April 20, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
My plan to spend a weekend in Staunton (pronounced “Staan’-tun”, please and thank you) was hatched last year when I heard of a young chef who was gathering a national reputation for imaginative food served up in a tiny brick building he calls, The Shack. Since then chef and restaurateur, Ian Boden, has lit up the food world garnering awards and tons of ink in his zeal to use Virginia farm products in both imaginative and delicious ways.
But as with all trips, the more you research the region where you’re headed, the more it evolves into a journey that will lose all sense of being scripted – – which is exactly what happened and which I highly recommend. The plan was to head out mid-morning Friday and drive straight to Staunton. That plan went straight out the window when I realized all the fun places we would pass along the way. Here’s what I recommend.
From Route 66 take Route 17 to Delaplane and Three Fox Vineyards where owners, Holli and John Todhunter, echo their love of all things Italian. In the barn-style tasting room you’ll find mostly Italian varietals from estate-grown grapes. Relax in a hammock or claim a game of bocce ball.
A few miles away just off Route 50, is the 200-year old mansion and gardens of Long Branch Plantation. Hard by the blink-and-you’ve-missed-it sweet little hamlet of Paris, lies the recently restored “noble mansion crowning a rising ground…” as American author Washington Irving described it in 1853. It is worth a tour of its period architecture and antique furnishings and a chance to learn about its horse retirement facility.
Just across 50 and a short drive along Millwood Road is the Locke Store in Millwood, VA. The original general store, founded in 1836, is now a food emporium chock-a-block with craft beer, wine, locally raised meats and cheeses, and tempting baked goods by pastry chef, Katie Kopsick Shapiro. Choose from homemade quiches, pot pies, salads, cakes, fruit pies and sandwiches on bread made from flour ground at the Burwell-Morgan Mill – – a restored flour mill across the street where you can have your picnic alongside a babbling stream. On the next street over is The Red Schoolhouse where 4,000 square feet of antiques and collectibles await the discerning buyer.
Getting on 81 from there was a cinch and we soon arrived in Staunton and checked into the Stonewall Jackson Hotel & Conference Center, a centrally located Colonial Revival hotel built in 1924 and recently remodeled. From our room we could see the Mill Street Grill below – – a handy spot for a quick dinner before curtain up at the Blackfriars Playhouse around the corner. If you’re looking for fancier fare try Zynodoa, a local favorite in a modern setting with upscale dining.
The playhouse is part of the American Shakespeare Theatre, a year-round performance venue fashioned after 17th century English theatres. Here Shakespeare’s plays are offered with on-stage seats for chosen audience members. I’ve been here several times and always enjoyed a rousingly entertaining production by seasoned actors. Be sure to get there early for the mini-concerts before the play.
Another purpose of my visit was to tour Joel Salatin’s 550-acre Polyface farm in nearby Swoope and on Saturday morning that is where we began our day. The author, speaker and farming guru is a legend for his sustainable farming practices and was featured in the film Food, Inc. Chefs and eco-aware farmers hang on his every word and the farm itself is a testament to Salatin and his humane animal husbandry practices. You can see the pigs, cows, chicken and sheep in their grassy habitats or shop for meats and cider in the farm store.
The night before we noticed a huge building with plate glass windows. Old cars were posed like fashion models and I was determined to see what it was all about. So before lunch we meandered over to find what is being billed as ‘the largest garage in the South’ – – a cavernous 27,000-square foot, former Ford dealership housing an amazing collection of cars in a 1911 building. Located on South New Street, the museum is owned by Bruce Elder an avid collector who sells and restores antique and classic cars. Roaming (and gasping in awe) through the three-story building, we came across dozens of beautifully restored cars including a 1924 Model T, a 1925 baby blue Rolls Royce Twenty (this one sported a price tag of $80k), and some notable Nascar winners like a 1953 single seat vehicle called ‘The Lincoln Special’ – – a Dreyer Champ car that ran on a dirt track. The museum is a car fancier’s fantasyland.
Lunch at the Pampered Palate Café was a lovely respite. The quaint spot on East Beverley Street specializes in homemade soups and sandwiches and is surrounded by tons of interesting stores, art galleries, breweries, a wine tasting room, a glass-blowing studio, and shops featuring local handicrafts.
From there we walked to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum. A fascinating and illuminating museum with exhibits detailing the history of our 28th President though his life and times. On display are hundreds of Wilson’s personal objects including his roll-top desk and 1919 Pierce-Arrow presidential limousine. A recent addition is a walk-through trench that trembles with the sounds of a real battlefield from World War I. Beside the museum sits the Presbyterian Manse, Wilson’s birthplace. The three-story brick home is filled with Wilson family heirlooms and antiques, and a guide is there to describe daily home life in the mid-19th century.
Afterwards take a relaxing 45-minute guided tour around the city by trolley. Departing from the Visitors Center, it’s a terrific opportunity to see the historic homes and churches (a jaw-dropping 78 by last count) that abound as well as Mary Baldwin College, whose campus is smack dab in the middle of town. During the tour your guide will describe the many exquisite buildings ranging from Gothic, Greek and Renaissance Revival to Dutch Colonial, Chateauesque and even Italianate, many of which were designed during the Victorian-era by renowned architect Thomas Jasper Collins. In fact the town’s splendid architecture was one of its most surprising aspects.
At last it was time for our long-anticipated dinner and the stated reason for this pilgrimage and we stroll a few blocks from the hotel to find what appears to be a 1950’s one-story structure along a quiet road. Once inside, we shed any preconceived notions of what a restaurant should look like and trusted in the chef, even though the place looks more like a pop-up or a way station for twenty-six mismatched chairs and seven tables that have lost their home. Still, it’s cozy and unpretentious and quite serious about its mission – – a 180-degree turn from the greasy, calorically-weighty cooking of Southern style restaurants. Here sauces are lightened and cooking methods respect the fresh ingredients. Expect to taste dishes you thought you knew, but here are elevated to an appreciative art form.
In a relatively short time, Boden has joined the ranks and emerging cooking style of the New Southern Cuisine trumpeted by famed chefs like Edward Lee of Atlanta, Georgia and Sean Brock of Charleston, South Carolina – – accomplished chefs who have taken familiar Southern dishes and reinvented them, made them better, more interesting and more alluring. We are talking deepened flavors and soul-stirring deliciousness.
A paper menu with the date on top lets you know that the menu is at the whim of the chef, the season and the farmers he trusts. Though I can assure you these preparations will not be on the menu when you arrive, you can luxuriate in the thought of them as I have in this writing. You get to have your own experience with whatever ingredients Boden is playing around with on that day.
We tried nearly everything on the menu, and found some favorites – – Winter Vegetable Salad with farro, bitter greens and chickweed, dressed in a barrel aged maple vinaigrette; Escolar Lettuce Wrap, a raw fish paired with cracklin’s, house made kimchi, miso and key limes. Entrees that sang to us were the Berkshire Pork Loin with country ham fried rice, spinach purée and delicata squash topped with fava bean shoots; and King Salmon with roasted crosnes (a tiny spiral-shaped tuber), Brussels sprouts and lady apples in a red wine butter sauce. Desserts that made us swoon were Sorghum Cake with brown butter apples, buttermilk whey and bay leaf; and a madcap fling with a sweet treat called ‘Junk Food’ which turned out to be a slice of oatmeal cream pie plus a cruller and a blondie.
After a good night’s sleep we returned for brunch. And, why not? When you have reveled in the best there is, why not revel again? I state my case for the Biscuits and Rabbit Gravy, the Wagyu Oyster Steak with rosemary pistou, and the Creamy Heirloom Grits served in a cast iron pan. There is no shame… just glory and a sharp sense of wanting to return.
Before heading home one last stop beckoned – – the Frontier Culture Museum, a place passed countless times while driving down 81 towards the Blue Ridge Mountains. This open air, living history museum reflects the early German, West African, Irish and British pioneers who bravely brought their trades, farming methods, and building styles to rural America. Authentic costumed docents roam the farm sites and pretty wooded acres, instructing guests on how settlers lived and thrived in the Shenandoah Valley in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It is a highly educational experience with hands-on opportunities. You will learn that a number of these historic homes were brought over piece-by-piece from the Old World and reassembled here. You can easily spend two hours here but plan on at least three. You wouldn’t want to miss seeing the heritage breed horses or holding a baby lamb. In good weather a picnic purchased in town would make for the perfect day.
To plan your trip around upcoming cultural events in Staunton go to www.VisitStaunton.com.Photo credit – Jordan Wright