Key for Two ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
March 1, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

 Charlene Sloan as Harriet, Peter Harrold as Gordon, and Dana Gattuso as Anne - Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photograhy

Charlene Sloan as Harriet, Peter Harrold as Gordon, and Dana Gattuso as Anne – Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photograhy

What’s more fun than a British farce by LTA?  It’s the theater’s stock-in-trade and each season they get more masterful at this vehicle.  Written by John Chapman (no relation to our current City Councilman) and Dave Freeman, it is a hoot in the grand tradition of delightfully naughty drawing room comedies.  Freeman began his writing career on The Benny Hill Show and Carry On TV series, later writing for Peter Sellers and other notable British comedians.  Chapman was best known for a slew of British sketch comedies in the 70’s and 80’s.  The writers collaborated on Key for Two, winning “Comedy of the Year” in London’s Society of West End Theatre Awards for their efforts.

Dana Gattuso (Anne), Elizabeth Replogle (Magda) and Charlene Sloan (Harriet) - Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photograhy

Dana Gattuso (Anne), Elizabeth Replogle (Magda) and Charlene Sloan (Harriet) – Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photograhy

In Key for Two, Harriet (Charlene Sloan) is mistress to two married men, successful adman Gordon (Peter Harrold) and ship owner Alec (Cal Whitehurst).  They each are unaware of the other, as well as the existence of Harriet’s estranged spouse.  In order to keep the charade alive, the pretty polygamist cleverly concocts a balancing act to entertain them on alternate days.  The fun begins when Gordon twists his ankle, leaving him bedridden in her Brighton flat.  To add to the confusion, her best friend Anne (Dana Gattuso), smarting from a recent separation, arrives unexpected.  Anne’s husband Richard (Justin Latus), a taxidermist, soon shows up drunk as a skunk and still carrying a torch for Harriet.  The two women quickly join forces creating hilarious excuse after excuse to explain away the untenable situation.  “It’s been a very busy year for kept women,” Harriet complains to Anne as the two conspirators attempt to keep the men from bumping into each other.

Cal Whitehurst (Alex) and Charlene Sloan (Harriet) - Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photograhy

Cal Whitehurst (Alex) and Charlene Sloan (Harriet) – Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photograhy

There’s a lot of leaping in and out of bed as Harriet pretends to be married to Anne’s fictional husband the women dub “Bob the Murderer” in order to keep Gordon at sixes and nines.  But it’s Anne who has to go the extra mile pretending to be married to Gordon in order to preserve Harriet’s charade.  It begins to unravel when Anne, now pretending to be a caregiver at Harriet’s “nursing home”, claims that Alec has “polygamist palsy” and believes he is married to Harriet.  Are you still with me?  If you can keep that much in mind the rest is a snap…that is until Gordon and Alec’s wives, Magda (Elizabeth Replogle) and Mildred (Liz LeBoo) turn up and all hell breaks loose.  Richard’s brief love affair with Magda’s fox stole is classic.

Liz LeBoo (Mildred), Charlene Sloan (Harriet), Dana Gattuso (Anne) and Cal Whitehurst (Alex) - Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photograhy

Liz LeBoo (Mildred), Charlene Sloan (Harriet), Dana Gattuso (Anne) and Cal Whitehurst (Alex) – Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photograhy

Director Eleanore Tapscott (Caught in the Net, Noises Off and I’m Not Rappaport at LTA) corrals a talented cast and puts them to work tickling our collective funny bones with snappy repartee, double entendres, puns and malapropisms.  And to our delight, they never stop.

If you like silly British slapstick comedy, this is the one to see!

Through March 18th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com

Nibbles and Sips Around Town ~ December 2016

Jordan Wright
December 2016
Photo credit – Jordan Wright

Virginia Distillery Debuts Port Finished Virginia Highland Malt Whisky – Ambar Opens in Clarendon – Hazel fuses Asian with Italian – Smoked and Stacked for Your Reubens – Buttercream, The New Kid on the Block – ICE! Returns to National Harbor 

Virginia Distillery Company Showcases New Whisky Flavor

We get excited about a lot of things around here, but the Virginia Distillery Company’s Port Finished Virginia Highland Malt Whisky has us leaping out of our comfy chairs.  The production facilities with factoid-rich whisky museum are located in beautiful Nelson County where this past September. whiskandquill.com/nelson-county.

If you like your whiskey smooth with a sweet finish, this small batch release is the one for you…and me too.  You’ll want to use it for cocktails and especially for after dinner sipping.  Toffee, dried fruit and dark cocoa notes linger on the palate, affording dyed-in-the-wool whisky lovers an excuse to drink it neat or perhaps, with a splash of branch water.

Cocktails from VDC

Cocktails

In addition, VDC adds a limited edition Cider Barrel Matured Virginia Highland Malt to their ‘Commonwealth Collection’.  Finished in casks from Potter’s Craft Cider in Free Union, Virginia (I’d like to know the back story of the town’s name), it has distinct overtones of apple.

Gareth Moore of the Virginia Distillery Company at the Homestead Restaurant

Gareth Moore of the Virginia Distillery Company

At a recent gathering at Homestead restaurant in Petworth hosted by VDC’s owners Gareth Moore, son of the late founder Dr. George C. Moore, and his charming wife, Maggie, we had the pleasure of a tasting paired with Executive Chef Marty Anklam’s upscale comfort food.

A few nibbles from Executive Chef Marty Anklam of the Homestead

A few nibbles from Executive Chef Marty Anklam

VDC partners with Gearhart’s Chocolates for their signature truffles.  Chocolatier extraordinaire, Tim Gearhart, was on hand to demonstrate his technique for making VDC’s whisky-infused truffles.

Tim Gearhart hand rolls the whiskey truffles

Tim Gearhart hand rolls the whiskey truffles

This is how it would go in our house – bite of truffle, sip of port whisky, repeat till satisfied.

Ambar Opens Outpost in Clarendon 

I look forward to dining at Ambar any chance I can.  Its Balkan dishes are soothing soul food that speak of a complex diaspora of Turkish, Greek, Mediterranean, Austrian (an early conquerer) and Slavic influences.  In the past it’s meant a trip up to Capitol Hill and the small two-story Barracks Row restaurant Serbian owner Ivan Iricanin opened in 2013.  Fast forward and Iricanin has branched out into this hipster hood, staffing both kitchen and front of the house with his fellow compatriots, including General Manager Jovan Prvulovic.  After two return trips to this latest outpost, I can see it’s a huge hit.

In house made charcuterie platter

In house made charcuterie platter

Here are the dishes that speak of slow-cooking – sarmales (yummy cabbage rolls stuffed with meat in a tomato sauce), smoky grilled meats, home baked breads like somun and lovely spreads like ajvar made with red peppers, garlic and eggplant, the traditional hummus, a smoked trout spread, or the soothing urnebes made with feta, sour cream, lots of garlic, and paprika, and which translates amusingly to “chaotic spread”.

Hail the sausage, house made and wood-grilled.  This version is delicious as are all the meats including the house made charcuterie selection.

Ambar at dinner service is always mobbed

Ambar at dinner service is always mobbed

Recently Ambar launched both brunch and lunch.  The lunch features soups, salads, sandwiches, and an assortment of meat pies.  Freshly pressed juices include ‘Appleberry Lush’, apple, carrot and strawberry; ‘Beets & Treats’, beet, apple, carrot, orange and lemon, and ‘Green Cheer’, cucumber, spinach, lemon, apple and orange.

Brussels sprouts with lemon, garlic yogurt and bacon at Ambar

Brussels sprouts with lemon, garlic yogurt and bacon

Some of the highly creative salads are the Roasted Squash Salad with mixed greens, crispy bacon, roasted pepper, roasted squash and pomegranate dressing; Ambar Salad with mixed greens, zucchini, asparagus, broccoli and poppy seed dressing.  Their Creamy Mushroom Soup with crispy leeks, forest mushrooms and cream is the perfect antidote to a cold winter’s day.

From the ‘Sandwiches & Pies’ side of the menu choose from Cheese & Spinach Pie with crispy phyllo, cucumber yogurt and ajvar emulsion; Wild Boar Burger with arugula and pesto sauce; Fried Catfish with organic slaw and tartar sauce; Zucchini Burger with roasted sunflower seeds, tartar sauce, ajvar spread and smoked gouda; Grilled Shrimp with lettuce, tomato, pepper aioli and crispy prosciutto, and the Fried Chicken, almond and walnut crusted chicken with red onion and apple wasabi.

An assortment of Balkan sweets at Amba

An assortment of Balkan sweets

But there are plenty of other tummy-warming dishes to try.  Consider Stuffed Sour Cabbage with pork belly, jasmine rice, mashed potato and yogurt; Baked Beans & Sausage with paprika and house-made pork sausage; Slow Cooked Stuffed Pepper with house ground beef & pork, served with dill cream, and the Lamb Stew with sweet cabbage and horseradish, served with cornbread.  Some dishes from the ‘Rotisserie and Chefs Specials’ are the Mix Meat Platter with pork neck, sausage, kebab, chicken, Balkan fries and urnebes spread are available.

Cocktails at Ambar

Cocktails

Pair your meal with a handcrafted non-alcoholic cocktail like Rosemary Lemonade, Peach Ice Tea, Berry Hibiscus Soda, as well as Ginger Green Tea Soda.  Or go for it with ‘Session Cocktails’ like the ‘Orangeena’, vodka, lemon juice, orange puree and soda; ‘Cosmo Flip’, vodka, muddled grapes, mint syrup, lime juice and cranberry juice, or the classic ‘Mojito’, rum, mint and lime.

Ambar, 2901 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, Virginia, 22201.

Hazel – The Talk of the Town 

The outdoor lounge at Hazel

The outdoor lounge

Hazel has had as much buzz as a beehive these days, and I’m not sure why.  I came wanting to fall in love with it, but my heart was crushed like a bug.  Though it is a stunning space both inside and out and includes an impressive wine list and tasty craft cocktails by Greg Engbert, I still can’t puzzle out the draw.  Trendy plateware from Cloud Terre, a staple in rustic-design destinations, aren’t enough to lure me in.  Been there.  Seen that.  After all the chatter I’m looking for the wow factor, but apparently I didn’t get the message.

Fire Panda sauce // Gnocchi Bokki a Pork kimchi ragu with sesame seeds and smoked pecorino

Fire Panda sauce // Gnocchi Bokki a Pork kimchi ragu with sesame seeds and smoked pecorino

Many of the dishes have an Asian-Italian influence which I found to be curious and ultimately unsatisfying.  Noted chef Rob Rubba of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, has come up with some unusual combinations like gnocchi with kimchee and barbecued carrots with buttermilk which I found to be palate-confusing.

Asian-Italian fusion octopus // Asian-Italian fusion

Asian-Italian fusion octopus // Asian-Italian fusion

A few forkfuls in I wondered exactly what I was eating and why.  And sadly, desserts by one of the city’s best pastry chefs, Naomi Gallego, formerly of Blue Duck Tavern, were uninspired and didn’t show off her wonderful baking skills.  On a positive note, I did come to love Fire Panda – a house made hot sauce that makes sriracha taste like ketchup.  If you go, be sure to take home a bottle or two.

Hazel, 808 V Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001.

Head to Smoked and Stacked for Your Next Reuben 

Smoked and Stacked's hot pastrami sign

Smoked and Stacked’s hot pastrami sign

Craving a Reuben sandwich?  This newly minted spot is where the bread is baked fresh and the meats are cured overnight.  But plan on taking it to go or eating briskly.  It isn’t built for comfort, there are only few tables and a smattering of stools, and heretically, no Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda – nor any type of throwback sodas, only a soda dispensing machine.

Smoked and Stacked's hot pastrami sign

Smoked and Stacked’s hot pastrami sign

There’s a limited menu on the blackboard and you’ll want to order ‘The Messy’.  Unlike the original Reuben made with thick slices of corned beef (New York’s crown jewel of Jewish delis, Katz’s, classic springs to mind), this version uses pastrami instead, keeping the traditional sauerkraut and Swiss cheese served on rye and properly sautéed in butter on a flat top grill.  Here the dressing is called Thousand Island dressing.  In New York we call it called Russian dressing.

Top Chef finalist, Marjorie Meek-Bradley, thinks of her place as a go-to for breakfast sandwiches served on ‘milk bread’ and a neighborhood destination for pastrami lovers.

Close by the Walter Washington Convention Center between M and N Streets, it’s at 1239 9th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001.

The Adorable Buttercream Bake Shop 

Buttercream Bake Shop

Buttercream Bake Shop

You want it.  Now!  Scrumptious baked goods, cute and yummy cupcakes, flaky biscuits and buttery croissants, pies, soaring three-layer cakes, cookies with big chunks of chocolate and cake truffles dotted with rainbow sprinkles.  It’s all here and it’s all delicious.

Lemon Merengue Bars at Buttercream Bake Shop

Lemon Meringue Bars at Buttercream Bake Shop

Across the street from Smoked and Stacked, the Buttercream Bake Shop is where you’ll find Espresso Ho Hos and Pistachio Macarons for the sophisticated kid-at-heart and Lemon Bars sporting swirls of soft meringue.  Each day something different fills the refrigerated cases or sits atop pretty cake stands.

Sky high Coconut Cake at Buttercream

Sky high Coconut Cake at Buttercream

I took a seat with my coffee and coconut cake and watched as mothers with fancy baby carriages flooded through the doors, some with children in tow (a perfect excuse to visit, but not entirely necessary) and some with other mothers in what looked to be an after-the-playground reward session.

Espresso Ho-Hos at Buttercream

Espresso Ho-Hos at Buttercream

Pastry Chef, Tiffany MacIsaac and partner, Alexandra Mudry, have taken a visit to the corner bake shop and elevated it to new heights in this charming spot.  The women also run a successful catering business for parties, as well as bespoke wedding cakes.

Buttercream Bake Shop, 1250 9th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001   

ICE! Returns to National Harbor 

ICE! at National Harbor

ICE! at National Harbor

The Christmas tree inside the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center is new.  This year the tree in the Atrium has a patriotic flair lit up in red, white and blue, though the one beside the harbor remains more traditional.

Patriotic Christmas tree in the Atrium of the Gaylord

Patriotic Christmas tree in the Atrium of the Gaylord

The Potomac Express train ride still fills the air with choo-choo sounds and the dancing fountains’ light show still delights children with its leaping flumes while grownups can enjoy cocktails at the Old Hickory bar overlooking the nightly indoor “snowfalls”.

The Potomac Express in the Atrium at the Gaylord

The Potomac Express in the Atrium at the Gaylord

You’ll see a new crop of characters ringing in the season this year and get a chance to eat with Lucy, Charlie Brown and the gang for Food & Fun Peanuts-themed breakfasts.  Be sure to make reservations for these fun character dining events.

Santa with Rudolph carved from ice

Santa with Rudolph carved from ice

We’ve come to see ICE! the show that’s lured families like a siren to its frozen statuary.  This year’s theme is “Christmas Around the World” and each icy diorama reflects the flags and cultures of many lands.  Over two million pounds of ice were carved to create this year’s fantastic experience, including the thrilling! and chilling! two-story ice slide.

The merry-go-round in the Christmas Village

The merry-go-round in the Christmas Village

Be sure to check out the latest offerings – a full-size merry-go-round, Elf on the Shelf scavenger hunts, an expanded gift shop, photos with Santa and cookies and milk with Mrs. Claus, and a Build-A-Bear workshop – all in the new Christmas Village.

A traditional tree lines the harbor with the Capital Wheel in the distance

A traditional tree lines the harbor with the Capital Wheel in the distance

Through January 1st at 165 Waterfront Street, National Harbor, MD 20745. For tickets, hours and special overnight packages visit www.ChristmasonthePotomac.com.

Nibbles and Sips Around Town ~ Mitsitam Serves Up Special Thanksgiving Menu

Jordan Wright
November 18, 2016

The entrance to NMAI

The entrance to NMAI – photo credit Jordan Wright

If your plans are not yet etched in stone for Thanksgiving Day, you may want to consider doing something a bit different this year. Our small family did one year, when we found ourselves gathered outside of our normal Northeast coastal locale. We still talk about the year we were all in Miami and decided to cook up a Cuban feast – turkey with mojito seasoning, black beans with ham hocks, a huge platter of tropical fruits, rice pilaf, hearts of palm salad and tres leches cake for dessert. That year’s holiday celebration is fondly, and amusingly, retold to this day. So, why not try something new this year and add it to your collective memories?

Here’s an outstanding option you may not have considered, or even known about. Mitsitam, the award-winning restaurant in the National Museum for the American Indian, is doing a complete Thanksgiving dinner to eat in or take out. They tried it last year and it was a huge success. It dovetails with the free three-day dance festival featuring the Northwest Coast, and will be held at the museum November 24th through the 26th to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. How much fun would that be?

The pond planted with native species at the museum

The pond planted with native species at the museum – photo credit Jordan Wright

To give you an update, recently Freddie Bitsoie (Navaho) has taken over the Executive Chef position at the restaurant since former Exec Chef Jerome Grant has moved over to Sweet Home Café in the Museum of African American History and Culture. Bitsoie, who has been at the forefront of Native American foods for over ten years, has worked on a wealth of projects with universities and museums including the prestigious Heard Museum in Los Angeles. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Scottsdale, AZ with further studies in Cultural Anthropology and Art History at the University of New Mexico, Bitsoie uses creative interpretation, coupled with years of research in culinary history, to develop his indigenous recipes.

Mitsitam Executive Chef, Freddie Bitsoie shows off some of his Thanksgiving dishes - photo courtesy NMAI

Mitsitam Executive Chef, Freddie Bitsoie shows off some of his Thanksgiving dishes – photo courtesy NMAI

Among other honors and accolades, Bitsoie was the winner of the museum’s Living Earth Festival Native Chef Cooking Competition in 2013, and was named “a rising star in the constellation of young chefs” by Native Peoples magazine in 2011. He has been featured on an episode of PBS’s Lidia Celebrates America and is working on his own show Rezervations Not Required, about indigenous cuisines around the world.

At a recent press gathering, I tasted a number of the dishes offered for this Thanksgiving feast and they are indeed unique and delicious. They are all inspired by tribal foods from the Great Plains, Meso-America, South America, the Northern Woodlands and the Northwest Coast. If you’re adventuresome, this could be the most memorable Thanksgiving you and your guests have ever experienced.

Sweet Red Chile and Orange Rubbed Free Range Turkey with pan gravy and spiced cranberry sauce - photo courtesy of NMAI

Sweet Red Chile and Orange Rubbed Free Range Turkey with pan gravy and spiced cranberry sauce – photo courtesy of NMAI

Here’s how it works. If you choose take out, you only need cook the turkey in your home, all else has been prepared for you. (See appetizers, sides, salads, gravy and desserts listed below.) If you opt for eat in, and I have been told whole families come, some laying out their best tablecloths, you will relax over your meal in the cafeteria overlooking the gardens and lovely water features. Imagine. No clean up! Just a relaxing day with friends and family. Bring as many as you like. Afterwards take in the dance festival or a stroll along the Mall.

Cedar Smoked Salmon and assorted side dishes - photo courtesy of NMAI

Cedar Smoked Salmon and assorted side dishes – photo courtesy of NMAI

The take home menu serves 6-8 people and ranges from $180.00 – $195.00 depending on your entrée. Or you can just order these dishes separately to add to your at-home dinner.

If you opt for the whole meal deal choose one of three entrees – Sweet Red Chile and Orange Rubbed Free Range Turkey with pan gravy and spiced cranberry sauce; Sumac Crusted Bison Tenderloin; or Juniper Glazed West Coast Salmon. Then build your meal around that with two large side orders of the following options – Brown Sugar and Butternut Squash Soup sweetened with Maple and topped with Candied Pumpkin Seeds or North Atlantic Clam Soup with Sunchokes and Leeks. Appetizers are Local Blue Crab Cakes or Wild Rice Baked Fritters with queso fresco and blueberries. Sides are numerous and diverse but I mention just a few of your choices – Roast Beets with Sage; a cold salad of Hominy with Fire Roasted Peppers, Onions, Lardons, and Watercress with a Lime Vinaigrette; Mashed Potatoes with Walnuts and Agave; Braised Kale with Shallots and Apricots and. A half sheet of Blue Cornbread comes with each whole meal order, as does one pint of Cranberry and Pineapple Sauce and dessert of either Apple Cobbler or Classic Pumpkin Pie.

To place an order call Miriam Menkir at 202 633-7044 or email mmenkir@restaurantassociates.com

The National Museum of the American Indian, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20013. nmai.si.edu/visit/washington/

Nibbles and Sips Around Town ~ October 31, 2016

Jordan Wright
October 2016
All photo credit to Jordan Wright

701 Gets Jazzy with New Fall Drinks and Dishes – An Afternoon with Andrea Cecchi and His Award-Winning Chiantis – Ottoman Taverna: SCOTUS sighting and Turkish Delight – Sofitel Wine Days and Thanksgiving Dinner – Blackwall Hitch Redux – ‘Night at The Yards’ Gives Back – Ocean Prime Hits All the Right Notes – Junction Bakery Opens in Del Ray – Barboursville Wine Dinner at Airlie

Get Jazzy at 701

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701 Restaurant has rolled out its autumn menu from Executive Chef Benjamin Lambert and the bartender has responded with creative cocktails like the ‘7th & Penn’ made with rye, aged rum, PX sherry, orange and angostura bitters or the ‘Douro Spritz’ concocted with saffron gin, white port, house tonic and soda.

Seasonal cocktails at 701

Seasonal cocktails

The kicker is you can groove to jazzmen of note, Eddie Eatmon and Gary Rowe, both native Washingtonians who are on deck throughout happy hour.

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Cauliflower Shawarma

Lambert’s specialty fall offerings include Chilled Corn Soup – topped with bacon, cornbread streusel and chili-lime sorbet; Bluefin Tuna Tartare with the unique combination of sushi rice ice cream, ponzu and wasabi oil; Corn Fonduta Agnolotti – chanterelle mushrooms, truffle and sungold tomatoes which is indelibly delicious; Cauliflower Shawarma – hummus, golden raisins, tomatoes and lavash; and Smoked Duck Breast – black beans, salsa verde and baby corn.

Chef Benjamin Lambert's latest dishes

Chef Benjamin Lambert’s latest dishes

He’s also got a few sweet endings up his sleeve – a twist on S’mores with toasted marshmallow, chocolate and graham cracker ganache and the especially yummy Sweet Corn Pudding with blueberries, crunchy yogurt and champagne.

701 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004

Wine Tasting Luncheon with Andrea Cecchi at Ristorante La Perla

The early autumn sun fell languidly through the windows of Ristorante La Perla as Andrea Cecchi, of the famed house of Cecchi, presented his wines at the elegant Georgetown spot, a few blocks from the Four Seasons.

Signore Cecchi prepares to greet his guests

Signore Cecchi prepares to greet his guests

Under shimmering Venetian chandeliers, cream-colored walls studded with celebrity photos (and a certificate from the Pope!), and an Italian mosaic of Botticelli’s Venus rising from the shell, we tasted eight Chiantis, each paired with Owner/Chef Vittorio Testa’s outstanding Italian cuisine.

Botticelli's Venus Rising at La Perla

Botticelli’s Venus Rising

It became a festive afternoon as Signore Cecchi urged us to raise our glasses in celebration of the 300-year anniversary of Chianti Classico as the world’s first designated wine region – Take that France! – while affording our small group a glimpse into the charmed life of a fourth generation winemaker.

His knowledge is boundless on the subject of Chianti and the Sangiovese and Vermentino grapes used for the estate’s wines and he was peppered with many questions. Here’s a tip for buyers: Identify these regional wines by looking for the Gallo Nero, on the label. The “Black Rooster” designation traces its lineage to 14th century Florence.

Signore Cecchi awaits guests with a collection of his estate wines

Signore Cecchi awaits guests with a collection of his estate wines

Established in 1893, Cecchi has estates in both Umbria and Tuscany in Castellino. The wines presented by our charming host ranged from the very affordable 2014 La Mora Vermentino at a suggested retail of around $20.00 to the pricier 2011 Coevo at $106.00. A table favorite proved to be the 2013 La Mora Morellino Di Scansano coming in at a modest $23.00.

For restaurants and stores in our area visit Cecchi wines.

Calamari Insalata at La Perla

Calamari Insalata

 

Wild boar chops at La Perla

Wild boar chops

I’d be negligent if I didn’t mention the excellent lunch dishes – the delicato calamari insalata (there is no substitute for superior olive oil), wild boar chops with sage and rosemary in a Marsala sauce (evoking memories of rustic Tuscan food), perfectly prepared pasta (it can be al dente without sacrificing a tooth!) and decadent house made Italian pastries – an almond cake with a layer of raspberries and Bacio di Napoli, a decadent chocolate cup filled with vanilla ice cream and zabaglione sauce, and topped with chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

Bacio do Napoli at La Perla

Bacio do Napoli

This is an exceptional Italian restaurant that had somehow been off my radar and which merits many return visits.

The dining room at Ristorante La Perla

The dining room at Ristorante La Perla

2600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20037

Ottoman Taverna Is a Rare Bird

Ottoman Taverna

Ottoman Taverna

Ottoman Taverna is an unquestionably upscale Turkish restaurant – a rara avis that focuses on refined Turkish cuisine in a fashionable series of rooms set apart from a long bar area by lacy wood panels. The bar with its glowing stone top says “Let’s party” while the marble floors and tapestries coupled with modern chandeliers and tobacco-colored leather banquettes suggest, “Let’s settle in for a relaxing meal”.

The wood fired oven at Ottoman Taverna

The wood fired oven at Ottoman Taverna

A spectacular copper wood-fired oven set off by a collection of the-cook-is-serious copper pots, signals that food here is taken very seriously. Ask SCOTUS Elena Kagan who was enjoying dinner with friends at a four-top by the floor-to-ceiling windows while we relaxed with hand-crafted cocktails chilled by hand-made ice cubes.

Ottoman Taverna Executive Chef Ilhan Erkek

Ottoman Taverna Executive Chef Ilhan Erkek

The menu here reflects traditional Turkish cuisine yet on the higher end of the spectrum.

An assortment of mezzes at Ottoman Taverna

An assortment of mezzes

Hot and cold mezes rule the appetizers while fish, lamb, (the doner kebabs are a must have) and slow cooked dishes are the standouts.

Moussaka from Ottoman Taverna

Moussaka

Finish with baklava or the house made hazelnut ice cream. And, if Claudia is there, ask her to “read” your fortune from the muddy sediment that remains in the bottom of your Turkish coffee. Certain patterns will intuit your future.

425 I Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001

Sofitel “Wine Days”

Unfortunately, the “Wine Days” event at the Sofitel which featured the hotel’s new wine program and superb collection of French wines is coming to a close. Held in the posh Presidential Suite overlooking the city, Executive Chef Gyo Santa showcased delectable delights culled from his new menu and now being served at the hotel’s iCi Urban Bistro. Santa presented a fusion of flavors, some Asian-inspired, others adhering to the French menu the hotel is well known for.

From Sofitel's extensive wine list

From Sofitel’s extensive wine list

Smoked duck breast with Maytag blue cheese and a wedge of poached fig and spoonfuls of sesame tuna carpaccio with a sweet and tangy Asian sauce were as irresistible as beet tartlettes with Monocacy Ash goat cheese and a sliver of fresh orange. Naturally there were gorgeous platters of fruits and charcuterie, but the biggest surprise was the house made blackberry gelees and heavenly macarons. You can still find all of these and other treats on the bistro’s menu, along with such vintages as Chateau Greysac Medoc, The Seeker Pinot Noir, Louis Jadot Bourgogne, and Bieler Pere & Fils rosé from Aix-en-Provence. Did you know that rosé is the number one wine consumed in France? Perfect for Thanksgiving!

Smoked duck breast with figs

Smoked duck breast with figs

And that brings me to their Thanksgiving menu – an exceptional feast if you don’t want to cook or clean up. And who does? It starts off with a selection of butternut squash velouté with duck confit, foie gras mousse with raspberry glaze, or salmon gravlax with roasted beets, frisée and horseradish cream.

Beet tartlettes with Monocacy Ash goat cheese

Beet tartlettes with Monocacy Ash goat cheese

Entrées are classic farm raised heritage turkey with wild mushroom stuffing, cranberry jam and mashed potatoes, or lobster risotto in a rich bisque, or roasted lamb loin accompanied by seasonal vegetables and apricot pepper jus.

Assortment of macarons

Assortment of macarons

Have I got your attention yet? Finish with pumpkin cheesecake with caramel filling in a pecan crust or chocolate molten cake with fall spices in a pear purée. At $55 pp plus tax and gratuity, it’s a steal.

806 15th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. For reservations and information call 202.730.8800.

Blackwall Hitch Redux

Looking out at the water at Blackwall Hitch

Looking out at the water at Blackwall Hitch

Because Blackwall Hitch is eager to get things right after an uneven start last summer, we went back to see if anything had changed. First off I’m happy to report that service has improved dramatically. The staff is better trained and eager to please.

This is certainly one of the most attractive restaurants in Northern Virginia and notable for its five bars, a spacious lounge, outdoor dining, a seafood bar and a fabulous outdoor fire pit/bar area. Hot toddies, anyone?

The décor is absolutely gorgeous, nautical with chic Hamptons style. But be forewarned. It’s quite noisy when busy, so if you have a choice, ask for a banquette downstairs by the windows overlooking the water, or a high-top table upstairs, if it hasn’t been reserved for a private party. Note: The upstairs lounge and dining area would be ideal for office holiday parties, as would the large private dining room below.

A fall offering of Cauliflower Soup

A fall offering of Cauliflower Soup

One of the highlights here is the live music which starts out most nights at 9pm and goes till 1am. On Sundays it’s from 10am – brunch time – till 3pm. Check the website for the featured artist.

Fried soft shell crabs at Blackwall Hitch

Fried soft shell crabs

So far the wine selections have been pedestrian and the food can be uneven. A delicious cauliflower soup was light and frothy with its ring of balsamic vinegar and maitake mushroom foam, and the fried softshell crabs when in season are large and succulent. But fish can be overcooked, as was a large portion of swordfish. (It’s a travesty when a beautiful piece of fish is ruined by overcooking.) And pass on the leaden, fire-roasted flatbreads, that can’t sub for an actual pizza.

Oyster platter at Blackwall Hitch

Oyster platter

Recommendations: Oysters on the half shell, fish and chips, seared Ahi tuna, crab cakes, shrimp and crab seviche, and killer sweet potato fries. I haven’t had the best of luck with the entrees since they opened. But key lime panna cotta with toasted almonds and strawberry sauce and an authentic 9-layer Smith Island cake were true winners.

Key lime panna cotta

Key lime panna cotta

Update: A new fall menu was just about to launch since I visited in late September, and newcomer Chef de Cuisine Arra Mente Lawson, a protégé of Jean Louis Palladin, aims to turn things around. Look for his daily specials he calls, “Ode to Palladin” in which he evokes dishes influenced by the great French chef. With Lawson’s experience in French cuisine along with his Southern roots, the menu is slowly evolving and I hope to keep an eye on his progress.

A basket of fluffy biscuits inspired by Chef Lawson's Southern roots

A basket of fluffy biscuits inspired by Chef Lawson’s Southern roots

Note: The restaurant will be serving a traditional Thanksgiving buffet with all the trimmings for $38 pp, plus tax and gratuity. Oysters and jumbo shrimp included!

5 Cameron Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. For reservations call 703.739-6090.

Night at the Yards Gives Back

As one of four judges at the 9th annual “Night at The Yards”, I was privileged to represent Washington Life magazine while tasting some fabulous offerings from area restaurants.

The event benefits education and job training programs serving at-risk youth and young adults. Here are the results of the competition. Best FoodCapital Crab Company; Best Food PresentationFarmers and Distillers; Best Booth Set UpIce Cream Jubilee; Best BrewDistrict Chophouse; Best CocktailLavagna. My favorite beer that didn’t win was ‘Hefeweizen’ wheat beer from Gordon Biersch. Tastiest dish that didn’t win was a creative salad from Art-Drenaline in the Anacostia Art Center. Meanwhile upstart LA/San Francisco coffeemaker, Philz Coffee, now in Adams Morgan and The Yards, was getting all the buzz.

Kids enjoy a myriad of programs from Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region

Kids enjoy a myriad of programs from Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region

Described as casual-festive, the event raises critical funds for Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region‘s hands-on education, workforce development, and violence prevention programs for at-risk youth and young adults.

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Two live bands – The Psycho Killers (a Talking Heads Tribute Band) headlined followed by a tribute to Stevie Wonder presented by Squaring the Circle & Friends. Legendary saxophonist Ron Holloway was on board and a dance performance by the young Queen Beez who are from the program that uplifts DC young girls through music and leadership.

Over 30 of the area’s restaurants served up nibbles and sips along with beer, wine and craft cocktails while guests bid on sports memorabilia, gift cards to local restaurants and businesses, and a tour through France’s Bordeaux wine country. For more info on these and other events visit. .

Ocean Prime Hits the Heights

A wall of wines at Ocean Prime

A wall of wines

Destination: Over the top luxury restaurant, tailor made to impress guests, clients and your significant others. A place to see and be seen.

'Berries and Bubbles' gets hand poured at table at Ocean Prime

‘Berries and Bubbles’ gets hand poured at table

On opening night at Ocean Prime, the sky was the limit. Seafood towers billowed with dry ice as they reached for the rafters, smoking cocktails (more dry ice), massive steaks, lobster mashed potatoes and richly lavish desserts. This is not the place to count calories. Your only challenge will be to decide from the drool-worthy items on the menu. Bring a crowd. You’ll want to try everything.

The smoking seafood tower at Ocean Prime

The smoking seafood tower

Housed in the former Ceiba, the restaurant is now a glam spot with plenty of razzle dazzle. Four of us ate our way through the menu (well, we tried) beginning with that smoky cocktail ‘Berries and Bubbles’, a champagne and Belvedere vodka fresh fruit sparkler that brought oohs and aahs as it was hand poured at table.

Filet mignon with hollandaise at Ocean Prime

Filet mignon with hollandaise

We remarked on the fresh briny oysters and the quality of the shrimp and lobster, that sang of the sea. Prime steaks come with an assortment of sauces including black truffle butter, béarnaise, and garlic shrimp scampi, while Maine lobster tails are simply bathed in butter. Want a 16-ounce rib eye? It’ll set you back $51, but you’ll be making steak sandwiches for days.

Twin Maine lobster tails at Ocean Prime are served with asparagus

Twin Maine lobster tails are served with asparagus

 

Ten layer carrot cake with pineapple syrup at Ocean Prime

Ten layer carrot cake with pineapple syrup

This was not a night for chicken, though it is organic and antibiotic-free and is sourced from Freebird Farms in Maryland. Nor did we have our eyes on a Duroc pork chop, though they are dry-aged and beautifully marbled. The consensus at the table was to order the most decadent dinner imaginable, and that’s exactly what we got.

As an added attraction the service is impeccable – bow-and-scrape all the way. And, though the place is lively, and separated from the bar by a lacy coral screen, you can hear your tablemates, though the back dining room is quieter and more private.

A view to the bar at Ocean Prime

A view to the bar

Ocean Prime is the 25th restaurant of renowned restaurateur, Cameron Mitchell, and boasts an impressive wine list honored by Wine Spectator.

Five stars, if I gave them out. Book now for the Inaugural weekend.

1341 G Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. For reservations call 202.393.0313.

Junction Bakery & Bistro Opens in Del Ray

If you like rustic baked breads, muffins, brioche, croissants, cakes, cookies, scones and assorted pastries, trot over to Junction Bakery & Bistro, the newest kid on Monroe Avenue, and the latest venture by Noe Landini of Landini Brothers restaurant in Old Town Alexandria, and chef Nathan Hatfield.

With cold-pressed juices from their own Grateful Juice Co. and Culpeper native, Commonwealth Joe Coffee Roasters, keggers of ‘Nitro Cold Brew Coffee’, it’s an all-around hit in the neighborhood.

The day's breads at Junction Bakery

The day’s breads

Eat in or pick up grab-and-go sandwiches for breakfast or lunch. Try the Short Rib Grilled Cheese on roasted garlic sourdough or, for a vegan option, Golden Quinoa with summer veggies, fava beans, caramelized onions and almond mint pesto. Chicken Liver Toast with onion jam called to me. Soups change each day on the whim of the chef. And I loved the seasonal Pumpkin or Apple hand pies as a capper.

Junction Bakery bakes its rustic breads, muffins and sweet pastries on site in the gleaming kitchen behind the register

Junction Bakery bakes its rustic breads, muffins and sweet pastries on site in the gleaming kitchen behind the register

1508 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22301.

Airlie Plans Barboursville Wine Dinner

Airlie House

Airlie House

Located in horse country in Warrenton, the beautiful Virginia hills unfold to reveal the magnificent estate and resort of Airlie, a property of over 600-acres.

On Thursday, November 17th they will host the last of their ‘Signature Dinner’ series wine dinners featuring award-winning wines from Barboursville Vineyards.

Barbourville Wines

Executive Chef Hector Cruz and his culinary team have drawn on autumnal flavors to expertly pair with varietals from Barboursville. The evening begins at 5:30pm with a welcome reception featuring passed hors d’oeuvres and select Barboursville wines. Guests will have the opportunity to meet winemaker Luca Paschina, as he shares the story of how his humble roots in Piemonte, Italy inspired his lifelong passion for wine, food, and the soil.

Chefs in Airlie's Local Food Project Garden

Chefs in Airlie’s Local Food Project Garden

Chef Cruz will prepare a flavorful menu using vegetables and herbs from Airlie’s 4-acre organic garden as well as provisions from a hyper-local networks of farms.

The menu includes an Amuse Bouche, Scallops and Cream Polenta paired with Barboursville Viognier Fall Salad paired with Barboursville Chardonnay, all natural Grilled Veal Rack paired with Barboursville Cabernet Franc, Poached Pear, Garden Lavender and Rainey’s Dream Cheese Ice Cream paired with Barboursville Phileo.

Tickets are $75 pp and available at Dinner Reservation featuring Barboursville Wines or call 540.341.3299. For out-of-towners think about staying the night. For room reservations call 540.347.1300.

The Wonders of Nelson County Revealed

Jordan Wright
September 15, 2016
All photo credit – Jordan Wright

The view from 20-Minute Cliff

The view from 20-Minute Cliff

Usually a trip through Nelson County has us making a beeline to Charlottesville.  And though Thomas Jefferson’s university town has beauty, history and terrific restaurants, there are tons of other attractions in this bucolic county worthy of a visit – and a few night’s stay.  Let Route 151 be your guiding star.  For our adventure we allowed five days and four nights, and only scratched the surface, vowing to return to the places we discovered and those we’d heard about and missed.  And although this is piece is entirely subjective, feel free to design your own trip by cherry-picking from our favorites.

Farms dot the landscape on the Blue Ridge

Farms dot the landscape on the Blue Ridge

Once past the Manassas exit on Route 66, the road opens up to spectacular vistas, rolling countryside and the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Bill Coffee’s family-owned Buckland Farm Market outside of Warrenton on Route 29, is always our first stop.  The large farm store has a dizzying array of homemade cheeses, fresh fruits and veggies, plants and preserves, and more importantly, a wide array of mouth-watering baked goods.  In autumn there are pumpkin turnovers and pumpkin whoopee pies along with Southern pecan and apple pies.  You’ll also find the widest selection of Bob’s Red Mill products.  If you’re on an overnight stay, bring a cooler and stop on the way home for farm-raised beef and eggs.  The haunted corn field will open weekends throughout October and pick-your-own pumpkins are in the field now.

The Spa at Wintergreen Resort

The Spa at Wintergreen Resort

After purchasing a few jars of local honey and the prerequisite snacks, we proceeded up the mountains to check in at Wintergreen Resort, heading post haste to the serenity of The Spa for massages.  The full-service spa offers a variety of options and we chose a combination of Swedish, deep tissue and reflexology.  The ‘Green Tea and Lemongrass’ stress-shedder includes a salt scrub, hot stones and Vichy shower for the ultimate in relaxation.  From now till November the treatment switches over to the autumn-inspired ‘Pumpkin Chai’ sugar scrub.  Afterwards don plush terry robes and relax with a cup of herbal tea in the lounge overlooking the woods, or a swim in the indoor pool.  Finish your hydrotherapy in the steam room or sauna before heading off to dinner.

Fresh cut bouquet from Pharsalia

Fresh cut bouquet from Pharsalia

Wintergreen has several dining options and the Copper Mine Bistro in the heart of Blackrock Village is the homiest of all.  Have breakfast here if you are planning on morning activities at the resort.  Golf, tennis, mountain biking and skiing are the most vigorous activities, but for less of a workout there’s yoga, trail walking and swimming.  Visit the Nature Center to learn about the flora and fauna and archeological history of the area.  Guided walks leave from here or you can venture out on your own using their free trail maps.

Devil’s Grill is the resort’s fine dining restaurant.  And as with the other four restaurants, guests can go casual, though here tables are dressed up with candles, flowers and white linens signaling a fancier repast.  A new chef has arrived since we dined there in late June, but expect locally-sourced seasonal food with a gourmet flair.

The morning brought rain and mist and the fern-bordered path to the Copper Mine Bistro was dense with fog.  Weather in the mountains has a habit of improving after a few hours and by the time breakfast was over the sun had broken through the clouds and we took off for the mountain course to make an early tee time.

Devil's Knob golf course

Devil’s Knob golf course

Devil’s Knob is the most challenging of the two courses (18 holes at Devil’s Knob and 27 holes at Stoney Creek), and I’m afraid in our zeal we didn’t do it justice.  But it was worth every scenic moment.  Sitting at an elevation of 3,800 feet and cooler than its sister course, Stoney Creek (designed by Rees Jones), we found wildflowers and wildlife our chief distractions.  This beautifully laid out Ellis Maples designed course takes advantage of the spectacular mountain views and rushing streams cascading down from the mountain tops.

The cottage gardens at Basic Necessities

The cottage gardens at Basic Necessities

Lunch brought us off the mountain to a small cottage surrounded by a lush perennial garden where we met Kay Pfaltz, an avowed Francophile with a joie de vivre that’s indelibly contagious.

Let Kay Pfaltz choose your wine

Let Kay Pfaltz choose your wine

Kay is the author of the charming memoir Lauren’s Story: An American Dog in Paris and co-owner of Basic Necessities with Sallie Justice and Rosie Gantt.  Together they helm this restaurant and retail store.  The enchanting spot reflects a distinctly French flair drawn from Pfaltz’s years as a writer living out her dream in Paris with her adored beagle, Lauren.

The shop at Basic Necessities

The shop at Basic Necessities

In the front section the shop is filled with a wide array of cheeses, freshly baked baguettes, patés and sausages – perfect for pairing with wines from Pfaltz’s expertly selected collection.

Pfaltz, who pens a local wine column, makes her selections based on taste, style and affordability and I homed in on a few sumptuous, well-priced burgundies and a number of carefully curated Virginia wines from the Commonwealth’s better winemakers.  Her clientele certainly benefits from her discriminating, Gallic-honed palate to guide them.

Chocolate cake at Basic Necessities

Chocolate cake at Basic Necessities

The dining area is in the back and overlooks more gardens.  Provencal patterned tablecloths echo the French theme while floral print china and sprays of wildflowers in stone crocks adorn the tables.  Lunches are served Tuesday through Sunday, with dinner service on Friday and Saturday nights only.

Thanks to Justice and Nelson County cook, Mae Collins Tyree, we were able to partake of a lovely French-inspired luncheon.

Charcuterie platter at Basic Necessities

Charcuterie platter at Basic Necessities

I was particularly taken by the delicacy of a watermelon + tomato gazpacho, a classic Croque Madame and a lavish charcuterie platter with all the accoutrements.  Pfaltz’s choice of a nice French rosé put us in mind of the French Riviera on a summer’s day.  We capped off our French feast with a slice of richly dense and multi-layered chocolate cake.

Nelson County boasts ten wineries, three craft breweries, two cideries, one meadery and two distilleries.  You will most assuredly not get to visit them all in one trip.  We gave it our best shot and epically failed.  However you choose to approach this tempting dilemma, it is ultimately more satisfying to focus on a few, all the better to savor the experience.  In this way you’ll be able to spend quality time with folks eager to share their passion for the land and their commitment to their products.

Tony and Elizabeth Smith at Afton Mountain Vineyards

Tony and Elizabeth Smith at Afton Mountain Vineyards

At Afton Mountain Vineyards winemakers Tony and Elizabeth Smith are proud owners of their upscale winery whose vines were planted in the 1970’s.  Formerly known as Bacchanal Vineyards, the Charlottesville couple bought the vineyard in 2009, and doubled the acreage under vine.  They expect their annual production of 2,200 bottles to increase to 5,000 in the next few years under the care and watchful eye of winemaker Damien Blanchon who hails from the South of France.

Currently the winery produces 15 varieties – something for everyone’s palate.  Their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2012 Petit Verdot recently won gold at the 2016 Monticello Cup Wine Competition and they are exceedingly proud of being the area’s only producer of Pinot Noir.

Enjoying a glass of Petit Verdot Reserve at Afton Mountain

Enjoying a glass of Petit Verdot Reserve at Afton Mountain

From the elevated tasting room on a drizzly afternoon you might see a group of horseback riders make their way across the vineyard.

Riders tour the vineyards at Afton Mountain Vineyards

Riders tour the vineyards at Afton Mountain Vineyards

Rebel’s Run at Afton Mountain is a nearby stable providing guided tours of the vineyard and the scenic countryside.  Riders stop in to relax with a glass of wine beside the lake before heading back to the stables.  ‘Sip and Saddle’ packages can be booked through the stables or local B&B’s who pack box lunches for the riders.

Christine and Denver Riggleman beside casks of their aged bourbon

Christine and Denver Riggleman beside casks of their aged bourbon

A stop at the wildly successful upstart Silverback Distillery introduced us to Virginia-born owners Christine and Denver Riggleman.  After years of living the transient military life and raising their three daughters, Denver offered his wife Christine the chance to choose their next path.  To his utter surprise, she told him she wanted to start a distillery.  Their daughters, who are very much hands on in the endeavor, voted on the nickname they had given their father, “Silverback”, after the massive gorilla – their term of endearment in reference to his large build.  (He has since shed the excess pounds and it’s difficult to picture him as inspiration for the simian moniker.)

The tasting lounge at Silverback Distillery

The tasting lounge at Silverback Distillery

Silverback Distillery opened for business less than two years ago and has already been the recipient of eight international awards.  Combining a blend of Virginia grains with American craftsmanship, they currently offer Beringei Vodka, Strange Monkey Gin (winner of Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition), Blackback White Grain Spirit and Blackback Rye Whiskey.  An aged bourbon is coming soon.  Stop in for mini cocktails – the London Mule with gin, ginger beer and lime juice was our favorite quaff.  They have limited distribution and most sales are here at the Tasting Room, so be sure to pick up a bottle or two to take home.

Bold Rock's Tasting Room

Bold Rock’s Tasting Room

Close by you’ll find two local craft cideries – Bold Rock Hard Cider uses 100% apples from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, while Blue Toad Hard Cider gets 100% of their apples from New York state.  No concentrate bases whatsoever like the larger cideries.  Farm to Tap.

A worker checks the hoses on the tanks at Bold Rock Hard Cider

A worker checks the hoses on the tanks at Bold Rock Hard Cider

Bold Rock is a massive operation with three locations in Virginia and one in North Carolina, while Blue Toad is a tiny speck on the map.  Try them both and judge for yourself.

The Tasting Room at Blue Toad Hard Cider

The Tasting Room at Blue Toad Hard Cider

If you’re looking for an active bar scene, Devils Backbone Brewing Company is nearby.  This large craft brewery, recently purchased by Anheuser-Busch, is set on 100-acres of farmland with plenty of outdoor seating in its naturalistic gardens.  Families congregate at the covered outdoor bar as children explore the paths.

Barbecue at Devils Backbone

Barbecue at Devils Backbone

The restaurant features sixteen beers on tap to pair with simple pub food.

The restaurant at Devils Backbone Brewing Company

The restaurant at Devils Backbone Brewing Company

If you’re lucky enough to be in Nelson County on a Saturday, head for the farmer’s market.  Along with pretty flowers, fresh fruits, cheeses and veggies, you’ll find some unusual vendors like local bladesmith, T. Hipps, whose line of heirloom quality handmade cutlery called Karma Blades, will set you apart from the run-of-the-mill chef or hunter.  Or Lynne Ross of La Sunflower who makes her beauty products with comfrey and other natural home grown herbs.

Purple cauliflower from the season's bounty

Purple cauliflower from the season’s bounty

Stop by Barefoot Bucha’s stand to try their organic kombucha made locally with organic ingredients and served on draft and pick up a homemade lemon meringue pie from The Hungry Fox.

The James River Cut-ups entertain the crowd at the Nelson County Farmers Market

The James River Cut-ups entertain the crowd at the Nelson County Farmers Market

Hopefully you brought a cooler to take home John and Jade Sonne’s organic pork, eggs and berries from Spruce Creek Farms and some kimchi and fermented drinks from Farmstead Ferments.

Fermented vegetables from Gathered Threads

Fermented vegetables from Gathered Threads

Where else can you find okra hot dogs and cider brats? Why from The Rock Barn, of course.  Other unique finds are fermented vegetables from Gathered Threads, who offer wide range of products from tsukemono, gingered carrots and apple & juniper sauerkraut.

Essences from Primal Wisdom

Essences from Primal Wisdom

My personal favorite from Virginia Vinegar Works is ‘Blackberry Cabaret’.  Not too sweet, not too tart – it’s the perfect addition to any kind of salad.

Sandy Beebe shows her artwork

Sandy Beebe shows her artwork

And, if you want to know why painter and printmaker Sandy Beebe, whose works are reminiscent of Grandma Moses, moved to Nelson County, she’s at the market every Saturday and is delighted to chat about its charms.

Mary Wolf owner of Wild Wolf Brewing Company

Mary Wolf owner of Wild Wolf Brewing Company

All this food and no stove to cook it, was making us hungry.  So turning back onto the Brew Ridge Trail we headed for lunch at Wild Wolf Brewing Company to meet owner Mary Wolf whose son Danny Wolf is the Master Brewer.

Wild Wolf's restaurant is housed in a restored schoolhouse

Wild Wolf’s restaurant is housed in a restored schoolhouse

This unique, eco-friendly, family-owned brewery, offers a wide array of beers and a restaurant housed in a former 1910 high school with wrap-around porches.  Stroll around the 10-acre former garden center to enjoy ponds, a water wheel, a biergarten and rustic outbuildings.

The Gazebo gardens at Wild Wolf

The Gazebo gardens at Wild Wolf

The restaurant has an exceptional Head Chef in Chris Jack, and a talented Pastry Chef and Baker in Higgins Stewart, both of whom create truly memorable food.  According to Mary two years ago she and Danny decided to go farm-to-fork.  Now they send spent grain from their hops to a local farmer to feed his cattle in trade for beef.

Herbed gazpacho ~ Shrimp and grits

Herbed gazpacho ~ Shrimp and grits

Eggs come from the chickens that live beneath their hops vines, and there’s a vegetable garden for much of the produce and summer herbs tucked into Jack’s dishes.

Chickens feed on insects beneath the hops vines at Wild Wolf

Chickens feed on insects beneath the hops vines at Wild Wolf

In the kitchen heritage breed Autumn Olive pigs are butchered for sausages and the ground pork is added to burgers.  Grits are prepared using stone ground corn from the nearby Woodson’s Mill in Nelson County.  The craveable, crisp-crusted cornbread brought steaming hot to the table in wire baskets, is made with Ula Tortilla’s organic, locally grown, non-GMO corn flour.  This rustic restaurant retreat is a must stop for excellent, chef-driven local cuisine and hoppy IPAs made with Cascade hops used in their “Primal Instinct” IPA.  We loved knowing Wild Wolf was selected as the Virginia Green Brewery of the Year.

The Tasting Room at Democracy Vineyards

The Tasting Room at Democracy Vineyards

Was it the wine or the beer?  But somehow we missed the turnoff to Del Fosse Winery leading us to a scrappy little vineyard that hadn’t been on our radar.  Democracy Vineyards may not be on many people’s list, but we loved its quirky theme and amazing collection of political memorabilia that lines the walls of the ultra-modern tasting room.  Started by Susan Prokop and Jim Turpin on an old apple farm, Democracy now features eleven wines with such startling names as ‘Suffrage’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Magna Carta’ and ‘Velvet Revolution’.  Be sure to taste their ‘Parliament’ 100% Petit Verdot dessert wine, and ‘Freedom’ a ‘Pinotage’ varietal.

A short drive away is the Virginia Distillery Company, where the elegantly furnished Visitor’s Center signals this luxury brand.  This summer the company launched ‘The Virginia Whisky Experience’, a one-of-a-kind guided interactive tour and museum experience for its visitors.  It includes a tour of the state-of-the-art distillery and the Cask House ending in a tasting of their Virginia Highland Malt and a sampling of their craft cocktails either in the Visitors’ Center or on a 2,000-foot patio replete with water and fire features.

Inside the distillery

Inside the distillery

Fed by seven converging springs, the distillery was the dream of George G. Moore, an American visionary who was determined to see Virginia whisky come back to an area once better known for its Prohibition Era stills.  Moore died three years ago and the project was taken up by his son, Gareth Moore and wife, Maggie, who have shown the same pioneering determination.  While VDC’s whisky was aging in used bourbon casks for a minimum of three years, they began distilling and aging their Virginia Scotch Whisky in the Scottish Highlands and shipping it back to Lovingston, finishing here in port-style wine casks where it will age for six to twelve months.  Not all the malted barley will come from Virginia, as there are not enough local farmers able to fulfill their needs, so most will be sourced from Scotland’s famed Boby malt mill.

Guests settle in for a tasting of Virginia Highland Malt

Guests settle in for a tasting of Virginia Highland Malt

Until their on-site product has aged completely, the tasting room offers the Scottish-distilled Virginia Highland Malt in a number of specialty cocktails.  We particularly enjoyed the ‘South of Manhattan’ which we paired with their specialty Gearhart’s Chocolates Whisky Truffle made with their Highland Malt and sold in the gift shop.

Carol mixes the 'South of Manhattan'

Carol mixes the ‘South of Manhattan’

‘South of Manhattan’ Cocktail from Virginia Distillery

  • 4 ounces Virginia Sparkling Cider
  • 1/2 ounce Luxardo cherry juice
  • 2 dashes cardamom bitters
  • 2 ounces Virginia Highland Malt Whisky
  • Orange peel
  • Luxardo cherry, for garnish
South of Manhattan

South of Manhattan

In a shaker, mix together cider, cherry juice and bitters. Add two ice cubes and the Virginia Highland Malt Whisky.  Stir and strain into a coupe glass. Rub the rim of the coupe glass with the orange peel and garnish with the Luxardo cherry and the orange peel.

Fourth generation owner Jim Saunders

Fourth generation owner Jim Saunders

Jim Saunders is the fourth-generation owner of Saunders Brothers founded in 1915.  The affable farmer took time to drive us in his bright red truck through hundreds of acres of peach, apple and Asian pear orchards plus 36 varieties of boxwoods.  (You’ve probably seen their boxwoods in the White House gardens, planted during the Kennedy administration.)

Bouncing along the rutted farm roads, Jim regaled us with tales of the 1200-acre Nelson County farm.  Jim’s father, Paul Saunders, is the family genealogist and successful author, penning two wonderful books, “Heartbeats of Nelson”, a fascinating 634-page photo-filled anthology on the history of the county and its people, beginning in pre-Civil War times to the present day.  His second book, “Down on the Farm”, tells the history of the Saunders’ family life and the business of running the farm.  You can get pleasantly lost in these emotionally-connected stories of life and times by the Piney River.

Author Paul Saunders - Heartbeat of Nelson & Down on the Farm

Author Paul Saunders – Heartbeat of Nelson & Down on the Farm

We finished the tour in the farm store with Homestead Creamery’s delicious homemade peach ice cream from their Farm Market and left toting a basket of early yellow Sentry peaches destined for our cobblers.  Look for Saunders peaches, apples and pears at Whole Foods.  Their Albemarle Pippin was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple and is great for baking as well as cider.

Early season Sentry peaches

Early season Sentry peaches

The Rock-n-Creek Cabin is the most unique accommodation I have ever come across.  A rustic two-level A-frame cabin with wraparound porches, it is set in the woods and encircled by a series of ponds.  And though I was not particularly keen on the unidentifiable insects flitting around the bathroom floor, it’s more luxurious than camping out.

Amid his oak baskets Christy gets to work on a new decoy.

Amid his oak baskets Christy gets to work on a new decoy.

Host and owner Richard Christy is a renaissance man.  He is an accomplished chef, caterer, self-taught decoy and shorebird carver, and basket weaver.  His Buck Island Bay Decoys and Mountain Man Basketry studio is adjacent to the cabin.  I tell you this because you will be interacting with him as he prepares your dinner.  He is a font of information about the area’s wonders and a fascinating conversationalist.  As a former chef to Gerald Ford, he has helmed many restaurant kitchens around the country and continues to consult on new food products for major producers.

Richard Christy Chef/Owner of Rock-n-Creek Cabin with the first course

Richard Christy Chef/Owner of Rock-n-Creek Cabin with the first course

Back to the experience.  When booking your reservation, Christy will ask what style of cuisine you would like him to prepare.  In my case I left it to him, and after he had checked out this website, he decided he would do something un-restaurant-like and totally out of the ordinary, choosing to prepare a “wildcrafted” dinner sourced entirely from wild edibles – with the exception of the vanilla, flour and sugar used in the dessert.

Our dinner was entitled ‘WILD THING – I Think I Love You’ and Christy presented us with a beautifully printed menu of our three-course dinner.

As we sipped our wine from barstools looking through to the open kitchen, the pony-tailed chef tossed freshly foraged salad greens – creek lettuce, lamb’s quarters, dandelion, chicory and cattail hearts – topping them with grated pickled duck egg, toasted pumpkin seeds and buttermilk dressing.  Our palate refresher was “Apple Pie Moonshine”, his signature concoction of homemade moonshine, cinnamon and apple cider.  Strong medicine meant for those who spend the day foraging and hunting in the woods as opposed to tooling around country roads in an air-conditioned SUV.

Blue catfish entree

Blue catfish entree

We took our seats in candlelight while Christy prepared our next course – blue catfish filets in brown butter on creamed ramps and nettles, finished with preserved fig.  A side of savory sweet potato and caramelized onion puree added sweetness and extra complexity.  It was divine!

Pound cake with wild blackberries, honeysuckle crema and spruce tip ice cream

Pound cake with wild blackberries, honeysuckle crema and spruce tip ice cream

Dessert was a harmonious medley of foraged ingredients.  Dense pound cake served with stewed wild blackberries and enhanced with honeysuckle crema and hand-churned spruce tip ice cream.  I can assert without equivocation that I have never enjoyed a meal more uniquely delectable.

The cabin with its full-sized kitchen has all the amenities you’ll need whether your bringing the whole family or looking for a romantic getaway for two.

A small group of visitors await a tour of Swannanoa Palace

A small group of visitors await a tour of Swannanoa Palace

High atop the Blue Ridge Mountains sits Swannanoa Palace – one of those intriguing places, you never knew existed.

A view from the mountaintop at Swannanoa

A view from the mountaintop at Swannanoa

Built in 1912 to replicate the style of the Villa Medici in Italy’s famed Borghese Gardens, millionaire philanthropist and railroad magnate James H. Dooley and his wife Sallie May used the 22,000-square foot Italian Renaissance Revival villa as their summer mountaintop retreat.  (You may be more familiar with the Dooleys’ better known Maymont home and gardens set beside the James River in Richmond.)  It is divinely lavish with exquisite frescoes, carvings and massive fireplaces of Sienna and Carrara marble.  Hidden doors and a secret elevator are revealed to the curious visitor, and the incongruous ‘Persian Smoking Room’ features teakwood carvings, mosaics and a mosque fresco above the fireplace.  An exquisite Moorish lantern, bejeweled with sapphires, rubies, amber and opals, hangs above the exotic decor.

Architectural details abound in the decaying palace - A bejeweled Moorish lantern lights up the 'Persian Smoking Room'

Architectural details abound in the decaying palace – A bejeweled Moorish lantern lights up the ‘Persian Smoking Room’

The 52-room Afton mansion appears to be haunted and one group claims evidence of the ghost of Sallie May.  A few years ago a team of ghost hunters from the Twisted Paranormal Society set up night beams and recording equipment in the mansion claiming to have recorded spirits within.  One year later they returned under the auspices of another paranormal show called The R. I. P. Files attempting to identify the ghosts who reside there.

The expansive pergola depicted in the Tiffany window has fallen into disrepair

The expansive pergola depicted in the Tiffany window has fallen into disrepair

The white marble palace is mostly abandoned, but guided tours of the ground floor and gardens are given seasonally from May through November on Saturdays and Sundays.

A Tiffany window at the top of the grand stairway portrays Sallie May Dooley in her gardens at Swannanoa

A Tiffany window at the top of the grand stairway portrays Sallie May Dooley in her gardens at Swannanoa

On our tour Victoria Airisun Wonderli, author of Swannanoa Palace – A Pictorial History of the Past and People, was busy signing her fascinating book on the history of the mansion.  There is currently no website for the property.  For information on visiting hours call 540 942.5201.

Author Victoria Airisun Wonderlii signs her book on Swannanoa

Author Victoria Airisun Wonderli signs her book on Swannanoa

It was high time to shed any notions of ghosts and spirits and things that go bump in the night.  And what better way to exorcise the demons than a glass of wine and a spot of lunch?

Cardinal Point's grounds provide stunning views of the mountains

Cardinal Point’s grounds provide stunning views of the mountains

When we arrived for lunch on Sunday two musicians were playing mellow tunes on the deck at Cardinal Point Winery.  Overlooking gardens abloom with roses and daylilies, we settled into a spacious sofa feeling carefree and peaceful.

As the duo took requests, we gobbled up a delicious box lunch of salad and sandwich while alternating between Vinho Verde-styled, ‘Green’ and a lively estate-grown Cab Franc rosé.  Ginger and Maya chocolate bars from Gearhart, the Richmond-based artisanal chocolatier, were the sweet finish.

Lunch on the covered deck at Cardinal Point Winery

Lunch on the covered deck at Cardinal Point Winery

During lunch, Sarah Gorman, sister of owner Tim Gorman, spoke with us about the evolution of her brother’s vineyard which currently has 15 acres under vine.

She told us how Tim, one of a smattering of Virginia owners who is also a grower, came to be a winemaker.  Tim is known for his fresh and innovative takes on classic vinifera, and naturally is very passionate about the growing side of things.  Gorman got into winemaking as a result of being frustrated by how the grapes he was growing for other vineyards were not being honored.  A creative winemaker, he prefers to ‘read’ the grapes when they are ready.  This tells him what kind of wine to make as opposed to having to force a grape to become something other than what it should be.

In a small winery such as this, he can come up with innovations, and he does.  His ‘Clay Hill’ Cabernet Franc, made with grapes from a neighboring vineyard, was a 2016 Virginia Governor’s Cup Gold Medal winner.  A classic Loire Valley style, it has also done well in international competition.  Be sure to sample some of these unique wines unknown to other Virginia wineries – like the 2014 ‘Quattro’ made from Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Viognier and Traminette grapes for an off-dry wine with notes of candied apple and pear.

Wine and chocolates at Cardinal Point Winery

Wine and chocolates at Cardinal Point Winery

Interpreting how each fruit has evolved in a season allows Tim to inform his winemaking decisions.  For his 2015 ‘Frai Chardonnay’, a wine with peach, pear and tropical notes, he stopped the ferment short of dry, leaving it with only 2% of residual sugar.  Sarah mentioned that the 2015 unoaked ‘Hopped Chardonnay’ is flying out of the tasting room with buyers surprised at how differently a chardonnay grape can be expressed.

The winery also features a five-bedroom 19th century farmhouse for overnight stays.  Check the website for upcoming events.

After doing a bit of shopping at Tuckahoe Antique Mall, we pressed on to Veritas Winery where we would spend our final night.  No, not in a vat of grapes, but at the bespoke Farmhouse at Veritas.

The flower filled pergola greets visitors to Veritas Winery

The flower filled pergola greets visitors to Veritas Winery

What we came upon was a breathtaking winery with vast expanses of green lawns, acres and acres of vines and a production facility that sustains a wine-drinking clientele of over 3,000 club members and boasts a grand ballroom for weddings and large events.

The busy tasting room at Veritas Winery

The busy tasting room at Veritas Winery

Founded by Andrew and Patricia Hodson, a British couple who moved to the county to lead a quieter life, they thought they’d put a few acres under vine.  In a short time, their flight of fancy became one of the most successful, and stunning, wineries in Virginia with many of their family members filling the roles of winemaker and managers.  We took a lengthy tour of the production facilities which are vast.  And though I took reams of notes, most are cryptically abbreviated.  Here’s what I can be sure of.  All their grapes are grown in the Monticello AVA, which consists of four counties including Nelson, and they bottled and sold their first wines, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, in 2002.  Their philosophy is to exclusively use estate or local grapes and they are most excited about a merlot they are testing using grape pomace (the skins, pulp and seeds from grapes).

Sheep graze alongside the vines at Veritas

Sheep graze alongside the vines at Veritas

As for the technical stuff, they employ a reverse osmosis machine and a state-of-the-art gyro cube for riddling and they are very proud of their gravity-fed vineyard.  I felt myself going into shutdown mode, either from too much technical stuff, or the fact that we had come inside to refrigerated cellars from 98-degree heat.

The tasting went swiftly as I passed over some too young reds to get to the best of the lot.  The 2014 ‘Vinter’s Reserve’ Red is their most promising wine right now, as the 2013 cuvee won the Gold Medal at the Governor’s Cup and I found the 2013 Petit Verdot to be coming along nicely.  I had a particular affinity for the 2015 Viognier which is touted as cellaring well, and a more delicate than expected version of ice wine called ‘Kenmar’.

The Farmhouse at Veritas

The Farmhouse at Veritas

We checked into The Farmhouse at Veritas, more of a bespoke estate home, elegantly appointed with walls of books, an old-fashioned billiard table in the Gathering Room and fine antiques.  High-end decorator touches grace the eight suites that are outfitted with high-quality linens and premium amenities.  Not your typical roadside B&B, the 1839 home was where the Hodson family lived when they first took ownership of the former horse and cattle farm.  Guests can also opt for ‘The Barn Cottage’, a charming two-bedroom, two-bath cottage with a fireplace in the living room and a full-size kitchen available for guests.

Outdoor dining at Blue Mountain Brewery

Outdoor dining at Blue Mountain Brewery

As much as I preferred to luxuriate in such splendor and sneak off with a book to the second-story front porch, we took off down the road for dinner at the Blue Mountain Brewery where we arrived in time to watch the sun set.  The award-winning brewery is proud of its 20 varieties of craft beers made with their own hops, Simcoe, Cascade and Centennial, and using deep well water as well as brewing exclusively in Nelson County since 2007.

Combo pizza at Blue Mountain Brewery

Combo pizza at Blue Mountain Brewery

Char-grilled pizzas and burgers including plenty of vegan options are made from scratch and designed to pair well with a myriad of beers. (Local wines and even kombucha are available too.) We sat on the outdoor terrace watching kids run around the lawn while a lively group played cornhole.  Check the website for upcoming Oktoberfest events.

The potager garden and dining gazebo at The Farmhouse at Veritas

The potager garden and dining gazebo at The Farmhouse at Veritas

Morning at The Farmhouse brought a champagne breakfast of fresh fruits, croissants and omelets prepared to your liking by the estate’s chef.  We eschewed the screened-in porch to enjoy the pleasures of a large brick-floor gazebo.  Surrounded by the raised beds of the kitchen garden and row upon row of Chardonnay vines we whiled away the hour sipping the aforementioned Mousseux while butterflies and honeybees flit about the roses and coneflowers.  A very civilized way to begin the day before returning homeward.  Check the website for upcoming yoga and hiking retreats.