I’ve experienced exceptional food (and drink) in the most unlikely of places: the perfect cappuccino and brioche in Florence’s Fascist-era train station, silken rice noodles with soy and sesame seeds on a crowded corner of Canal Street in New York, and cool, creamy Mexican horchata with spicy pork tacos at a Charlottesville’s farmers’ market. And yet I still wasn’t expecting to be completely dazzled by a dining destination in the tiny southwestern Virginia town of Chilhowie, population 1,827.
Since reinventing itself early last year, Town House—which features the artful, evolving cuisine of chefs John B. Shields and Karen Urie—has been luring diners from as far away as Washington, D.C., New York and Toronto to Chilhowie’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it historic district. In other words, my four-hour drive from Charlottesville to this faraway corner of our state was a small price to pay for the dining experience of the decade. In the case of my 20-year-old niece, Caroline, who joined me for the weekend with her Charlotte-based mom (my sister, Lisa), it was transformational. As she declared to her 804 friends on Facebook post-Town House, “One weekend, 12 courses and I am now officially a foodie.” Apparently, a semester in Paris didn’t have quite the same effect as a single meal in Chilhowie.
Restaurant owners Tom and Kyra Bishop, together with their daughter, Leslie Brewer, decided to bring big-city dining to their close-knit, slow-paced community by convincing two of Chicago’s best young chefs to pack their bags and move to rural Virginia. “We never thought they’d actually come here,” Kyra confesses. But Shields and Urie, who had been working at stellar restaurants like Alinea and Charlie Trotter’s and had just been offered top positions at Trotter’s new Las Vegas venture, were completely seduced by the pastoral beauty of the land, the promise of living closer to the source of their inspiration (nature) and the chance to evolve as chefs in a kitchen—at last—of their very own. “Town House is basically every chef’s dream,” Shields told me over coffee at the Abingdon Farmers’ Market very early on a Saturday morning. “And food makes more sense here.”
I had dinner reservations for that very evening and wanted to be present for at least part of the local, seasonal food shopping. Instead of collecting the raw materials from a delivery truck or a walk-in, the husband-and-wife duo can now shake hands with the farmers and purveyors who grow their food, raise their lamb, roast their coffee. We made slow progress in the tiny covered market, stopping every few feet to greet a friend, exchange recipes and cooking techniques or find out when the arugula and figs would be coming in.
At one point, Urie made a beeline for a sparsely laden table and snagged the last few bunches of fresh asparagus. A few yards away, Shields was stuffing stalks of rhubarb into a canvas bag. I wrongly assumed that the rhubarb would end up in one of Urie’s desserts. “We always fight over fruit,” Shields admitted, staking a claim. Though Urie is the official pastry chef, the couple is known for meticulously crafted dishes that combine sweet and savory, sugar and acid in constantly surprising ways. Honey and lavender might just as likely end up in a dish of white asparagus or razor clams as in one of the restaurant’s multi-faceted desserts, which could feature not only chocolate, marshmallow custard and crab apples, but also bacon, basil, carrots and coriander.
“Two minds are better than one,” said Shields at the market. Indeed, from their 200-year old farmhouse home to the farmers’ market and, ultimately, in the kitchen, it’s clear that these chefs and life partners enjoy sharing ideas, blurring boundaries and creating unforgettable culinary experiences together. As we were to discover later that day, when it comes to Town House and the cuisine of Shields and Urie, it’s best to expect the unexpected.
About as far as you can get from the Las Vegas Strip, downtown Chilhowie was as desolate as a movie set when we parked in front of the early-20th-century brick building that houses Town House. Not a pedestrian in sight. But as soon as we walked through the restaurant’s front door, we were transported to an intimate, tranquil, almost spa-like dining space: brown and olive earth tones on floors and walls, a high, cream-colored pressed-tin ceiling, glowing amber light fixtures and only 10 or 12 tables in the calmly humming room. Sommelier Charlie Berg, wearing a velvet jacket and sneakers, greeted us warmly and escorted us to a round, copper-covered table. Since we had requested the chefs’ tasting menu and put total trust in Berg’s eloquent wine pairings, there were no real decisions to make. It was time to simply sit back and let the multi-course meal unfold before our eyes.
Lemons and olives starred in the first act—together with a glass of prosecco. An astounding trio of black olive cookies and olive-oil jam wore fluffy halos of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Lisa begged for my cookie, but even though she’s my big sister, I just couldn’t comply. Next came cotton candy—not the sweet, pink, artificial-looking stuff—but cotton candy as nature would have intended it: cotton-white with an edible yuba stick handle, sprinkled with Japanese seasoning and dotted with pieces of black olive and candied lemon. “This looks like something that came off a tree,” Caroline observed.
Indeed, each of the dishes placed simultaneously before us that evening was an artful habitat, evoking the natural context of the season or the main ingredient in one way or another: a confit of rabbit leg and loin, infused with wood, came to us in a pot with juniper, twigs of salsify and black garlic “soil,” while an egg became the perfect serving vessel for a frothy, maple syrup-infused custard.
Normally quite the chatterbox, my niece turned silent when the next dish was placed before her: a colorful collection of pickled vegetables, not chopped or diced, but thinly shaved and rolled into tubes that actually stood up in a soup bowl of chilled consommé. Each flavor—a beet! a radish! a leek!—was intensely distinct and yet an essential element in the dish as a whole. The theme was repeated later in the jewel-like “chorizo bouillon,” with pillows of manchego gnocchi, pop-in-your-mouth capsules of cuttlefish ink, chorizo oil and cuttlefish squares. It was, like everything at Town House, both a visual and a sensual stunner. Unrecognizable until it was in my mouth, asparagus from the morning market had been pureed until silky smooth and was topped with clouds of spiced butter and chive blossoms—an ideal bathing pool for a delicate soft shell crab. Rhubarb appeared not in a pie but in a glass as a palate-cleansing juice, sipped through a twig-like vanilla straw. Inspired by nature and by her own cravings, Urie creates complex, symphonic desserts that are both familiar and other-worldly. She uses liquid nitrogen (to freeze everything from ice-cream to bananas) as some might use butter. Her corner of the kitchen is a true laboratory, fitted with equipment and substances that can help her confectionary visions take beautiful, delicious form on the plate. I could recognize the mountain shapes in her “purple mountains” (frozen yogurt mounds coated in black sesame) and the moss-like pistachio-coated truffle, but to taste them was a different experience altogether. A marshmallow tinged with soy? Layers of hardwood-smoked chocolate spiced with Indian curry? Never has small-town America felt so distinctly foreign and new.
We found ourselves asking time and again, in between long, slow bites: How did they make this? What is that flavor?
Like so many of the cutting-edge, haute cuisine restaurants drawing diners to small towns in northern Spain these days, Town House proves that world-class dining can thrive in quiet, unsuspecting places, right here at home. As we were saying our good-byes and heading for the door, Urie handed us black-olive caramels in edible lemon wrappers, thus ending the meal where it began. We popped them in our mouths and, once out the door, began plotting our next trip to Chilhowie.
132 E. Main Street
Chilhowie, Virginia 24319