adored” reflecting the time when she is at the height of her popularity, he warns, “Don’t look down.  It’s a long way.”  But Eva ignores his sage advice and her megalomania gets the best of her.  I’d quote her reaction if only I could have heard it.

Yet the orchestra is boffo, the set designs are killer, and the music is heaven on earth.  See it, love it, adore it…and try not to sing out loud.

Through October 19th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

TRAILER – Evita at The Kennedy Center – Washington, DC

Memphis and The Blues Trail in a 2015 Hyundai Sonata

Jordan Wright
October 1, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times

Photo credit to Jordan Wright

Driving Old Highway 61 in the new turbo-charged Hyundai Sonata

Driving Old Highway 61 in the new turbo-charged Hyundai Sonata

The Plan:   A road rally in the Hyundai 2015 Sonata.  When Hyundai contacted me and asked if I’d like to be part of a road rally in Memphis, I couldn’t wait to rev up its 7-speed dual clutch (automatic plus stick) transmission.  At least that’s how they described it in an email.  That it had more bells and whistles than I had time to grasp in 36 hours under a tight schedule, was unfortunate.

The Place:  Memphis, Tennessee to Clarksdale, Mississippi on Old Highway 61 returning to Memphis.

Neon BBQ sign on Beale Street

Neon BBQ sign on Beale Street

There are few cities that deliver the intensity of the American music experience and the culture of the old Deep South as Memphis does.  For starters visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music where Otis Redding and the Staple Singers cut records, the National Civil Rights Museum and the iconic Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

The Lorraine Motel - scene of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination

The Lorraine Motel – scene of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination

To see luthiers make some of the world’s most famous guitars, there’s the Gibson Guitar Factory and Museum.  Another must see is The Memphis Rock n’ Soul Museum.  Developed by Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, it describes itself as a place where “musical pioneers and legends of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds who, for the love of music, overcame obstacles to create the musical sound that changed the world.”

The Gibson Guitar Factory and Museum

The Gibson Guitar Factory and Museum

From there you’ll hop the shuttle to Sun Studios where Rock and Roll legend Elvis Presley recorded his first song, “That’s All Right, Mama”; where Howlin’ Wolf first recorded before his Chicago Blues influence; Johnny Cash recorded “I Walk the Line”; Jerry Lee Lewis kicked off his career with “A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”; and Carl Perkins laid down tracks for “Blue Suede Shoes” before Elvis got ahold of it.  Only one member of what was known as the “Million Dollar Quartet” became “The King”, so for many fans a visit to the 1950’s cosmic bubble, Graceland, is somewhat of a sacred pilgrimage.

All that said, I couldn’t figure out why on God’s green earth friends thought I wouldn’t like Memphis.  Maybe they thought I wouldn’t cotton to the honky-tonk culture, or the snail’s pace of life along verdant banks where riverboats still ferry passengers along the mighty Mississippi.  Maybe they thought I wouldn’t take to leathered up bikers and their cigarette smokin’ mamas who stand beside hundreds of tricked out choppers.  Or that on a warm night you can hear the blues filtering out through the open windows of the clubs along Beale Street.  Or maybe they knew that some of the best barbeque and juke joints are outside city limits at rundown roadhouses in towns with no traffic lights – – just a single run-in store selling jars of pickled pig’s feet and tortillas for the seasonal migrant workers.

A tricked out Lamborghini bike wows the crowd on Beale Street

A tricked out Lamborghini bike wows the crowd on Beale Street

They should have known I’d pass up the cheesy Elvis impersonators to listen to raw-boned blues cranked out nightly by first-rate studio musicians, and that I’d satisfy my curiosity for the Peabody Hotel ducks with a bourbon and branch water while listening to a tuxedoed piano player recall cabaret songs from the 1930’s, and where just outside the lobby a Cinderella carriage will take you on a horse-drawn tour past historic sights.

The Italianate lobby of the Peabody Hotel

The Italianate lobby of the Peabody Hotel

I loved Memphis – the sights and the sounds.  From sidewalk street jammers playing rockabilly, rock n’ roll, Delta blues, gospel and soul to an unnamed group kickin’ it at an impromptu concert in a vest pocket park. They were all mining the roots of American music – preserving the sound that had bubbled up from both white and black musicians so long ago.

Day Two:  After a morning briefing and vehicle assignment we received our triplogs.  Twenty-four test drivers and twelve 2015 Sonatas left from the Westin Hotel on Beale Street and headed south out of the city along Old Highway 61.  Known as the “Blues Trail”, the road took us to Clarksdale, Mississippi with Driver Switch Points at Mhoon Landing Park in Tunica, MS and Arkabutla Lake in Coldwater, MS.

At the Rum Boogie

At the Rum Boogie Cafe

The veteran car writers on the team were eager to check out the subtle, and not so subtle differences.  They were keen on features like LED tail lights, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, lane change assist and rear and side window sunshades.  A hands-free trunk was noted as was the ventilated front seat, Blue Link touch screen infotainment system, Pandora Internet Radio, Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto that sends and receives text messages and can give fuel prices and movie times.  The fact that the turbo-charged ECO model with quad-exhaust comes in nine colors (I loved the Quartz White Pearl), was mostly overlooked by the men.

Ground Zero Blues Club, Clarksdale, Mississippi

Ground Zero Blues Club, Clarksdale, Mississippi

Driving along back roads we passed rusted silos and cornfields to Clarksdale, Mississippi where the Delta Blues Museum tells the story of early blues legends, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, and where we stopped to chow down at actor Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club, a funky, fried green tomatoes, BBQ-fueled roadhouse that roars with the sound of electric guitars – – even at high noon.

After a dinner of BBQ (You can eat it twice a day!), cornbread and sides at the vintage 1948 Rendezvous restaurant back in Memphis, I wondered.  With all that history and all those blues, would I find my inner Eric Clapton?  Easily!  At the Westin I was able to order up a gold vintage Gibson guitar equipped with amplifier and headphones that was delivered to my room for the night.  Sweet dreams, Mr. Clapton.  Sweet dreams, Layla.

Charles Vergo's Rendezvous

Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous

Westin Memphis Beale Street – www.westinmemphisbealestreet.com
Ground Zero Blues Club – www.groundzerobluesclub.com
Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous – www.hogsfly.com