Unrated during the pandemic.
Two things compete for my immediate attention at the Restaurant at Blue Rock in Washington, Va.
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One is a welcome of mushroom tea, a broth of shiitake, maitake and other fungi poured over a little bundle of herbs that release their perfume when hit with the steaming stock. Whatever kind of day you’ve had going into dinner, it improves with a few sips.
The other grab for my consideration is the view from a table near one of the restaurant’s windows: yards of grass leading to a pond giving way to a vineyard culminating in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The timing of my recent visit coincided with the sun setting, creating a backdrop of orange yielding to magenta, and a feeling of gratitude. How lovely to have such an escape from the noisier Washington, less than two hours away.
A contemporary take on the old-school country inn, Blue Rock emerged in October from a year-and-a-half-long, $2 million makeover. Lodgers can select from five guest rooms within the inn, plus a five-bedroom farmhouse on the 80-acre property in Rappahannock County. Diners choose between a pub-like, 20-seat tasting room (think burgers, Caesars and fried chicken) and the reservation-only, 32-seat restaurant. The subject of this review, the restaurant highlights a four-course dinner for $99 a person.
Diners who think of tasting menus as rigid can relax; there’s flexibility between the lines, a few choices per course, as well as specials. “It was a deliberate decision,” says executive chef Bin Lu, 36. Regarding diners and preferences, “There’s no one size fits all.”
Born in Shanghai and raised in Virginia and Texas, Lu fell into cooking out of necessity in college. He didn’t care for the quality or the cost of the cafeteria fare at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and decided to learn to cook for himself. By his third year, when peers were talking about internships and grad school, the history major opted to pursue a food path. An initial job at the nearby Clifton Inn led to positions in Washington (Bourbon Steak), the West Coast (Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif.) and back to the District, where he worked at the late CityZen and most recently as head chef at the soon-to-reopen Pineapple & Pearls. He’s worked at some good establishments, in other words.
One of the same things that draws diners to the property lured Lu. “You can’t beat the view.”
The dining room feels connected to what’s beyond the window. The buffed floor matches the shiny walnut tables, free of linens but set with sleek utensils. Nubby blue chairs are the type you notice when you leave and don’t feel as if you got off a saw horse. Table No. 21, in front of a flagstone hearth, has Date Night written on it, although I was happy for the solo diner who occupied the perch the night I was in. Singles deserve special nights out, too. Good weather opens the possibility of dining on the restaurant’s terrace.
Bread costs extra here, and the house-baked olive oil ciabatta explains why. Time and thought go into the $8 loaf, sliced into hunks and delivered with butter that’s stained orange with Calabrian chiles and lightly sweetened with honey. “We mean business,” a server says as she notes the wide eyes at my table.
Despite its brevity, the menu appeals to adventurous diners and those who are more conservative in their tastes. The introductory course is a decision between a foie chantilly tart and a salad of local greens. The sight of the tart — a wedge of what could pass for Boston cream pie — suggests you’re getting dessert first. In reality, the starter presents whipped chilled foie gras between crisp pastry dough and a not-too-sweet dark cocoa glaze. Dots of mouth-puckering blood orange curd add balance and complete the plate. As for the salad, it’s a nest of local greens containing coins of vegetables — carrots, turnips, sweet potatoes — whose distinct textures make you think they were individually cooked. The pretty vegetables arrive with two sauces, newly trendy green goddess and vibrant gremolata. Every house salad should be so captivating.
Lu says a dish is replaced every week or so until the entire menu changes. Here’s hoping the sourdough cavatelli “bouillabaisse” is the last to leave the party. The pasta shells, cooked to retain some bite, are adorned with tender little mussels, springy rock shrimp and sweet clams in a wash of cream sauce hinting of saffron and flavored as if by the sea. The rival pasta is no slouch, either. Some of the lightest gnocchi in memory are draped with a tomato sauce that concludes with some heat from Calabrian chiles. Down the hatch, and noted in my prefrontal cortex.
The food can be brought out by servers who sound comfortable and enthusiastic in their roles or who seem to have memorized a script that doesn’t allow for ad-libbing. One meal, I listened to a server introduce the menu, word for robotic word, to three different tables, including his description of romanesco: “tastes like broccoli.” All the delivery really needed was a relaxed translator.
I suppose a restaurant like this needs to have a steak on its menu. Lu beefs up the staple, dry-aged rib-eye, with a rub of Middle Eastern spices and a vinaigrette that blends beef stock, red wine and a suggestion of rosewater. The more daring third course option is briefly aged duck, which Lu roasts and places on a chocolate-colored puddle made from blood sausage, an entree that becomes a feast with the arrival of a cluster of warm rolls and potatoes whipped to near-satin with butter. There’s a vegetarian option as well, showcasing mushrooms, some transformed into crisp and convincing “scrapple” made from mushroom trimmings, blue corn, garlic and shallots. Take note, Impossible Meat.
Lu is his own pastry chef. “Warm chocolate souffle cake” is a fancy way to describe the cake with the gooey center everyone likes, an idea the chef personalizes with brown butter ice cream and a lattice of hazelnut praline. The dessert’s opposite is a riff on lemon meringue pie, its surface jazzed up with citrus curd, olive oil jam and little tufts of meringue. A plus for whoever needs to drive any distance after dinner is good strong coffee, from Necessary.
Blue Rock’s nearby competitor is the formidable Inn at Little Washington, one of the best-known dining destinations in the country. Lu says he’s “not trying to do what chef [Patrick] O’Connell is doing. Nobody can.” The fresh face is content offering a tavern where “you can get a glass of wine at 2 in the afternoon and watch geese at the pond” and a restaurant that leaves diners thinking “overall, I’ve had a great night.”
Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.
The Restaurant at Blue Rock
12567 Lee Hwy., Washington, Va. 540-987-3388. bluerockva.com. Open: Indoor and outdoor dining 5:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Price: Four-course dinner for $99. Sound check: 65 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can enter from the rear of the restaurant or request a ramp to navigate the step in the dining room; ADA-compliant restroom. Pandemic protocols: Staffers are not required to be vaccinated or to wear masks.