When Bill Welch came onboard as executive chef of Salamander Resort & Spa in June of 2020, he was surprised to learn that kitchen staff didn’t know how to execute a proper hollandaise sauce. “They were putting a bunch of artificial stuff into the blender,” he recalls. Welch, who arrived at the property after a decade as executive chef of famed Georgia resort property Sea Island, had higher aspirations for the culinary program at the tony Middleburg property owned by entrepreneur Sheila Johnson.
Since he’s taken the helm in the kitchen, the resort considered to be the gateway for Virginia wine-and-horse country is also emerging as a culinary destination in its own right. Situated on 340 bucolic acres at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Salamander Resort & Spa also makes for a quick and easy getaway for epicureans; a mere 30-minute drive belies the fact that a weekend here somehow manages to feel like much more of an escape.
When Welch relocated to Northern Virginia, the graduate of the Culinary Institute of America became keenly interested in the flavors of the Mid-Atlantic and the Chesapeake; today he sources ingredients from local and regional farms and purveyors. As elsewhere in the region, dining offerings at the Salamander have been tweaked in response to COVID. Harrimans Cooking Studio, once a theater-style setting with seats looking into the kitchen to accommodate cooking classes and demos, has temporarily been transformed into a private chef’s tasting, with one or two socially distanced tables giving just a handful of guests the opportunity to dine on a seven-course menu with optional wine pairings from sommelier Catherine Watkins. (As the weather turns warmer, the resort is considering adding al fresco tables adjacent to the garden so more diners can experience the menu.)
The chef’s table indeed makes for a special evening, with options varying according to season and availability. Recent memorable plates include pillowy spring gnocchi with still-crisp fresh asparagus, fava beans, English peas, lemon zest, and a silky “perfect egg” paired with a citrus-y Soave; meaty grilled Skull Island prawn over sunchoke purée and black garlic served with mineral-driven Gavi; and roasted Chilean sea bass and root vegetables alongside an earthy Gigondas. Though seven courses (plus an amuse) seems daunting, portions are manageable and the presentation is stunning. If you are in need of a break mid-meal, a short stroll out back takes you to one of two fire pits for a change of scenery and some fresh air. Give in to the staff’s recommendation to tote with you one of the culinary-focused cocktails, like a riff on a Sazerac with honey and lemon, a Moscow Mule with muddled blackberries, or a heady libation that shakes Hendricks Gin, elderflower liqueur, lime, and rosemary.
If you’d rather pick and choose your own menu adventure, Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill right next door offers many of the same options in an à la carte format, as well as cheese and charcuterie boards and seafood towers. And if you would rather dine in your own abode, you can also choose four courses from Welch’s menu with hand-selected wines, plus desserts from executive pastry chef Jason Reaves, delivered to your room or suite.
Oenophiles may want to plan their stay to coincide with Salamander Uncorked, a monthly event during which Watkins walks you through wines of the world through a pairing of five tastes with five small bites. Next up on April 8 is Rosés of the World, with still and sparkling options from Provence, Bordeaux, California, and beyond paired with roasted foie gras and cornbread, watermelon mint feta skewers, miso-glazed chicken wings, lemon blueberry tartlets, and chocolate truffles. Regular wine dinners held in Market Salamander let the culinary team flex their muscles while pairing up with local and global wine brands; April 10 features the expressions from Napa’s Wonderment Wines, followed by local pours from Delaplane Cellars on April 24.
Salamander’s latest culinary offering is a three-course, family-style Sunday brunch, which can be enjoyed outside at a table or igloo on the patio, or inside Harrimans. Come hungry, because Welch and Reaves have generously included all of the things. First up are freshly-baked pastries and donuts with housemade jam and adorable miniature avocado multigrain toast topped with arugula, shaved fennel, and blood orange; offset the carbs with a bowl of fresh berries with mint and a standout salad of local greens, crunchy Virginia peanuts, and a creamy cider vinaigrette. The carrot-cake French toast with orange Chantilly cream and candied pineapple is a fun riff on the breakfast favorite that would be just as at home on the dessert menu; it’s not quite as sweet as it sounds, and the cream cheese frosting lends a nice tang. If your AM palate veers towards the savory, you might be drawn more to the roasted beef tenderloin with tallow butter, scrambled eggs, bacon, chicken sausage, and sofrito red potatoes. Either way, definitely save room for the macarons, custards, tartlets, cookies, and meringues on the long wooden board that’s arguably the most gorgeous dessert presentation in the entire DMV right now. And in case you were wondering, yes, you do need a dessert course for brunch.
All 168 rooms and suites at Salamander Resort & Spa are spacious, with an outdoor patio or balcony to enjoy that morning coffee or happy hour glass of wine. Linens and throws have been personally designed by Johnson with seasonal and equestrian accents. Amenities include luxurious bathrobes, a Nespresso machine and pods, iPod docking station; some accommodations include a fireplace. For more information and to book, check out their website.
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