After my third visit to Town House over the last two years a couple of weeks ago, I find I can’t adequately convey how special dining there is. I’ve never been to El Bulli, Mugaritz, Per Se, Alinea, French Laundry, Pierre Gagnaire, or any other of the world’s top restaurants, so I don’t have a point of reference in my enthusiasm for the food and the entire experience at Town House. All I can say is that from now on at least once a year on our visits to Durham, NC I will carve out part of a day to make the six hour round trip drive to eat there, even if I have to go alone (which I did this time). My latest 10 course dinner from Chefs John and Karen was a masterpiece.
After an amuse of the updated olive cookie sandwich(this time, a thin black olive and chocolate cookie sandwich filled with olive jam, parmesan cream, and Meyer lemon confit), the 10 courses in my dinner were cherry soup with Maine shrimp, blackberries, almonds, and almond “sponge bread”; “Valencia orange” (nitrogen frozen orange puree “peel” filled with perfectly flavored, tender mussels, mussel mayo and herbs); “corn on the cob” (corn cob stock gelee, popcorn polenta, buttermilk, corn silk, intensely sweet corn kernels, fried pig tail, tuile of pig tail stock, a draping of milk skin); scrambled egg mousse infused with birch syrup on top of a wafer of crisp rye bread over char roe and preserved ramps; blue crab with caramelized onion and banana ice cream (including delicately fried onion skin from between onion layers); squid "risotto” (made entirely of squid cut to look like Arborio grains and squid broth); foie gras royale (a layer of foie gras under a layer of beet puree with delicate little beet slices garnished with morel caps, pine nuts, berries, crispy fried chicken skin and herbs); ribeye cap slow cooked in ash (with salsify “paper”, elephant garlic, bacon fat “ash” and mustard sauce); yuzu sponge cake with chocolate ice cream, earl grey tea ice cream, and “cleansing” herbs; and finally, parsnip ice cream with candied parsnip, a stripe of banana custard, macarons (and other ingredients I can’t remember). I asked Charlie to do just a partial wine pairing, and, once again, his choices were spot on (including a perfectly matched Madeira with the scrambled egg mousse).
Each dish was as beautiful to look at as it was to slowly savor the wonderful flavors and textures. No ingredient was superfluous, and often an unexpected nugget of flavor in a bite would register a quick and fleeting sense of pleasant recognition and then disappear (Karen told me later that they encourage guests not to share their dishes, because everything contributes to a dish’s taste). At the end, Charlie asked me what my favorite course was, and, reluctantly, I said the corn, because I love corn and fried pig. In retrospect, though, I loved every dish equally, but differently. John said that he feels the kitchen is much more confident as time has passed, and it really showed in this truly harmonious dinner. He was also just named a 2010 F&W Best New Chef, and Town House made OAD’s 2010 list of 30 most important American restaurants, so people with far more informed opinions than mine have taken notice. For me the restaurant feels as homey and warm as it did on my first visit in 2008 (at the end of this dinner Karen gave me a little bag of delightful garlic and poppy brioche to take home for breakfast), but each experience gets better (the Bishops’s creation is really taking shape). I just wish I lived closer, so I could drop in for an occasional Valencia orange or corn on the cob or foie gras royale or yuzu sponge cake with ice cream when I felt the urge. Pics attached:
132 E Main St, Chilhowie, VA 24319
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