You may have heard about a little Inn way out in Virginia serving amazing, locally-sourced food. No, not that Inn. I'm talking about the Ashby Inn in Paris, Virginia. While it may not be as famous as Patrick O'Connell's Inn at Little Washington, that's exactly what we loved about it. It felt undiscovered and the food Chef Tarver King is serving is perhaps the best kept secret in the region. At the Ashby Inn we got inventive food made from local ingredients, served by a fantastic staff, in a beautiful room. If that wasn't enough, the meal was 30% off thanks to Savored (described in mind-numbing detail by B here)!
Since the drive between DC and Paris will take you about an hour and a half, we booked a 5:30 reservation so we could safely drive home before the food sleepies set in. If you really want to live it up, book a room at the Inn so you can take advantage of their wine pairings and great cocktails.
The Ashby Inn offers a choice of the a la carte menu or a 5 or 7 course chef's tasting menu. The menu is constantly changing (almost daily we were told) so the dishes we loved may not be available when you go, but you're sure to find something equally delicious.
We opted for the 7 course tasting menu because our waitress assured us that the portion sizes were not giant. We actually ended up with 9 courses when you count the assorted "snacks" (pictured below) that begin the meal and the little pastries that come with the check.
The snacks were a seriously addicting pecan bacon brittle, curried semolina "fries" that made B emit a weird squeaking noise (from delight, I think), a silky smooth hummus with fermented lemon on a poppy cracker, and the classiest shrimp chip we've ever had.
I'm so glad we opted for the 7 course menu instead of the 5 course because one of the two extra courses was this gorgeous butternut squash crudo with smoked maple vinaigrette, raisins, pistachios, and fromage blanc. I have never seen B get so excited about a vegetable dish. He was encouraging nearby tables to order the 7 course menu so that they wouldn't miss out on the squash!
After a spicy black eyed pea soup (that was yummy but not too photogenic), we cooled down our mouths with a decadent black truffle risotto with focaccia crumbles, parmesan, and ham balsamic. The creativity of each dish was matched only by the inventiveness of the plates they were served on. Each course came out on a different and whimisical plate (many handmade).
The steamed black cod with red currant, jasmine, watercress emulsion, ricotta, and parsnip was the perfect light and airy follow-up to the risotto. I loved the tangy punch in the face that the red currant provided.
The next dish was as fun as it was delicious. When it first came out, we thought it was a giant overcooked steak. We soon learned that it was a hot lava stone on which we got to cook a tender piece of beef. Served on the side were grits with black garlic, mushrooms, toasted stilton, and dashi. I think we giggled the whole time we were cooking and eating this one. Pure fun.
Usually by the time the cheese course of a tasting menu arrives, I'm feeling uncomfortable. However, thanks to reasonable portion sizes and efficient service, I was feeling great when our server brought out the cheese course of whipped sottocenere (a very rich and creamy Italian cheese) with quince gel, focaccia toast, and fried hazelnuts.
I even saved some room for the dessert of black chocolate sponge cake, roasted barley ice cream, chocolate espuma, and vincotto. This dessert was a little off-putting at first glance. Black cake that looked like a lava rock served with beige ice cream and a dusting of gray powdery stuff? Despite it's unique appearance, it was amazingly tasty. I make a lot of dishes using barley but I've never tried barley ice cream. While I think it's probably best left in the hands of professionals, I'm tempted to try it at home.
As we bid goodbye to the Ashby Inn and headed back to DC, we were giddy at finding such an incredible restaurant, in a beautiful setting, at a discount! While the Inn at Little Washington is still high on our DC Bucket List, I am tempted to pass up the difficult reservations and sky-high prices to get another taste of Ashby's local Virginia magic.
Second Thoughts from B
While this blog is dedicated to everything that J and I do as a couple in DC, it is clear that the thing we do the most is eat out. After each post, it is my job to update the "Food for Two" list of culinary adventures and every time I marvel at the number of different places we've tried. For those scoring at home, this is food post number 255!
So I think it is fair to say that we've tried a lot of the DC area's offerings which makes it that much more exciting when we agree that our experience at the Ashby Inn was one of the best. It really had everything that we love: an undiscovered feel, attentive and knowledgeable but not stuffy service, local and seasonal ingredients, playful and inventive dishes, contrasting flavors and textures, and a big discount.
But B, couldn't you get all of that without the 90 minute drive? Perhaps. But driving through the peaceful countryside and watching the setting sun shed warm lavender light on the hills beyond cannot be replicated by the finest of dining rooms. Neither could the charm of the main street shops in nearby Middleburg. And if quaint country charm isn't your thing, there's always the Leesburg Outlets.
Funny story about those outlets while I'm on the subject... We mentioned recently that we recently spent a couple of weeks in Italy. As we were about to return home on a plane from Venice, we came across a 20-something local girl who worked at the airport. Upon learning that we lived in Washington, she started gushing about her love of DC. Immediately our minds were filled with all of the things that we love about this city, so we asked her what she liked so much. We expected to hear about the monuments or the museums or the political power. Instead, she told us about spending an entire day at the Leesburg Outlets after spending the previous day at Pentagon City Mall.
So maybe our adoration of the Ashby Inn is just a case of the "grass being greener on the other side." Like our Venetian friend who craves American malls, J and I don't get a whole lot of Ashby Inns in our neighborhood. It is possible that residents of Paris, VA view it as routine and long for the burgers at Five Guys that seem to be omnipresent in the city. It is possible that this meal wasn't as special as we remember. But I seriously doubt it.