Above the spreading willow oak that's stood for a hundred years, enormous black clouds roll in from behind the mountains that surround the Barboursville Vineyards. Soon a violent storm sends sheets of rain across the vineyards and flashes of lightning across the sky. Inside Barboursville's restaurant Palladio, under the exposed beams and big brass chandelier (you know the kind: Someone with a sword will invariably cut it down to stop the bad guys), the cozy country ambience of flagstones and fireplaces smoothly buffers the weather raging outside, despite a moment or two of flickering lights.
Why worry when the staff seems so supremely confident and capable of handling any emergency? Even without electricity, it seems likely that each course, along with an appropriate wine, will arrive from the kitchen with little or no delay. Fortunately, the power stays on, the wind and rain abate, and dinner is punctuated with dramatic flashes of lightning that only set off the white tablecloths and sparkling glassware.
It's about an hour's ride to Barboursville from Richmond, but once you turn off Interstate 64 and onto Route 15 toward Gordonsville, it's a journey of rolling hills and bucolic farmland. Gordonsville itself has had something of a revival, and instead of charming but abandoned-looking buildings, there's a row of thriving antique and garden shops, and the rest of the town seems to have spruced itself up for all the attention it is receiving. With a short spin around the traffic circle at the end of town, Barboursville Vineyards is just minutes away.
Past the fields of cows, near the twisted vines and surprising roses of the vineyard, and perched on the hill overlooking it all, sits Palladio Restaurant. Reservations are hard to come by if you don't plan ahead, although most diners seem to arrive around 7 p.m. and the room fills quickly. A four-course prix-fixe menu of Italian dishes influenced by the Virginia countryside is presented along with a glass of sparkling Barboursville brut (The meal and wine are $70 per person, or $95 with wine pairings.) A crisp rosé accompanies the first course of earthy morels and fava beans in a ragout enhancing a sweetly briny poached lobster, or tart pickled cherries and pistachios surrounding slices of duck.
The gnocchi is soft and yielding, with pungent wild mushrooms and a sweet corn puree, while the bright green arugula pappardelle, although a little sturdier than I like my fresh pasta, is slathered with a lemon-garlic butter that makes ripe tomatoes and roasted red peppers sharp and full of flavor. The grilled skewers of beef are crusty and rare with a crisply toasted crostino (that would be just one long, angular crostini for those of us who don't speak Italian) topped with gooey mozzarella for alternate bites and chanterelles sautéed to a fragrant softness.
The Berkshire pork chop is a disappointment, though, because although smoky enough, it's tough and a little dry. But the insanely airy polenta cake next to it, laced with basil, can make you forget about the pork for a moment, and the lovely, bitter Swiss chard leaves you wondering why you don't eat more greens.
After three full courses and four glasses of wine, it's hard to contemplate dessert, and espresso at this point is a good option. So is the classically prepared tiramisu, although the lavishly garnished version at Amici will always be my favorite. The curious basil-mascarpone gelato is a surprising treat and focuses the sweetly astringent flavors of the strawberry and rhubarb tart next to it.
I'd like to go back to try the extensive selection of cheeses and homemade jams, but I'm not sure if I can ever make it past dessert and find the room to stuff in more. Chef Melissa Close is scheduled to cook this month at the James Beard Foundation in New York for a wine-maker dinner featuring the Barboursville Vineyards, and it's those inspired combinations basil with strawberries and rhubarb, and lobster with fava beans and morels that clearly underscore just why this invitation was extended.
Nonetheless, Richmonders shouldn't come to Palladio just for the food, because the journey and the setting on a warm summer's evening offer pleasures of their own. S
17655 Winery Road
Barboursville, VA 22923
Lunch: Wednesday-Sunday, noon-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Friday and Saturday, 6:30-9:30 p.m.