“I think this may be the next Inn at Little Washington,” I said to my husband as we stepped off the wide porch of The Farmhouse at Veritas and out into the moonlight. I was tipsy, and the evening had been romantic, so I was happy and maybe exaggerating a little. Only time will tell.
Like the acclaimed Inn at Little Washington, which opened its doors more than 40 years ago with a menu that included shrimp scampi and veal scaloppini for under $10, The Farmhouse at Veritas, in the Blue Ridge Mountains foothills west of Charlottesville, started with modest intentions. A family home for nearly 200 years, the early 1800s farmhouse was repurposed in 2012 as a comfortable and graceful six-room inn that echoes the welcoming style of its namesake, Veritas Vineyards, next door.
“Because we were so small, we started off thinking we’d just be catering to the house guests,” says Patricia Hodson, co-owner with her husband, Andrew, of the vineyard and farmhouse. “But then people who weren’t staying would ask, ‘Can we come and dine?’ And we’d say, ‘Sure, why not?’”
As word got out, more cars wound their way up the mountain for the four-course, wine-paired dinner, which always starts with a glass of Veritas sparkling wine on the shaded porch or stone patio. It was easy enough to see what was fueling the word-of-mouth marketing: guests exhaled deeply as they relaxed into a rocker and took in the view—a hillside of vines across the road, dripping with the same viognier and cabernet franc they’d find in their glass later.
After about a year, with the 36-seat restaurant selling out every weekend, the Hodsons had preliminary proof of the need for fine dining in Nelson County. But without a major population center nearby (no offense to Charlottesville, of course), an owner’s steps along the fine-dining continuum can be a tightrope walk: the risks of a misstep can be considerable, but the potential for glory—well, just look 70 miles north.
Chef Patrick O’Connell’s balance has been perfect at his Washington, Virginia, restaurant in Rappahannock County. After four decades of creative cookery and synchronized service with a huge dollop of theatrical whimsy, The Inn at Little Washington is now one of a handful of Michelin three-star restaurants in the country. (Many people think the town’s actual name is Little Washington: Such is the power of the restaurant.)
In the kitchen at The Farmhouse at Veritas, Chef Andy Shipman, 32, balances space, time, and expense against flavor. Flavor typically wins. Take breadso, for example. Like miso, breadso begins with a grayish mold called koji. The koji is added to leftover sourdough bread dough, salted lightly, and set aside to ferment for four months. Egg yolks are then laid carefully in the breadso, which acts like a blanket as they cure for several days. The yolks harden a bit, and are grated over a seasonal tomato salad, for garnish and a bit of umami flavor. The process is precise and requires patience, but the results are delicious.
Shipman could have skipped the breadso step if he’d used a sugar- and salt-based curing recipe like the one that made the rounds on social media last year. But he says the breadso gives the egg yolks a deeper, richer flavor that balances with that of the tangy tomatoes from the inn’s garden.
Chef Shipman is mostly self-taught as a cook. His restaurant career began at The Sunken Well in Fredericksburg, where he picked up skills as a dishwasher and busser—plus a lot of empathy for the grind of many kitchen jobs. Later, as a line cook at Foode, also in Fredericksburg, he learned from the smart and charismatic chef Joy Crump, who impressed Shipman with her dedication to craft and masterful kitchen management.
Shipman—an introvert with a close-cropped beard and unblinking blue eyes that let you know he’s listening—is not an easy interview: given a yes-or-no question, he’ll answer yes or no. But when asked about his cooking, out comes the Instagram and a verbal cascade.
About plating constructs, for instance: “Most plates we’ll go high and tight. We try to keep it in the middle. We like to hide a lot of things. Not too much garnish.”
That’s apparent in what at first seems to be a simple plate of asparagus with hollandaise. “It’s asparagus with roasted red peppers on the bottom, there’s preserved lemon underneath, and the hollandaise is actually mouselline,” the chef explains. “It has a little cream added to it, and instead of using butter we use duck fat, so it’s a duck fat mouselline topped with a sorrel leaf.”
Shipman hasn’t been to The Inn at Little Washington. He gets most of his ideas from reading. (The Noma Guide to Fermentation and Modernist Cuisine are recent sources of inspiration.) He ponders whether visiting superstar restaurants would help or hurt his creativity.
“There’s a natural urge to copy,” Shipman says. “When you don’t go to a lot of restaurants, instead of ideas coming from the outside in, they come from the inside out.”
Were Shipman to drive north and check out the Inn, he might notice that the air is magical but not so rareified that it leaves you breathless. The secret ingredient that makes an amuse-bouche of truffled popcorn and a tiny tumbler of minted pea soup so addictive? A very pragmatic device: sugar. In the snug dining rooms, the tables can be a bit tight, placing the occasional entering or exiting derriere directly at eye level. And romantic conversations take a back burner to constant food deliveries—12 amuse- bouches, entrées, and sweets on a recent visit—plus plenty of plate clearing and silverware shuffling. Dining at a Michelin three-star restaurant isn’t about you. It’s for you, but not about you.
Not so at the Farmhouse at Veritas. “Remember that we had some customers who told us they left [here] feeling hungry?” Patricia Hodson asks her husband at a recent dinner.
Finished with his work in the kitchen, Shipman stops by the owners’ table, where Mr. Hodson engages the chef on the portion size of one of the night’s menu items. “You have these lovely delights of the palate, but then you have the main course and you get this…galumph,” he says. “Might the rib-eye portion have been a bit too large?”
Patricia disagrees, saying they’d intentionally added a substantial meat course to the menu. Shipman has likely heard this back-and-forth before but still listens attentively. He’s a partner in the evolution.
Whether to keep a hearty and popular meat- and-potatoes course on the menu or downsize it and add maybe a fish course, or a cheese course before dessert—a French practice that Andrew Hodson likes—is one of many steps a fine-dining restaurateur must finesse on the way toward creating a legacy.
For now, future plans for The Farmhouse include expanding the kitchen and then adding a second seating. What stays the same? The convivial pre-dinner glass of Veritas sparkling wine, served on the patio on warm summer evenings, or comfortably ensconced in a leather armchair by the fire in cooler weather. A flavorful, four-course tasting menu that’s both abundant and original. Generous wine pairings. Friendly but unobtrusive service. In the end, a night that’s all about you.
The Farmhouse at Veritas. $85 per person plus tax and gratuities for four courses plus wine pairings. Reservations required. 72 Saddleback Farm, Afton. (540) 456-8100. veritasfarmhouse.com.
Tale of the tape: How two great restaurants measure up
The Inn at Little Washington offers three tasting menus ($248 per person, plus optional wine pairings for $170 per person.) One menu starts off with “a Tin of Sin”: a cunning sardine-type tin filled with imperial osetra caviar, Chesapeake blue crab, and cucumber rillette. The Inn’s trademark fanciful naming and adorable (really!) packaging can elevate a special night out into a gaga fest. The food, never more than a few bites of any one plate, ranges from fork-stoppingly, eye-closingly good (pepper-crusted duck breast with brandy-roasted peaches) to a bit overwrought (a rather mushy tin of tuna and foie gras confit in black truffle vinaigrette).
The Farmhouse at Veritas offers a four-course menu ($85 per person, including wine pairings) that changes every other week. A recent first course featured an engaging minimalist plating of a square of maple-brined Autumn Olive Farm pork belly roasted for 60 hours, a spoonful of Dr. Pepper-tamarind reduction, a tiny round of cornbread, and a small stack of housemade pickles. Deep flavors and texture contrasts throughout the meal show plenty of thought, and classic sauces—such as a spectacularly flavorful bordelaise on an eye of rib-eye sourced from Lynchburg’s Seven Hills Food Co.—show patience.
The Inn at Little Washington is awash in silks and brocades, fringed lampshades and fabric-swagged ceilings. Conversations are muted, superlatives many.
The Farmhouse at Veritas has that rambling feel and wood smoke smell of the best old houses. Couples are seated on an enclosed porch ringed by windows, with tables spaced to allow quiet conversation, while small (and the occasional large) groups move inside to two formal dining rooms. Tables are set with flowers from the garden and special touches like vintage cutlery with pearl-handled knives.
The Inn at Little Washington’s service is a gliding minuet danced by an army of attractive, graceful servers somehow not colliding, never spilling, always smiling. You don’t care for that particular wine pairing? Here’s a new one. Want to know what’s in a dish? Just ask. Everyone knows the answer. To everything.
The Farmhouse at Veritas’ service begins and ends with restaurant manager, Angel Cruz, who, at 7pm on the dot, with a broad smile and erect posture, invites guests to take their seat for dinner. Cruz or Chef Shipman briefly introduce each course, and Cruz describes the wine pairings, all from Veritas Vineyards. Attentive servers smile but don’t intervene without a cue. Cruz keeps a watchful eye on every detail. The meal moves at a leisurely pace—one of the benefits of having only one seating a night, but still like clockwork through the four courses.
The Inn at Little Washington’s price tag means “special occasion” for most diners, but the crowd is surprisingly diverse with a mix of families, lovestruck anniversary couples, and blasé Washingtonians who know the staff by name.
The Farmhouse at Veritas’ pre-dinner wine helps loosen everyone up, so there tends to be friendly chatter, especially if the day was spent a-winerying. The crowd is mostly couples who’ve driven out from Charlottesville or nearby Wintergreen, guests staying the weekend at the Inn, or the occasional girlfriend group.