Tarver King and Culinary Enlightenment at Potowmack Farm

Yarrow Sponge Cake dessert at Potowmack Farm

Chamomile Sherbet dessert at Potowmack Farm

You know the joke about the Buddhist monk who told the hot dog vendor to make him one with everything? (sadly, you do) If chef Tarver King were the hot dog vendor, he would have made the monk one with everything (homemade mustard, locally sourced onions, nitrate-free farm-raised dogs, etc.), and then he would have made everything with one, and then he would have made a delicious cocktail, and then he would have moved his cart across town to sell more hot dogs to more monks but in completely different ways.  I am mystified that King did not win the 2014 RAMMY for Chef of the Year.*

* The nevertheless deserving winner was Haidar Karoum — we HAVE to get to Doi Moi soon, okay, Mrs. Me?

And if Tarver King were the monk, he would have achieved enlightenment long ago — instead, we get to experience enlightenment (or close to it) at his current haunt, Potowmack Farm.  We followed him there from the Ashby Inn, which is now off the radar since both King and innkeepers Star and Neil Wavra have moved on. And okay, fine, this is all a little over the top.  But our dinner at PF was phenomenal — not over the top at all, in fact in some ways quite mellow and restrained.  I’m still a little jiggy with it, a couple of weeks later.  Took a while to process it all, for review purposes.

Zen garden of "snacks"

Zen garden of “snacks”

First, the setting is gorgeous, up a bucolic gravel road amongst the trees just on the Virginia side of the Potomac.  You can see a bit of the river from the restaurant, which is sort of a large greenhouse-looking single-room structure, glass and wood everywhere, you feel like you’re out in the wilderness. Someone was playing acoustic guitar across the dining room from our table, at volume perfectly calibrated to provide atmosphere without impeding conversation.  I imagine the place can get loud when it is full — the night we ate there, it was only half-full, fairly shocking on a Saturday night but then again it is kind of out of the way and not exactly inexpensive.

Service is wonderful, from the hosts to our server, who gave us travel tips in addition to menu tips, to the bartender (cocktail whisperer, really), who explained (sort of) how they created the , more about which below.  Farm/restaurant co-owner Beverly Morton Billand dropped by our table to chat not long after we had been seated, even though we’re not anybody in particular, it’s just how they roll.  Tarver King did not stop by the table but that’s only because he was busy in the kitchen turning (farm-raised) duct tape and (organic) hubcaps into culinary gold.

Bacon can make even an already-good crab croquette better!

Bacon can make even an already-good crab croquette better!

And then there was food.  Yes there was!  That would be out of character if I went through all this verbose lunacy about something non-food-related.  Much of the ingredients is grown in their own farm, and most of the rest is sourced super-locally. Potowmack Farm is prix fixe, $88 for five courses, and you can choose among three menus, which they call Found, Grown, and Raised, each changing every night.  We all eschewed Raised, going for Found and Grown.  Highlights:

A selection of “snacks” for the table, a little Zen garden of appetizers, from relatively standard like mini-blini with dill-sour cream, to exotic like spicy fried kimchi pakora (?!).  Wonderfully arranged on iron and rock amidst candles — it was like culinary Settlers of Cataan except without the sheep.  Delicious.

I did the “Found” tasting.  Here are some findings. Snapping turtle mulligatawny: no actual turtles in evidence, which was fine, but turtles aside, it was merely a tasty greenish bisque.  Crab croquette swathed in a bacon jacket atop black raspberry gel with chamomile leaves: lovely presentation, and very good, but otherwise not especially memorable.  Dessert was “Yarrow Sponge Cake with hickory crew, coriander oats, pine nut powder”: gorgeous to look at in a mossy forest-meets-sea kind of way, this is the kind of thing I imagine them serving at Noma.

Yarrow Sponge Cake etc.

Yarrow Sponge Cake etc.

Others went with the “Grown” menu, including roasted escarole (with Surryano ham, grilled onion aioli, nasturtiums), potato gnocchi (with Maitaki mushrooms, sunflower kernels, beef crackling), and chamomile sherbet (with rhubarb, chia seeds, strawberry raisings, lavender).  I can’t vouch for the Grown, but people seemed to like it.  Here’s the thing about the food at Potowmack Farm, though: it is incredibly inventive, and local, with sublime presentation and service, but the portions are kind of small even in the aggregate (one of my dining companions contrasted the experience with Ashby Inn, where we always left feeling quite full — not quite so here, and in fact another of us ate a yogurt when she got home), and while the food is really good…but there wasn’t one particular dish that was OMGood, like a couple of items at Range. Really, the opening “snacks” were the most exciting course. But then again, it’s amazing that the whole menu changes every night, and CLEARLY further research is needed.

As if all that food weren’t enough, the drinks are fabulous too. In particular, a vividly orange-glowing cocktail called Smoke & Fire, made with tequila, lime, honey, and a variety of chilis, some fresh and some maple-smoked. It tasted fresh and earthy, bright and smoky, with just a hint of chili heat. I plan to try to replicate it at home, but I expect the combination and complexity of chilis will be difficult to match. A great drink, one of the best and most interesting I’ve ever had.

All in all, very good food, fantastic drinks, spectacular overall experience, I would say worth it even at the price, just not something we can do with much frequency.  Although we are already looking forward to next time.

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