Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ashby Inn, Paris VA

We finally made it to Ashby Inn. We have been trying forever, but our schedules will just not cooperate. Seriously, the last time I was there was before John and Roma Sherman sold it and that has been many years ago now. But finally, the torrential rain on Sunday washed out all our other plans and, truth be told, Annie put down her foot. So she booked a table for which we were 5 minutes late because it was raining so hard that visibility was that bad. I figured slower and later was better than faster and really late.

Ashby has a new chef, David Dunlap, formerly executive sous of the Inn at Little Washington and we got to spend a few minutes chatting with him. He's just finishing his first month at the Ashby and I have no doubt that the transition from the vast number of employees at the Inn to the minimal staffing at the Ashby is going to take a lot of getting used to, not to mention the huge number of shifts that David is working. He does have the fact that he is only 31 on his side. At his age, I could work those hours too, but not any more. Best wishes to him!
Host extraordinaire Neal Wavra greeted us at the side door and showed us right to a booth. We run into each other every now and again at business functions, but because we work essentially the same days, we rarely get to visit and catch up. It was great to have a few minutes to chat with him even though he was working.

Sparkling Cabernet Franc from Michael Shaps
A few minutes after seating us, Neal returned with two glasses of sparkling wine and a sly little grin on his face. I could see that we were going to be playing the guessing game. The first thing I noticed was the color: a deep golden that might have been a touch copper-colored, maybe just slightly cloudy. The initial nose was slightly beery or cidery, in a good sense, and the wine was elegant on the palate, rich and round in the mid-palate, with great lemony acidity to finish. I ruled out a lot of wines including both my initial guesses from the rusticity of color and nose: Asprinio and Mauzac.

In the end, when Neal came back around to the table with his hand covering the label, I had to admit that I had no reference point for this wine. "It's from right here," he said, showing me the label of the 2008 Shaps/Stafford Méthode, a blanc de noirs sparkling Cabernet Franc. I have tasted plenty of other sparkling blanc de noirs including 100% Pinot Noir and 100% Pinot Meunier, but never have I had any kind of sparkling Cabernet Franc before. No wonder I had no frame of reference!
I was just not in the mood to order anything at all. I told Neal that we wanted to start with a half bottle of sparkling and a big red of his choosing. He asked "Something unique?" and "Blind?" to which we responded affirmatively. Yes please, unique and blind. We started with a half bottle of François Diligent Champagne Rosé Brut and there was no point in doing this blind as there are only a very few sparklers on the half bottle list.

Check the Color on this François Diligent Champagne
And now on to lunch. Ann ordered off the menu and I asked the server to order for me, something different from what Ann ordered, so that we could taste more of the menu. We enjoyed the very fruity and very colored rosé sparkler with our first courses, octopus carpaccio for Ann and cauliflower soup for me.

Octopus Carpaccio
We love octopus, so we were really looking forward to seeing what the carpaccio concept would translate to on the plate and we were not disappointed. Being in the business, I appreciate all the labor that went into fabricating this beautiful plate. The flavors were disappointing, though. I had a distinct flavor of fish sauce crossed with lavender and I found this off-putting. Next time, just braise my octopus with some chorizo, slop it on some polenta, and call it a day! I felt bad for the servers having to lug around the 3-pound glass plates that this is served on.

The cauliflower soup was a white soup in a white bowl, poured tableside, so there wasn't anything to photograph. The warm cauliflower purée with curried pistachios and tea-soaked raisins was delicious, though I couldn't taste the curry on the pistachios or the tea on the raisins. I could have done with a bit more than the 3-4 ounce portion served, but it was well done. Ed 1; Ann 0.

Just before our second course, Neal brought two glasses of red to the table and I took a second to contemplate mine before tasting it. Just from the color alone, I was already thinking Syrah but I briefly considered Petit Verdot. Two sips and I was convinced that I was drinking Syrah, but Syrah from where? The wine displays a nice blueberry core, firmish tannins, and decent acidity. Notably lacking was the jammy fruit such as you might find in Paso Robles. The decidedly New World style ruled out Northern Rhone. Moreover, it displayed none of the vivid aromatics that scream Australia. Hmm.

Our second courses arrived just after this. Ann ordered the pink snapper with potato leek broth and I found set in front of me a plate of steak and eggs.

Pink Snapper with Leek and Potato Broth
The pink snapper was cooked well enough, but the dish wasn't exciting. If I am served a fish with the skin on, I want the skin crispy. This wasn't. Also, the broth might have been a good idea on paper, but it didn't really translate to the plate. Rather than the ethereally light take on warm vichyssoise that it could have been, it was a gluey mess that I would not have allowed to be served at my restaurant. I'm not sure where the leeks were; I didn't taste them in the broth. So, good ideas and a nice enough presentation, but the details were missing.

Steak and Eggs
On the other hand, I would have never ordered steak and eggs, but I am glad that someone ordered it for me. As you can see, the steak and eggs were super well done; props for that. The sauce is styled a sauce Choron, but I learned Choron differently, as a sauce pink with tomato purée. I'd be happier calling this a Béarnaise with diced tomato, but nomenclature aside, the sauce was really well executed and delicious. Ed 2; Ann 0.
While we were chatting and slowly working our way through our dishes, Neal brought the bottle of red to the table and asked what it was. I offered up Syrah from Washington State and was very surprised when he uncovered the label: Massena 2010 Shiraz Barossa "The Eleventh Hour." This was a wonderful bottle that shows just how far some Australian producers have come in producing delicious modern wines. Examples like this will go far in helping the Aussies capture some of the market that they lost during the decades of making soft, jammy, overripe wines.

Before dessert, our server brought out two complimentary plates of pancakes for us to try (and they were delicious):

Buttermilk Pancakes, Sassafras Whipped Cream, Hickory Syrup
For her final course, Ann ordered a torched Grayson cheese. That would have been my preference too because we are both nuts for this awesome Virginia cheese. Note to self, time to reorder a block for the restaurant.

Brûléed Grayson Cheese with Pickled Plums and Citron Blend
I must say that even in the stupor of a brutal 90-hour week, I could never come up with a plate presentation this staid and uninspired. We love the idea of brûléed cheese and it is one we have done over and over at the restaurant, but the presentation doesn't fit the dish. Do you see the pickled plums? It's a speck of sauce up under the citron blend (the microgreens).

Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake; Honey Ice Cream
Not being a dessert person, I sure would never have ordered chocolate for myself, but I was happy to taste this. As good as the mousse was, the honey ice cream was better. I would have made the cook replate this if I saw it coming out of my kitchen though, with all the elements at different angles to each other and the spacing all off. Still, the ice cream was as good as any that we make in our kitchen (and we make it every day) and that makes it Ed 3; Ann 0.

Just as our desserts were hitting the table, Neal arrived with two half glasses of another red wine, this one lighter red and a touch bricked. I had no idea what to think at this point in our meal, but the very rustic nose and light color reminded me of Pinotage. The flavor did not; however, with really high levels of acidity. Clearly a rustic red wine from Italy, but I had no idea what. I was leaning in the wrong direction though thinking perhaps a Langhe Rosso when Neal showed me the word Aglianico on the label.

On balance, our meal was very good and we had a fabulous time—actually it was the best restaurant meal we've had in a while—and I'd recommend the Ashby to anyone, but in the best of all worlds, I'd like a bit more precision from the kitchen and hopefully that comes as things settle down. Neal, thank you for your incredible hospitality and letting us a spend a rare afternoon together in your care.

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