Everyone on the team was calm, focused on the moment, visibly enjoying it and yet ready to engage in conversation all at the same time. A chunk of granite materialized in front of me. On it was an artfully arranged amuse bouche, a creamy dollop of apple and fennel puree on a diaphanous crisp green leaf that disintegrated into a burst of flavor in my mouth. “That’s dehydrated ramp,” Jared Adams, the sous chef, volunteered. “It’s a kind of local wild leek. We forage it,” he added as though it was the most banal thing in the world. And in Chef Tucker Yoder’s kitchen it most likely was. A strong advocate of the farm to table principle, he adjusts his menus daily based on what looks best at the farmer’s markets and in the restaurant’s own kitchen garden. The meat is raised locally and the fish caught off the Atlantic shores, less than two hours away, someone explained to me.
The evening proceeded like a perfectly choreographed ballet, a well timed succession of delectable morsels to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace while watching creative young artists reinvent gastronomy for the 21st century. Observing the concentration of Chef Yoder as he personally put the finishing touches on every dish, and discussing the finer points of my tasting menu with whoever happened to be working nearest to me, I reflected that there was no better place to enjoy a solo meal than the Chef’s Counter. The Clifton Inn kitchen brigade created a unique dining experience for me that in and of itself would justify a return visit to Charlottesville.
After successively working in several area restaurants, he found his mentor in John Haywood, chef and owner of Oxo (a highly popular local restaurant at the time, now closed). With his rigorous classical training, Chef Haywood opened Yoder’s eyes to the artistry required to create superb dishes in the grand culinary tradition. Yoder then joined the Clifton Inn as sous chef in 2005 and remained for four years before being lured away by the opportunity to help launch the Red Hen, an innovative farm to table fine dining restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. He returned to the Clifton Inn to take over as executive chef in 2010. In indulging his dual passions for using just off the farm (and sometimes just foraged) ingredients and constantly pushing the limits of classic cooking, Chef Yoder has developed a personal and innovative style that delighted and surprised me with every course.
Executive Chef Tucker Yoder
Handicapped Access Yes
Location On the first floor of the Clifton Inn, in the eastern outskirts of Charlottesville, Virginia, 115 miles (185 kilometers) southwest of Washington, D.C. and 70 miles (110 kilometers) northwest of Richmond, Virginia.
Managed The inn and restaurant were managed by Niall Reid, the general manager.
Opened-Renovated The restaurant opened in 1983. The Chef’s counter was added in 2011.
Owned The whole property, restaurant included, was privately owned by Mitch and Emily Willey.
Pastry Chef Kristen Johnson
Size The dining room could seat 80 guests. The Chef’s Counter could accommodate up to seven guests. The kitchen employed a staff of five.
Sous Chef Jared Adams
Type Of Restaurant International and contemporary gourmet dining.
The large double doorways leading to the Verandah dining area had heavy floor to ceiling cocoa brown drapes. Crystal chandeliers and candlestick sconces with silk shades reinforced the romantic atmosphere of the room. The glassed in Verandah dining area had a conservatory feel and a view of the garden. Square tables were surrounded with heavy wrought iron chairs with pale green cushions that matched the drapes outlining the double doors leading to the interior dining room. Lighting was provided by contemporary hurricane sconces hanging from the white shingled interior wall of the conservatory. The Chef’s Counter was in the working kitchen of the restaurant, with the active workspace taking most of the room. A wide L shaped bar of white polished concrete stood at the far end, lined with tall bar chairs to accommodate guests.
Meal At the Chef’s Counter, guests had the option to choose from restaurant’s menu, which was divided into five categories: delicate, light, full bodied, robust and dessert, or select the tasting menu. I opted for the latter and what followed was a succession of memorable bite size surprises. After the aforementioned teaspoonful of pureed of apple and fennel over a wafer like ramp leaf, a ham and pea salad with chervil followed. Slivers of serrano ham garnished a small pyramid of new garden peas, perfectly crunchy and sweet, and glistening with a peppery dressing. Next came two tiny perfect radishes embedded in the sweetest of butters and sprinkled with coarse grains of sea salt (at the Clifton, the butter was home churned, and the sourdough bread home baked from three year old starter).
Roasted asparagus and field onion were served with a crumbled pistachio beurre blanc. The garden salad of delicate field greens looked as well as it tasted as if it had just been pulled from the kitchen garden. It was served with a garnish of “black dirt” (“black cocoa powder, butter and sugar lightly baked and finely crumbled,” Kristen Johnson, the pastry chef, confided). I was tempted to anoint as my favorites the grits encrusted oysters and accompanying wild mushrooms served over pureed apples and brown butter; but then, what of the duck breast, grilled exactly to my medium rare preference, served with a faro pilaf and land cress on a bed of duck stock brown sauce? For the grand finale, I had expressed my wish for “your most typically Virginian dessert.” That turned out to be an orgasmic sticky pudding with date puree, candied pecans and caramel ice cream.
Reviewers Article and photos by Josette King
Service The service was excellent, friendly, attentive and professional.
Would You Dine There Again-Recommend It? Yes