Mar 092010

For the past couple of years Gabriele and I have rented a cabin in the Shenandoah for a quick, relaxing getaway from DC. It’s located about 14 miles outside Front Royal, VA. We’ve always had a nice time, but last weekend was especially fun due to some new food and wine discoveries.

The first find was Vino e Formaggio, in downtown Front Royal. It’s run by Christian Failmezger, a former lawyer and sommelier originally from Austria. He had an impish charm and a lot of enthusiasm, and welcomed us warmly into his shop. He set us up with a gratis tasting, and talked about his philosophy of selling wine in what in his words is still “bourbon and budweiser” country.

He sells almost nothing over $25, and understands he may be introducing his customers to wine for the first time. So he offers a lot of whites and semi-dry wines, and expects a new customer to take a year or more before being interested in reds. He poured us a white wine from Steineger that was predominately the Gruner Veltiner grape, a new one for me. It smelled like a Sauvignon Blanc, but tasted more subdued, not as grassy and with a pear fruit taste dominating.

We had three reds, a forgettable Californian Merlot and French Bordeaux, and then the winner in our opinion. It was a Ruvei Barbera d’ Alba 2007, an expensive wine for the shop at $17. We both like Barberas, and this one was nice, light bodied, very dry but with nice fruit, high acidity and easy tannins. We bought a bottle, and a dessert wine as well. We had a blast, and returned the next day to stock up on a picnic lunch. The serrano ham was fantastic.

Prior to leaving for the weekend, I had used Twitter to ask folks about the best place for dinner in the area. I got back a lot of good suggestions, and some good buzz about a place called Element. It’s one of two restaurants located in a small former apartment building run by David and Stacy Gedney, who met while working at the Inn at Little Washington. Aparment 2g upstairs was booked for the night, so we went to Element.

The vibe is casual and a little funky, without trying too hard to convey it. It’s a small place with only about a dozen tables, and the bartender also waits on the tables. The menu was very small — four apps, four entrees to choose from — but everything was really good.

We started with mussels, and seared tuna. The mussels were large, but perfectly tender and delicious. The tuna was fantastic, perfectly done and served over a salad with a mild Asian sauce that accentuated rather than masked the freshness of the fish. When we go back, I’ll seriously consider asking them to double the portion and have it as my entree. This night I had chicken breast, a different choice for me and done well, very simply. Gabriele had very tasty Mahi Mahi coated with pecan panko, with a delicious Indian couscous side.

As readers of this blog know, we’re big GSM fans. So when I saw two on the wine list, I asked our server for his recommendation. He steered us to the Qupe “Los Olivos Cuvee” 2007. It’s from the Santa Ynez valley in central California, 58% Syrah, 26% Mourdevre and 16% Grenache, a lot more “M” than usual. The wine was excellent, starting with a fresh, subtle bouquet and tasting of restrained fruit through to a smooth finish with a hint of vanilla. I tasted currant fruit, and the wine was a little elusive, hard to describe. It went very well with the meal, and it was very fun to have this kind of meal in downtown Front Royal. We’ll be back, either to Element or to check out Apartment 2g.

We also hit a couple of wineries over the weekend while enjoying some beautiful weather. Narmada winery was pretty and very accommodating. We only liked one of the wines we tasted, their 2008 Melange. It’s their Bordeaux style wine, 60% Cabernet and 40% Merlot. It was nice, very smooth and without the creamy Merlot finish I don’t care for, picked up a bottle for $21.

On the other side of Rt. 211 from Narmada is Gray Ghost winery. Our pourer was very friendly and knowledgeable, and the winner here was a bit of a surprise, their Victorian Red. It’s basically a blush wine, though they don’t describe it that way. 65% Cabernet Franc, and 35% Chardonnay. It’s very flavorful, with a lot of cherry and cranberry fruit that will be enjoyable on a summer day. (OK, Gabriele picked this one but its not bad, and it was only $15.)

So fine food and wine is alive and expanding in the Shenandoah. But make sure you bring you bottle home and leave plenty of time to enjoy the views.

Where the Blue Ridge meets the Shenandoah River

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