Back in the 70’s, I lived in the Connecticut suburbs. Standard stuff. But my house was 180 years old, heated with two wood stoves, kitchen on the basement level. I canned and pickled from my quarter acre garden, collected morning eggs from three chickens, baked my bread, sewed my clothes and shopped from bins of bulgur wheat and wild rice at the one health food store in Danbury. I was happily alternative. When Inside Loudoun decided to follow the path of a potato from dirt to dinner table, I took a loan from my memory bank.
Our potato’s trek from a garden to the menu at Market Table Bistro in Lovettsville began at School Hill Farm in Round Hill, VA. The farm is owned and managed by ex homesteader, schoolteacher, grandmother, and mother of Rebecca Dudley, manager of Market Table Bistro. This farm family goes back six generations in the area. Rebecca’s great grandfather was Master of the Hunt and alongside her grandmother, her mother learned to garden. Her mother’s husband, Jim, is building a new greenhouse. Her Uncle Ronnie and son built the barn. It’s a small farm but a large, active family effort. In addition to the garden where they grow tomatillos, horseradish, broccoli, rhubarb, collards, herbs, swiss chard, garlic, cilantro and much more, they also raise chickens and Hungarian Mangalitsa pigs known for their quality meat and whose bodies are covered with long, pinkish pale wiry whiskers! The first thing we do is stop by their fenced abode to offer them some raw potatoes which gets them vocal and all worked up. The farm sits high on a sloping green hill with a swift wind and a gentle mountainous backdrop. Rebecca’s mother journals daily about all the activity on the farm, marrying calendar, garden and ultimately the menus of her family, friends and Market Table Bistro.
We dig with hoes and gloved hands into the garden soil and pull up sweet potatoes, significantly larger and more oddly (aka organically) shaped than any typical grocery store might offer. We dig more sweets, some celeriac and onions. We snip and cut herbs, lemon verbena and kale and we pick peppers. We quickly have a large crate spilling over with gardening profits for Chef Jason of Market Table Bistro. School Hill Farm is one from a select list of nurtured sourcing relationships maintained by Market Table Bistro. Chef Jason referenced the lemons for limoncello and squash for butternut soup from Squire Oaks Farm, the coffee beans from Catoctin Coffee for delicious espresso vodka, and the ribs from Whiffletree Farm. All of these relationships share common philosophy and methods.
Within minutes, we arrive at the Market Table Bistro with our fresh garden gifts. Chef Jason comes out from the kitchen to assess. Market Table is a small restaurant, modern and earthy. Inside is a wall of semi horizontal wine, another wall with shelves of cookbooks, a mortar and pestle collection, and jarred mulling concoctions. Subtle murmurs of a home kitchen, good quiet music and quiet table conversations float around the room. The interior is about half dining tables and half prep area. Front and central in the prep area is a large work table with a stainless steel surface where Jason sorts our bounty and prepares a large platter of what he will use immediately. Jason is tall, high energy with a warm smile, passionate about his work, knowledgeable and intense. He’s from Minnesota. Grew up cooking with his mother and hers. Went to Germany with the US army thinking it was the cooler thing to do than be a chef but came back and went to culinary school. He elaborates on his creative process or “the way it works for me”. He could wake in the middle of the night to jot down what might be rem dream recipes. Another time his inspiration might come from “things like the tomatoes” and he goes on to describe having been at the farm recently when he noticed end of season slightly discolored tomato fruit on the vine. He wandered over, picked one, cut into it, tasted it and had a mystical moment that he will meditate on for dishes yet to be. Sometimes inspiration comes from the weather or, like today, it all comes together behind the wheel, minutes before he arrives at the restaurant.
Jason arrived today knowing that he wanted to use the root vegetables, the flavors of kale and a puree of the fall taste of sweet potatoes. He knew that he would add chestnuts to create texture and that the protein would be short ribs. He talks and chops, peels, talks and chops. He chooses parts of the lemon verbena for garnish. He says the best way to eat better is to eat what’s in season and points out that, less than an hour ago, the sweet potatoes were pulled out of the ground. He adds garlic, onion, brown sugar and cinnamon to the sweet potato in a blender. He prepares the kale in two ways. One is just torn leaves. The other is leaves rolled into a tight burrito shape, held firmly while chopping from one end, knife tip first with a rocking motion. He sautes the kale quickly to deal with its bitterness. He pulls out and talks up a 25 year old balsamic vinegar explaining the concept of “origin specific cuisine”. If he can’t get an item locally, then he goes wherever necessary to get the best of that item from a similarly themed source. In the case of balsamic, it’s Modena, Italy. He cuts the chestnuts in half, microwaves them for one minute to make them easier to peel. He starts the blender with the sweets, et al, on slow and then drives it to high, adding more sweet potatoes if it’s too thin. If it’s still too thin? “Roll with it”, says Jason.
Finally, the tender, thick braised ribs rest on a soft bed of kale. The chestnut chunks sit atop carefully puddled golden sweet potato puree. A mound of crunchy kale rests on the side. It’s all drizzled lightly with that 25 year old balsamic and gently crowned with a branch of lemon verbena.
Market Table Bistro, 13 E. Broad Way, Lovettsville, VA 20180. Phone 540-822-3008; markettablebistro.com; Hours:11 am-3 pm, 5 pm-9 pm>