A castle of a meal at Manor House.
By Stefanie Gans / Photos by Jonathan Timmes
Did I have kale on the menu?” Howard Foer was unsure, but only for a second, as he thought about the leaf-of-the-moment and whether or not it made a recent appearance on his rotating line-up.
“I guess it’s trendy? See, I didn’t even know that,” the chef pauses into the silence. “I guess I did know it was trendy,” he finally stumbles into his answer, referring to kale’s contributions to the recent raw juicing madness.
At 51, Foer has a grip on what he wants from his food. Trends are not one of them. But what happens when you eat dinner in the woods? Do big city trends sneak into the unlit winding roads anyway?
Foer, the chef at Manor House—and the owner, with his wife, of Poplar Springs Inn (also known for its spa)—bought the property in 1995 and used the historic, wooded land in Casanova for wedding and corporate events before turning it into the multi-use facility it is today.
The kale at Manor House comes creamed under an order of lamb loin and above a cake made out of saffron potatoes. The entire dish sinks into a rich sauce, punctuated with olives to break up its intensity. It is heavy but luxurious and lets show Foer’s French training at Le Chandun D’Or, the 1980s-era restaurant in Alexandria’s Morrison House (the upscale The Grille is there now).
Foer takes time with his sauces, starting from bone, where 20 gallons turns into something dense and sophisticated. “A lot of restaurants that are getting a lot of hype are doing a lot of smears,” Foer says, defending his hours spent in the kitchen, hitting back at what is popular elsewhere (smears) and not (hours-long sauce-making) in this even-far-from-Warrenton part of Northern Virginia.
The Manor House isn’t only removed geographically from main roads; it also feels like a different time. In the 1920s, the owners reinterpreted 16th- and 17th-century homes they had seen in Europe to create the inn’s look: It still feels castle-like today with large stones as walls, a tapestry of a horse-riding-knight hanging over the fireplace and decorations of stained glass and a coat of arms. Foer sells Manor House as a destination restaurant, but surely he doesn’t mean time travel. While the inn’s old Euro decor feels genuine, unlike the unabashed Medieval Times, it feels dated and dreary nonetheless. The muzak contributes to the lack of modernity.
But on the plate, some things spark. Foer cold-smokes his tartare (where smoke hits the raw beef away from the heat source) blending it with marjoram and shallots. The raw smokiness pops through, rounded with herbs and slicked with oil for a delicately meaty opening act.
Actually, this is the third dish to land on the table, first: a bread basket with a sweetened spin on butter and an amuse bouche—maybe a slice of lamb belly with creamed broccoli or a fried spring roll with pressed, mixed meats.
There is a forced pre fixe dinner with three-, four- or five-course options, the latter topping out at $80 a person. Dinner also includes a mid-course palate cleansing sorbet— a gorgeous, but maybe too-sweet-for-dinner pomegranate cassis—and salted caramel truffles when the bill arrives. It’s a lot of food and Foer, a gracious host, answers that claim:
“I like giving people enough food.” But he knows the portions are plenty: he was forced to turn to the mandatory prix fixe because customers weren’t ordering dessert. Their checks were simply not high enough, and in this restaurant hidden off a dark road, higher checks make up for the lack of street traffic.
Another reason guests weren’t ordering dessert: they were probably finishing their plates because much is good here. A bisque balances creaminess by letting flavors of the sea pop through. Plump mussels, still in the shell, float in the almost gravy-like soup, as does a tender scallop.
A crab cake finds itself in an Indo-French meal: the plate packs in not only a mountain of crustacean, but a poached egg (where the yolk flies out completely—and strangely—intact) on a frisee and bacon lardon salad with a curry caper butter sauce circling the perimeter. It’s a lot for a second course and perhaps too many flavors packed onto one round of porcelain. Another second course of roasted barley risotto caters to a too sweet sauce and undercooked strips of varied root vegetables.
Cornish game hen stuffed with duck is back to pure regality—but also the 1700s. It’s a king’s feast, and glorious in its overt meatiness. The royals, however, would scoff at service one night: at these prices, you shouldn’t have to fill your own wine glass.
The night ends in a bold statement: a foie gras ice cream that is not at all meaty, but still indulgent and in line with the many unusual ice cream flavors offered in restaurants over the past few years. The fancier cake is glorified stale bread, but the merlot reduction cuts into the duck liver dessert to quell its lushness. It is worthy of tweeting, not just because of its outrageousness, but because you’ll want to relive the memory in those 140-characters.
The Manor may be a castle, and while dinner is not always a fairy tale, the story lives more in the present, which is a good thing.
The Manor House Restaurant
Call first—reservations are required, but not for the adjoining and cozy, Casanova Lounge.
Prix-fixe menu: Three courses for $65, four courses for $72 and five courses for $80, Sunday brunch, with champagne, is $62.
Open for lunch and dinner Thursday through Saturday; brunch on Sunday.
9245 Rogues Road, Casanova; poplarspringsinn.com