Article and photos by Josette King
The restaurant was located on the first floor of the Clifton Inn
During my recent visit to Charlottesville, Virginia I had the pleasure to dine at the Clifton Inn Restaurant. My reservation, made ahead by a local friend, indicated that it was for the Chef’s Counter. I didn’t realize the extent of my good fortune until I was escorted through the dining room, straight to the kitchen. As the daughter of a French chef, I have appreciated since childhood that it is a singular privilege to be invited into the inner sanctum. And that night, I was the chosen one. I was momentarily perplexed by the long row of copper pans, much too perfectly shined to have seen recent service, lined against a coral accent wall, and the gilded mirror at the far end of the room, strategically placed to reflect the crystal chandelier that hung over the pale polished concrete counter. But then I hoisted myself onto a comfortable bar chair, and across the countertop, had a panoramic view of the kitchen.
The Chef’s Counter provided a front row view of the action in the kitchen
It was equipped with the latest in high end professional equipment and had a traffic pattern designed for maximum efficiency. It clearly meant business. As did Tucker Yoder, the executive chef, and his capable team. Everyone was calm, focused on the task of the moment, every gesture precise as they created one remarkable dish after another. And yet they were sufficiently relaxed to engage in conversation with me about anything from the unusual pairings of textures and flavors on my plate or the culinary journey that had led them to the Clifton to the ethos of the farm to table movement.
Chef Yoder, sous chef Jared Adams and pastry chef Kristen Johnson focused on their creations
It was a creative group of professionals who, under the guidance of Chef Yoder, delighted in pushing the boundaries of classic cuisine, and experimenting with ingredients and techniques to bring gastronomy into the 21 century, except when timeless tradition still delivered the best results. They churned their own butter, made sourdough bread from a three year old starter and kept a kitchen garden (right outside the kitchen door). At the Chef’s Counter, guests had the option to choose from the restaurant’s menu or the tasting menu. I opted for the latter and what followed was two hours of bite size delights and discoveries.
Ham and pea salad with chervil
“What is this?” I had to ask of the crisp leaf shaped wafer under the creamy dollop of pureed apple and fennel of my amuse bouche. Jared Adams, sous chef, who was working nearest to me at the moment, volunteered that it was dehydrated ramp, a sort of local wild leek. And by the way, they foraged it. Several dishes later came the field greens salad, fresh from the garden; so fresh there was a spoonful of garden dirt on the plate. That time Kristen Johnson, pastry chef, answered, “just black cocoa powder, butter and sugar, lightly baked then finely crumbled.”
Sticky pudding with date puree, candied pecans and caramel ice cream
We have come a long way since garlic croutons. If pressed to identify a favorite dish, a hard decision, I probably would have singled out the succulent grit encrusted oysters with their garnish of sautéed wild mushroom, served over pureed apples with brown butter. But that’s because I hadn’t yet factored in dessert. I had challenged Kristen to surprise me with “her most Virginian dessert.” That turned out to be a divine sticky pudding with date puree, candied pecans and caramel ice cream. Even after so many dishes (I had lost count long before the end of the meal), I cleaned my plate. At Chef Yoder’s Counter, excess was a wonderful thing.