If you’ve been to the railroad tracks that are the backbone of the Center of the Universe, you’ve likely seen Caboose Market and Café, once Caboose Wine and Cheese — a stalwart since 1997, now featuring an Ed Trask train mural.
For nearly two decades, locals knew they could rely on the Caboose for a good selection of wine, beer and cheese as well as lively weekly tastings. But like some other wine shops we know, the siren song of the restaurant world eventually proved irresistible.
Walk through the bustling shop today, and you’ll ascend a few steps to a cafe with tawny brick walls, a wood-adorned kitchen and counter with stools, plus six tables that include a large community one, encircled by brilliant orange chairs and adorned with vases of fresh flowers. Mounted on the walls between windows streaming with sunlight are picaresque Ashland vignettes, and the vibe is open and inviting.
The menu leaves no doubt as to the Caboose’s intent: “We believe in coming together as a community to celebrate well-crafted and locally-sourced food and drink.” Indeed, it lists a baker’s dozen local suppliers, among them pastured pork from Pink House Farm in Mineral and chicken and eggs from Keenbell Farm in Montpelier. Cheese and charcuterie plates ($9.95-$15.95) are reminders of the wine shop’s roots as a destination for drinking noshes.
Three visits convince me that someone in the kitchen has a knack with soup ($3.95/$6.95) because both lentil-tomato, laden with carrots, collards, onion and multiple lentil types, as well as tomato parmesan, with fat pieces of sweet onion and sizable hunks of tomatoes, leave me singing their praises, spoon in hand.
Sidling up to the tapas portion of the menu, we try pepper delights ($3). But the spicy peppers that hold prosciutto and provolone taste undercooked and overpower their filling. Balsamic vinegar, raisins and toasted walnuts aren’t enough to overcome the blandness of smoked ricotta on toasted focaccia ($3.50), although it wouldn’t have taken much more than a generous sprinkle of sea salt to tie the flavors together. Still, the urge to finish the order is zip.
Far more alluring are Virginia cast-iron oysters ($9.95), a deeply satisfying bowl of Virginia oysters — that’s as specific as our server got about their provenance — in a sop-worthy broth of tomato sauce, pickled celery and Virginia ham. If you order nothing else, don’t miss this ode to the state. Hot cherry pepper butter and honey are all it takes to make grilled cornbread ($3.50) a standout, spicy and Southern in a way grandma never imagined.
On the other side of the menu are bountiful sandwiches such as the Gotu COTU ($9.95), with local never tasting as good as SausageCraft kielbasa with mustard made with Center of the Universe Brewing Co. beer, aioli and Farmstead Ferments kimchi between toasted slices of distinctive marble rye. Not a crust remains.
Distancing its ham and cheese from the pack, Caboose’s kitchen upgrades prosciutto and smoked Gouda with apple-onion jam and Dijon mustard for the Autumn Panini ($8.95), a sweet and salty mouthful. Sounding better than it eats, the Bombolini ($9.95) layers hot smoked salmon with Gruyère cheese and preserved lemon peel on ciabatta — the upshot is a sandwich with lemon as the star.
The Pink House ($8.95) delivers bite after bite of Virginia, with apples from Agriberry Farm, bacon from Pink House and crumbled gorgonzola over a plate of tasty local kale and arugula. Roasted Harlockson Farm shiitake mushrooms are the undisputed leading lady in the buratta salad ($8.95), taking over for ailing soft Italian cheese with a pronounced skin and no creaminess. The salad is further shored up by strong performances from roasted butternut squash, candied pecans, wine-soaked cranberries and balsamic-dressed arugula.
Not to restate the obvious, but you’re having a meal in the back of a market whose diverse shelves are a testament to thoughtfully chosen wines and creatively named beers — Escutcheon’s John Riggins 4th & 1 Pilsner, anyone? That makes the Caboose a natural for sipping as you eat. Chalkboards list wines by the glass ($5-$6), plus a cider and seven beers on tap ($5-$7), including beer flights ($6).
Service tends to the casual and inattentive — albeit with good intentions — and while a server takes your order tableside, you’ll pay at the register, market-style. If Ashland is your home, I’d focus on the kitchen’s strengths and enjoy the Caboose regularly. S
The Caboose Market and Café
Mondays-Thursdays 7 a.m.-8 p.m.;
Fridays 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturdays 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
108 S. Railroad Ave.