New York’s got Rome. California claims Venice. There’s even a London in Ohio. But, as I discovered one Saturday in October, Paris truly shines from the farm-and-vine rich heart of Virginia, just an hour west of our nation’s own capital. A visit from the Marquis de Lafayette back in the late 18th century gave this tiny hamlet (population 67) nestled in a lush, hill-framed valley its name. But when it comes to food and wine these days, Paris is proudly, convincingly Virginian.
One of only two businesses in town, The Ashby Inn offers 10 charming guest rooms, four unique dining rooms (and an outdoor patio), 250 types of wines and seasonal food from only one state—Virginia. I drove to Paris on a blue-sky afternoon and immediately wished I could stay for the entire weekend. I wished it as soon as I stepped out of my car and strolled past the sun-drenched cottages and the quaint little chapel. I wished it as soon as I walked past a wagon delivering just-picked cranberry beans and spotted the white Adirondack chairs on the expansive lawn behind the restaurant. And I really knew it after I met Sommelier & Manager Neal Wavra and Chef Tarver King. Veterans of five star, five diamond restaurants and Relais and Châteaux properties, Wavra (whose wife, Star, runs the inn) and King have, in just over a year, transformed this historic restaurant into a stellar contemporary dining spot showcasing ingredients sourced from just over this hill, just beyond that valley.
“Our dream is to serve a plate and then have diners ask us why the food tastes so vibrant,” says Wavra, a former U.S. Department of Commerce employee who in 2002 chose to follow a food and wine path. The answer at The Ashby Inn, as I was to repeatedly discover, always involves the name of the grower, the winemaker and the farmer. For example, Flohas Farms in Marshall provides the eggs from Japanese Silkie chickens; Cornucopia Farm in Philomont deserves the praise for fall chestnuts; and when it comes to beef, the applause goes to Martin’s Angus (organic grain fed, dry-aged) in The Plains.
Before training as a chef, King filleted fish at the Lynn Haven Marina in Virginia Beach. He now orders his fish exclusively from two of the fishing boats he came to know and trust over the years—the Miss Behaven and the Lady Erma. In Paris, where you’ll never catch a FedEx truck delivering to the restaurant, local sourcing doesn’t stop at the food. In fact, it actually starts with the cocktails. Case in point: when Wavra followed me out into the vegetable garden with a gin and tonic, it wasn’t your run-of-the-mill, generic gin and tonic. It was a memorable concoction featuring Virginia’s own Sunset Hills Farm gin with local honey and ginger. I can never go back.
In most cases, when an Ashby Inn diner asks, “Why does this food taste so good?” the answer is quite simple: Chef King made it on site. He makes his own rustic bread, honey-infused butter, smoky baba ghanoush, buttermilk cheese and even his own headcheese. “We use every piece of the animal,” King tells me. So don’t be surprised to find heart or tongue on the menu at this restaurant where nothing—seriously nothing—goes to waste.
The challenge of farm-to-table cuisine is, of course, the winter. How does a chef honor the commitment to local and seasonal when the ground is frozen, and bushes and trees are barren? King, a die-hard locavore who spends his days off foraging for mushrooms and other edible wonders (he fell upon a native persimmon tree recently), is determined to make his kitchen fully self-sustaining, even in the winter. Proof that he’s achieving this goal: rows of mason jars filled with every type of fruit and vegetable line the shelves in the restaurant’s underground, fire-lit dining room.
Despite his love of French wine and food, Wavra, who happens to be the most eloquent restaurateur I have ever encountered in all my years of dining, is confident calling The Ashby Inn a “Virginia wine country restaurant.” And why not: With 36 wineries in the vicinity (Delaplane, Linden and Glen Manor, to name three) producing top-quality vintages which pair beautifully with King’s locally-sourced cuisine, this hunt-region may have a new moniker: Burgundy, Bordeaux and Sonoma meet Loudon, Fauquier and Rappahannock. Just a week before my visit, the Ashby Inn entertained a group of international wine writers on a tasting tour of area wineries. Global attention aside, Virginia wines do not dominate the Ashby Inn’s substantial selection. “With a greater palette, I am able to paint a much more beautiful picture,” Wavra says. I couldn’t agree more!
From my window seat in the restaurant’s pleasant side dining room, I was treated to the full expression of Wavra and King’s artistry. Refined and changing daily, the single-page menu consists of six “snacks” and four selections in each main category: appetizers/salads, entrées and desserts. But don’t think it’s going to be easy narrowing your choices. I started with a collection of savory “snacks”—an intoxicating shot of hot and cold elderflower tea (the bottom is clear and golden, the top cool and frothy), a tender chunk of buttermilk-fried rabbit loin with a dab of bacon cream, eggplant purée (baba ghanoush) on crunchy toast and warm, crisp gougères of chicken liver and wine berry cream which explode in the mouth. King’s passion for temperature contrast and texture variation drives every, artfully-presented dish
Wavra poured me a glass of Glen Manor Sauvignon Blanc to keep things crisp and bright at the beginning of my meal. It contrasted perfectly with King’s earthy salad of (just-delivered) cranberry beans, mushrooms on a smudge of buttermilk cheese with a dusting of salt-cured egg yolk and purple flower petals. I’ll admit, I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of eating the miscellaneous parts (head, tail, legs) of the goat that had been spit-roasted the previous week at a wedding banquet. But if there’s a Facebook fan page for headcheese, I’ll surely click “like” now. King’s goat terrine appetizer topped with a deep orange and white sunny-side up Silkie egg and accompanied by green apple mustard, faro and shallots that had been lovingly cooked and pickled engaged me in a conversation with my food that was full of drama and daring. A sip of Pommard from Burgundy enhanced the eloquence of this dish by echoing its intensity and earthiness.
Though I was tempted by the rockfish with lemon spätzle and Parmesan broth, after talking with King about the supreme flavor of Martin’s Angus, I opted for the beef rib loin. Surely it was the most tender, flavorful cut of meat I can remember eating (on any continent), and I loved how the chef dressed it so simply with fresh cherry tomatoes, arugula and a smearing of nasturtium pesto. I must really love my husband because, instead of finishing both exquisitely rare pieces of loin, I had one wrapped up for him to experience later. My overwhelming generosity also helped me save room for dessert—a warm, glistening butter cake with caramelized apples, crunchy burnt peanuts, cold fromage blanc and candied rosemary.
By 8 o’clock the little dining room glowed with candlelight and each of the seven tables was filled: couples on a romantic escape, groups of friends catching up after summer travels, and me. Combined with the attentive service, the food was so engaging that I actually relished the solitude, and the chance to fully savor and luxuriate in the experience of dinner at The Ashby Inn.
After a glass of caramel-toned dessert wine (Noble Late Harvest from Morgenhof in South Africa) I started wishing again that I could slip upstairs into a guest room and be back down for breakfast. But I was completely happy nonetheless. An oasis for those who enjoy the finest of dining and lodging in a tranquil, natural setting, the Ashby Inn provides just the kind of sophisticated country experience we find in France or Italy, without crossing an ocean.