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Country Cuisine

by David Hagedorn | Photography by Greg Powers | DC magazine | December 6, 2013

Ten years ago, entrepreneur Sheila Johnson envisioned a resort in the horse-country hamlet of Middleburg, Va., which would include a spa, world-class equestrian facilities, tastefully appointed guest rooms and a fine dining restaurant. For the latter endeavor, she tapped notable chef Todd Gray from Equinox Restaurant near the White House. Himself a Virginia native and a longtime devotee of regional farm-to-table cookery, Gray was a natural choice to be Salamander Resort & Spa’s culinary director. As chef de cuisine of Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill, the resort’s 110-seat restaurant, Gray lured Chris Edwards from
the kitchen of Patowmack Farm
in Lovettsville, Va.

Only a 60-minute drive from the Beltway, Salamander, nestled among 340 acres of picturesque countryside, is a perfect winter getaway. I’d suggest getting a late-morning start to take in the charm of Middleburg’s shops and galleries in the early afternoon. Then, head to Salamander and relax in front of one of the five public-room fireplaces there with a glass of wine before an early dinner in the restaurant. That plan of action still allows plenty of time to drive home, though a grander idea would be to spend the night and take in a spa treatment the next day!

To arrive at Harrimans from the resort’s Grand Living Room, you walk down a corridor paved with inlaid brick and pass by the Gold Cup Wine Bar (lunch and all-day dining is served here) and a gleaming, 24-seat, state-of-the-art cooking studio. An equestrian theme underscores the decor of the entire resort. The octagonal restaurant evokes a stable, with its buttressed rafters, lantern lights, leather reins and a saddle showcased on a pedestal in the center of the room. It’s a pretty upscale stable at that, complete with voluminous swags ruched with bridle straps, large dining tables swathed in linen and a round centerpiece suite of plushy banquettes.

Floor-to-ceiling windows on five walls afford stunning views of the resort’s grounds, including the actual stable and the culinary garden, often the scene of alfresco dinners when the weather permits.

Edwards’ menu is divided into five categories: appetizers, soups and salads, entrees, from the grill and side dishes. (Note: The winter menu has been introduced since I visited, so some of the items have changed.) As you scan the menu, an amuse-bouche may appear; the one I receive is a refreshing rectangle of compressed cantaloupe and honeydew melon stacked in neat, colorful slices and garnished with an oyster and Virginia ham emulsion.

Soups are an excellent way to start your meal. The foundation of a roasted blue crab broth is a rich crab stock, adobe-colored like a dark Louisiana roux. Salt clams, sweet corn, lumps of crabmeat and crispy bits of okra combine in a flavorful, Bay-seasoned cross between a gumbo and a chowder. A riff on onion soup is an ultraconcentrated beef broth accented with crisp Berkshire bacon lardons, buttery cubes of toasted brioche, small floating islands of delicate Gruyere custard and a shard of frico.

Other winning starters are a special of hay-smoked gnocchi with truffled milk froth and porcini dust (now offered as an entree), a perfectly respectable lump crabcake with mustard butter and creamy leek fondue, and a collection of chanterelle, trumpet, oyster, shiitake and crosshatched porcini mushrooms grilled and plated with smoked onion coulis, roasted pearl onions and sesame brittle.

Rather than as an appetizer, though, I would choose the mushrooms as an apt accompaniment for the grilled Roseda Black Angus Farms rib-eye steak or the thick Red Wattle pork chop, which comes only with a couple of lonely cloves of roasted garlic and two roasted Roma tomato halves. The chop and steak are cooked exactly right, but the steak, like the chop, should have been served whole rather than halved diagonally and stacked one piece on top of the other. (Cutting into a steak before it’s served is a big no-no in my book.)

Other grill options include a bigeye tuna steak and barbecue-rubbed hanger steak. Harrimans offer a variety of sauces, such as peppercorn and Madeira jus, tomato and scallion bearnaise, and mustard and chanterelle cream. I prefer to forgo those choices and rely instead on a luscious bottle of Opus One to enhance a steak—the Opus proves to be more than up to the job.

Delicately battered, thick-sliced onion rings are de rigueur with the grilled meats, but the Stilton tater tots with their crispy panko coating have equal allure. Edwards’ version of shrimp and stone-ground grits comes with sauteed spinach, pickled green onions and a generous wash of zesty, bright orange chorizo butter.

Two desserts prove noteworthy endings to meals at Harrimans: a 10-layer chocolate cake (some of the layers were cake; others were chocolate, mocha and nutmeg mousse) that didn’t really need its bacon ice cream sidekick; and sweet garlic beignets (the garlic sounds odd, but its sweetness works here) garnished with a Cracker Jack-like confection of caramelized popcorn, salted peanuts and a brushstroke of ganache spiced up with cayenne pepper.

Before you leave, a small plate of white and dark chocolate truffles and chewy macarons may find its way to your table, making your drive home or jaunt to your guest room all the sweeter.

Harrimans Piedmont Grill
Salamander Resort & Spa, 500 N. Pendleton St., Middleburg, Va., salamanderresort.com

Hours
Dinner, 5-10pm daily; Sun. brunch: 11am-2pm; breakfast: 6:30-11am daily

Appetizers, $9-$15; entrees, $22-$34; desserts, $9

Weekend Table
Sunday Suppers include three-courses served family-style from a menu that changes weekly. A recent menu started with Italian wedding soup (polpettini of veal, escarole, kale and Parmesan) and progressed to a choice of roasted Amish chicken, grilled spice-rubbed swordfish or autumn vegetable lasagna.

Class Act
Salamander’s 24-seat cooking studio is the ideal setting to take classes for the holidays. Among the December offerings, you can learn how to trim, truss, tie and cook centerpiece roasts; take a two-hour tutorial in stock-making; or consider a crash course in making canapes and hors d’oeuvres.