Friday, August 10, 2012

Postcard from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley

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The Shenandoah Valley, with its lush farmland, rolling hills, and ample rivers, was known as the breadbasket of the Confederacy during the Civil War. These days it’s still full of cornfields, trout-laden streams, and dairy farms… but if one actually wants to sit and ORDER food (say, as opposed to PICKING it), great options can be scarce.  I found myself in the area for a week, and after much research and a few wrong turns, can offer the following solace to foodies finding themselves off the beaten path.

Melon salad at Element
Element.  In the town of Front Royal, Virginia, husband and wife chef team David and Stacy Gedney are injecting elegant cooking in an area teeming with chain restaurants.  Their slowly-expanding universe includes a wine shop, a reservations-only Thursday and Saturday dining experience called Apartment 2g (which sadly was closed the week I was in town), and Element, a casual bistro with a small, well-executed menu. Appetizers include a gazpacho, a rather large cheese plate, and an assortment of salads. The ripe cantaloupe salad with melon vinaigrette is fresh and tastes like summer in every bite.  The house-made foccacia provided to our table didn’t last beyond the first course.

Strawberry pavlova with chantilly creme
Element offers only a handful of entrees – 5 or 6 – including a vegetarian option of grilled vegetables over polenta.  Salmon was perfectly cooked, deep pink in the middle – served with pasta and seasonal vegetables. And if French chefs are measured by how well they execute the basics, the roast chicken here proves this is a VERY well-trained kitchen.  But don’t overdo it and make the mistake of skipping one of Stacy’s desserts.  Even the pavlova – usually not my favorite thing on the menu, as meringue can easily skew chalky – was heavenly.

Our waiter was also our bartender, and mixed a fabulous Manhattan, a great pear martini, and the entire wine list is offered at just above market price (one of the perks of owning your own wine store, I suppose).  This is a tiny, delicious gem of a restaurant, and a must-eat if you’re in the area.

Element
206 South Royal Avenue, Front Royal, VA 22620
540-636-9293

Belle Grove Salad at Hotel Strasburg
Hotel Strasburg.  To really impress the kids with your time-travel capabilities, take them to the Hotel Strasburg, in business since 1915 and decidedly, stubbornly unchanged. The bar to the right of the entrance is all wood and mirrors, low rickety tables, bring-me-a-shot-of-whiskey-bartender old-style saloon.  You wouldn’t be surprised to see someone walk in with a hip holster. But the dining room, in the back of the first floor, is brocaded, full of doilies and brass frames, overstuffed chairs and high ceilings.  The Brits would call it “very twee”.  Your great-great grandmother would have wanted to celebrate her birthday dinner here. 

Which would all be very theme-park amusing if the food weren’t so darn good!  I had low expectations here but was pleasantly surprised across the board (with the exception of the rather dry bread served at the start of the meal).  The house salad, a by-now common combination of greens, apples, gorgonzola and almonds, was elevated by a light and tangy champagne vinaigrette and high-quality ingredients.

The "Petite" Crab Cake
The menu is large and has something for everyone: flat iron steak marinated in Jack Daniels, filets of cod broiled in crabmeat and butter, veal schnitzel, various pastas.  The crabcake here is more crab than cake – excellent shellfish meat with relatively little breadcrumb binding, so delicate it needs to be broiled instead of pan-fried.  What’s more, almost every entrée can be ordered in a petite size for nearly half the cost.

People come to small towns like Strasburg to stumble upon a place like this: it’s a transporting experience and definitely the best food around town.

Hotel Strasburg
213 South Holliday Street, Strasburg, VA
(540) 465-9191

Spicy scallop and Spicy tuna rolls at Yamafuji
Yamafuji.  I was born in Japan, lived there for a bit to learn Japanese (which I’ve promptly forgotten), and have returned there for work several times… so I take my Japanese food VERY seriously.  To me it’s the ultimate comfort food: miso soup is as soul-warming as chicken or matzo ball.  So to stumble upon a decent – even GOOD – Japanese restaurant in Front Royal was a real treat. 

Spicy edamame

Yamafuji is more than a sushi restaurant… they have tempura, bento boxes, udon, tonkatsu (breaded and fried pork), and rice bowls.   We ordered some sushi and miso soup: rich and earthy and steaming.  The waiter brought us a free bowl of spicy edamame as the sushi chef got to work.

Rolls were fine: many of the standards were rolled with the seaweed on the outside, while specialty rolls were generally inside out.  The real standouts were the nigiri sushi – bluefin tuna was a special that day, buttery and delicious; red snapper was equally fresh; portions were generous.  The waiter brought us samples of the “engagement roll”, scallop tempura and asparagus inside, topped with tuna and eel sauce.  Of the specialty rolls we tried, it was by far the best.

The Engagement Roll
By big-city standards, Yamafuji would be slightly above average… here, it’s an oasis from the country cooking and heavy meat n’ three dining.  And for people like me, comforted by miso and soy and hearty slices of Japanese omelet, it’s a little bit o’ home on the road.

Yamafuji
241 Chester St, Front Royal, VA 22630
(540) 631-3454
No website

Beautiful Shenandoah Valley.. y'all come back now, ya hear?

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