Gastro Heaven With a Pinch of History

I willfully admit that I am not a food or wine expert. But I do know when something amazing touches my palate. Before the holidays we wrote about L’Auberge Provençale, a historic Virginia bed and breakfast located in the Shenandoah Valley an hour west of DC, and their classic Black Friday brunch. This time we indulged in the full L’Auberge Provençale culinary experience personally. There are few things in life that most people would regularly travel three hours for. I’d eat at L’Auberge’s award-winning La Table Provençale restaurant every night of the week if my belt line could keep up with my appetite.

L’Auberge Provençale creeps up on you when you arrive, especially after a few hours driving through the Shenandoah’s rolling hills which lull you into a trance-like road trip state. The whole L’Auberge experience is a family affair, just as it should be at an inn of this caliber. Owner Celeste Borel and her son Christian, who is the front of house manager of the inn’s restaurant and a Certified Sommelier, give new meaning to the word attentive. Celeste’s husband Alain Borel, an acclaimed international chef, recently stepped down as the inn’s executive chef but still oversees the menu and whips up breakfast every morning for their overnight guests. Yes, Eggs Benedict can get even better than you think.

La Table Provençale is a French-inspired restaurant exactly where you wouldn’t expect to find it—which is a big part of its charm. In a part of the country often more known by travelers for Waffle House and Olive Garden, La Table is known for their farm to table seasonal menus and ingredients grown right on the eight-acre property. Celeste and Alain are strong proponents of sourcing local ingredients and take full advantage of their property’s vegetable and herb gardens in addition to over seventy fruit trees whose flavors are infused into all of the inn’s dishes. Ingredients the Borels don’t grow onsite are sourced from local farmers and wineries resulting in an authentic, artfully-crafted, and sustainable menu that will remind you all over again why cultures around the world for thousands of years have worshiped fine food.

The best part about the La Table experience from the beginning is precisely what it lacks. Simple tables and chairs, and a basic table setting in a spare dining room allow the inn’s food to take center stage. Whenever I see a lavishly decorated dining room with an over-wraught table setting with lots of plates and utensils that need to be removed before the first course without serving any culinary purpose, I immediately get concerned about the food.

Celeste was our guide through dinner so she could walk us through the backstory of every dish—which lent a sense of continuity to the connection between their farm and the food on your plate. Celeste gave us no choice but to order the Chef’s Tasting Menu so we could sample the full range of Alain’s culinary artistry. I have to admit here to slight bit of nerves—authentic French cuisine is known for using parts of an animal that many non-French people would never think to eat. Like brains, tongues, hoofs, and livers that are about to explode. But Celeste convinced me to leave my preconceptions at the door.

The Amuse Bouche to start our meal was a Boudin Blanc, which is a type of sausage prepared with Shenandoah baby cabbages, crosnes, mustard and caraway. I can’t remember much about since I devoured it in less than four seconds. Next on the menu was a beautiful Butternut Squash Soup with fried shallots and Virginia country ham followed by a Terrine of Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Duck Confit that was served with Miss Barb’s Apple Butter, preserved local currants and a cider gelee. If there were a short list of my favorite ingredients to be used in my last supper most of these would be on it. What made this part of our meal stand out in particular was the flavor sequence between dishes. Many chefs think about their dishes in isolation as discrete combinations of ingredients. Alain is a master at choreographing a culinary journey of smells, tastes, and textures that pulls you so deeply into the food that you forget about the time.

Next up: Roasted Veal Sweetbreads with salsify, young alliums, alpine ham and a banyuls dressing which represented the one point in our meal when no one spoke. That’s the best compliment any chef can get. I asked Celeste afterwards whether I just ate brain (didn’t someone once tell me sweetbreads were brains?). Turns out I was just eating the thymus gland—Who knew how good that could be? The sweetbreads were followed by Langoustine (basically miniature lobster) served with Millwood Mill polenta, prosciutto, Brussels sprouts and compote, completing the perfect French Provençale surf-and-turf.

At this point you could be forgiven for thinking that dinner would be over after five courses. Not even close. One of the masterful parts of La Table’s tasting menu is the balance between the size of each dish and the spacing between them over time. You never feel full. So we couldn’t turn down the next course of Frederick County Pekin Duckling served with local sweet potatoes, smoked maple, pecan and duck ham.

And what palate doesn’t want to be cleansed by a beautiful sampling of Pierre Robert Cheeses locally sourced in Virginia before dessert? La Table’s grand finale was Pumpkin Ice Cream with Pumpkin Crumble and a Red Currant Souffle. We’re not kidding that there wasn’t a crumb left on the table when it was all said and done.

It’s not a minor endnote that Celeste also paired every course with a hand-selected series of white and red wines pulled from the Borels’ wine cellar which consists of over 5000 bottles of some of the finest vintages from the US and around the world. Some guests to La Table have been known to drive the hour from DC just for the secrets in Alain’s cellar.

La Table Provençale is open to both guests of the inn and those passing through and just wrapped up a major addition called La Bar, which is their new bar and lounge that also offers its own menu of specialty cocktails, sophisticated cuisine, brassiere fare, and the inn’s carefully selected wines and liquors.

For more information about La Table Provençale visit their website.

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