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Nov 11, 2008 06:10 AM

Town House Grill (Chilhowie, VA) - worth a 3.5 hour drive?

I've been reading some fascinating tidbits about the new chefs and concept of Town House Grill, located in what could be the dictionary definition of "the middle of nowhere" in rural southwest Virginia. Apparently this past February, a sous chef from Alinea in Chicago (#1 best restaurant in America - Gourmet Magazine) and another chef from Charlie Trotter's (#13 in that same list), decided to take over this space and turn the restaurant from one of those run-of-the-mill "surf and turf filet mignon" places into one pursuing cutting-edge cuisine with ingredients from local sources. The result, according to some with experienced taste buds, is that this restaurant may be of the same caliber as NYC's WD-50 or California's Manresa.

Has anyone on this board made it up there to confirm or deny its quality? If you have, would you say it would be worth a 7-hour roundtrip drive there and back from where I am in Raleigh/Durham NC?

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  1. Do a search on this site - there have been several detailed reviews within the past month.

    1. It is certainly worth it. I lived in Washington, D.C., for the first half of this year and made the 5 hour drive to eat there 4 times. I will be flying to the area to eat at the Town House on New Years Eve also. A 7-hour drive will be rewarded.

      5 Replies
      1. re: mkbrew

        Thanks for the info. I have made reservations and look forward to it. One question: I notice from your reviews that you have previously done tasting menus that go beyond the 7-course one listed on their website. Did you simply request that expansion upon ordering or did you do so in advance? I want to make sure I get the full experience.

        1. re: mikeh

          I requested in advance but I know people who negotiated for a few extra courses once they got there.

          1. re: mikeh

            I asked after arriving - and also requested that we each get different dishes where feasible.
            Here's a somewhat rambling review of what we had, which I edited out of my original post to keep it short(er).

            But here’s an incomplete list of what we had (I was there to enjoy, not to write a professional review, so also please excuse any confused notes and mistakes).
            - Local Tomatoes with Powdered Baguette and traditional (something – can’t read my notes – possibly Indian) flavours
            - Peeeky Toe Crab with tamarind, curry, muscovado and kaffir lime
            - Olive shortbread with dried parmesan and olive ‘cream’ (an amuse)
            - Puffed Maryland Crab cracker with ‘Old Boy’ seasoning (think the lightest shrimp cracker you’ve ever had – superb texture).
            - “ Melon Truffle” (think candy, not fungus) - dried melon with peanut powder.
            - Poached peach with Queen Anne’s Lace, green pine cone and almond ice-cream.
            - Gazpacho (of tomato water) with cumelon (cross between cucumber & melon).
            - Chilled Mussels with saffron snow, tomato/orange salad, and grated black licorice powder.
            - Turbot with daikon radish (pickled?) and razor clam (? And wasabi) [NOTE: this was the first main where we received identical dishes – most of the aforementioned, except amuses, we were served alternative dishes, which we each tasted].
            - Corn crème brulee with maple, vinegar and golden char roe.
            - Smoked Hamachi wrapped in watermelon with a nori cracker and pickled ramps.
            - Duck with fresh dates, flowers and plums in duck consommé.
            - Wagyu beef with forest floor goodies (my description): I can’t read all my notes, but includes: morel cream, other (?) mushrooms, flowers, some kind of sugar that I can’t decipher (not maple), chocolate (!) and possibly chive blossoms. (it was around here I asked for the wines to stop as (obviously) my handwriting was deteriorating).
            - 36-hour braised lamb shoulder with a red pepper emulsion, spiced bread, kidney beans and cardamom.
            This was the last savory course and we specifically asked to cut down on food at this point, so I‘m not sure if we got the complete dessert menu.
            - Whipped milk ice with cucumber & thyme [NOTE: this was ‘supercold’ so had been manipulated in the kitchen].
            - Blackberries, lemon ice-cream, Sauternes jelly, shaved foie gras, a soft crepe and lemon peel sauce.
            - Chocolate cake, frozen olive oil, hazelnuts, grapefruit dust (? And opal basil).
            - Caramel in edible ‘paper’.
            And that’s all folks!

            Incidentally BOTH chefs worked at Charlie Trotters (that's where they met) - but none of Charlie Trotter, Alinea or Trio mention either chef as having worked there (although that's immaterial as the food is excellent - as you'll find out!).

            1. re: estufarian

              Here is a recent review from someone who requested an extended menu in advance:

              1. re: estufarian

                I went in August and got most of this menu. I ordered the 7 course with the pairings and got 11 (7 wines and refills) and some nice attention from everyone, probably because I was just one. The server was still learning as he had to forward my questions to others, but I'd say it was the meal of my life so far.

                I live in Chapel Hill and it's definitely worth the drive. I'm lucky as my parents live in Bristol and I've got a place to stay. Deciding what to do for my Xmas visit. Hope it's still relatively easy to get a table. Keep quiet everybody.

                It was also interesting to watch them accommodate walk-ins or others who didn't know what they were in for. Even those who left without ordering did so on very friendly terms, at least that evening. When I first heard about the place I imagined torches and pitchforks in the parking lot.

          2. I think we need to make this a Triangle chow journey. Rent a van with a driver so there is no worries getting back home!

            Great post, I've been very interested since the first mention that came my way over the spring or summer.

            1. After driving out to Chilhowie from Durham on Saturday to experience the Town House Grill, I would say that the question is not whether it’s worth it to drive out there, but how soon to do it (I drove back to Durham on Sunday). This was the best overall dining experience I’ve had. I had high expectations after reading posts by Estufarian and some blogs, and the restaurant exceeded those expectations. The cuisine, presentation, and professionalism of staff were worthy of an award-winning destination restaurant, but the vibe of this cozy place was more like a neighborhood hangout where everybody knows you (the eclectic mix on the low decibel sound system included Talking Heads and Kings of Leon). I had the 7 course tasting, which, as Estufarian said in his post
     , is the only way to appreciate Chef John Shields’s and Chef Karen Urie’s creativity. I also had the wine pairings and was very pleased by the quality of wine director Charlie’s selections.

              Briefly, as best as I can remember without notes, this is what I had (pix attached):

              Amuse 1 – black olive cookie sandwich with lemon confit and olive oil jam filling sprinkled with grated parmigiano reggiano. Wonderful.
              Amuse 2 – flash fried crab chip enveloping a peekytoe crab morsel with aioli and a sprinkle of Old Bay seasoning. Fabulous.
              Amuse 3 – walnut flour cookie sandwich with gorgonzola cream filling. Explosion of flavor.
              Course 1 – Nantucket bay scallops, in dashi under soy foam with bottarga, mace, soy, dashi, banana, and olive oil mousse with pineapple foam on the side (described in the Town House Grill blog ( paired with a Cristalino Cava. The pineapple was a little distracting but the other flavors meshed well.
              Course 2 (bonus added by Chef Shields) – peekytoe crab morsels on top of a kaffir lime custard with a coconut curry side topped with tamarind swirl and a thin sheet of muscovado paired with a Von Hovel riesling. Everything is meant to be eaten in the same bite. The tamarind dominated the bites where it was present, but the flavors were in complete harmony in the bites without tamarind.
              Course 3 – candied yam wrapped in country ham with brown sugar cotton candy, char roe (described in the Town House Grill blog) paired with a Starr Hill amber ale. Crazy flavors in a good way.
              Course 4 – Chorizo bouillon with cuttlefish ink ravioli, cuttlefish bites, manchego cheese, and 2 sherry vinegar squares paired with a northern Spanish white (Charlie told me the wine three times, and I still can’t remember) . Indescribably delicious.
              Course 5 – squab breast sous vide with a foie gras jam ‘egg’in a root beer broth paired with a dolcetto. It’s amazing that each dish kept getting better.
              Course 6 – confit of lamb loin wrapped in lamb saddle fat sous vide topped with carrot taffy and pistachio croutons and an herb and red wine foam on top of a ramp marmalade paired with a Stuhlmuller cabernet sauvignon. Breathtaking. The grand finale of a truly great fireworks show of savories.
              Course 7 – caramelized crab apple pudding with tempura apple strip and oats paired with a sauternes. The New Mountain Cookery blog best describes it
              ( ). One of the two best desserts I’ve had.
              Course 8 – fallen leaves. White chocolate leaves, squash, chocolate branches and twigs, white and dark chocolate, curry, and granola paired with a vin santo del chianti classico. Again, I defer to that blog. The other best dessert I’ve ever had.

              The meal was capped with the same shot of pumpkin pie broth described in the New Mountain Cookery blog. Charlie’s wine and ale pairings were spot on, and the service from Charlie and Jesse was perfect.

              Everybody was relaxed and very friendly, and John Shields and owner Kyra Bishop stopped by for long conversations. Kyra said that she and her husband Tom anticipated the very slow acceptance of the new menu by locals, because the couple faced resistance to some menu items, that gradually subsided when they first opened Town House Grill as an upscale dining alternative in 2002. John said that the regulars are mostly professionals from surrounding towns, but that word from bloggers is bringing in a decent supply of foodophiles from elsewhere. He and Karen have been there for about a year, and he said he’s hired a PR firm, and that the first food writer should be visiting in early 2009 (he said not a single food writer has eaten there yet). I found it by stumbling onto Estufarian’s post in October while I was searching for North Carolina bbq. The lid could be blown off this place soon, but John feels it’s far enough from major population centers to not be overwhelmed by a major influx of diners.

              Amazingly, this spectacular symphony of cuisine, wine, and ambience was only $78 for the tasting menu and $35 for wine pairings. Are you kidding me? World class experience at a Ruth’s Chris price point! I’m flying back home to San Diego on Thursday, but when I return to North Carolina in early spring, the Town House Grill is at the top of my to do list. Wish I had family near Chilhowie.

              pix are here (except candied yam. I ate half before remembering the pic):

              1. Wow. My grandparents live in that town. It certainly is in the middle of nowhere. However if anyone else heads up there on a road trip give me a shout. My husband and I stopped at interesting places along the way, including Old Salem, Mt Airy, the Blue Ridge, and Dr. Pepper's grave. An interesting trip.

                Here's an itinerary I prepared for our road trip.
                We didn't stop at all of these places but I researched some good eats so this would be a good starting point. Also check out to find info on Dr. Pepper's grave and other quirky stopping points.

                Next time we visit grandpa we will certainly visit this restaurant. Incidentally we stayed at a great hotel in nearby Marion, VA. It has it's own decent restaurant which we ate at for breakfast, the Black Rooster. Thanks for mentioning this one.

                General Francis Marion Hotel
                107 E Main St, Marion, VA

                Black Rooster
                107 E Main St, Marion, VA 24354

                Krankies Coffee
                211 East Third Street, Winston Salem, NC

                8 Replies
                1. re: panthur

                  The Townhouse is definitely worth the drive, had the most amazing 19 course meal there. Going again this Valentine's for dinner. Amazing restaurant especilly for this prt of the country. We live 1 hour away,but the trip is worth a longer trip. Make a weekend of it and spend the night in Abingdon at the Martha Washington.

                  1. re: moondance27

                    Slightly less pricey, the Francis Marion hotel in Marion. Hike Mt. Rogers, canoe Hungry Mother State Park (in season); visit Saltville (read up onthe history first.)
                    Marion is doing some theater, but working in a play at the Barter for Saturday afternoon, followed by a dining delight.

                    1. re: moondance27

                      Saturday night was excellent. we had 8 courses, the lamb course was outstanding, as was the oyster dish, Karen's two dishes, the salad and desert at the end were wondeful. A full house, they had to turn away some walkins, so you definitely want to make reservations.

                      1. re: moondance27

                        Great news that they had a full house.

                        Are you planning a Tuesday night there anytime soon?

                        1. re: shallots

                          not Tuesday, they are having some special Thursdy night dinners as fund raising for Appalachian Sustainble Development. Started tonight and then March 19 and April 23 It's hard for me to go during the week as my husband works out of town.

                          1. re: moondance27

                            I will just second and third what the above have written. This is a place for the true foody. Ranks very high on the best ever meals, especially for creativity. It is worth the drive just to see the contrast between main street Chilhowie and the food. We were talking about the meal for days after....what was that green stuff in the bottom of the bowl? What kind of leaf was that? How did they get the lamb to taste like that? At most restaurants I can take a pretty good stab at ingredients and preperation, but not here....Certainly worth a drive from just about anywhere.

                    2. re: panthur

                      I am so excited, we will go going to dinner at the Town Grill this Wednesday! We will be arriving on Tuesday, does anyone have any suggestions for dinner on Tuesday night?

                      We hope to be doing Creeper Trail on Wednesday, any suggestions for lunch? From what I understand there are places you can stop and eat while on the trail?

                      We are staying at the Lincoln House B&B.


                      1. re: winedine

                        Do a search on here for Damacus Virginia (towards the south end of the Virginia Creeper Trail.) Someone from Damascus posted some really detailed info in the past six months, If I remember correctly.
                        For a first night's dinner, Abington Virginia isn't too far to the west (less than 20 miles IIRC) and restaurants there have also been covered here.

                        I'm hesitant to make recommendations as we've gotten in the habit of driving up for dinner and then home. (Grin.)