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With its seasonal menu and picturesque setting, Ashland's Ironhorse is a winner.

A Railroad Runs Through It

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It's not unusual to find really good restaurants in small towns. Flint Hill has Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds. Sperryville has the Appetite Repair Shop. Little Washington has The Inn. And Ashland, not quite "the center of the universe," has The Ironhorse.

An iron horse, of course, is the romantic-sounding, turn-of-the-century name for a railroad locomotive. The Ironhorse restaurant carries that theme forward with prints and memorabilia from the heyday of railroading. But the theme moves beyond nostalgia and the conceit works because in Ashland a railroad still runs through it. And from your seat in The Ironhorse, you see, feel and hear the trains as they lumber past a mere 30 or so feet away. It's romantic in a sepia-tinted kind of way.

Therefore, Chef Jeff Prettyman (formerly of the Frog and the Redneck) offers a rich, sepia-tinted palette of full-flavor fall harvest and hunter motifs for his November menu. Roasted quail ($16.75) is larger than you'd expect and stuffed with a savory blend of cornbread, Surrey sausage and leeks, while the sauteed mahi mahi ($17.75) comes with Chinese black rice, an earthy surprise. Even the tapas ($8.95), which usually describes a category of food rather than a single dish, is rich with earthy autumn flavors of hummus, pastrami, smoked salmon, rabbit rillettes, kalamata tapenade, grilled portabellas and roasted garlic.

Mediterranean flavors also make a brief pass with Cioppino ($18.50), an Italian, tomato-based fish soup with mussels, scallops, zucchini and Israeli cous cous, and Pappardelle ($15.95) a kind of wide noodle prepared here with zucchini, kalamata olives and a garlic-basil tomato sauce.

The Pastrami Smoked Salmon Reuben appetizer ($7.50) sounds like something from the midnight kitchen but works comfortably with corn cakes taking the place of bread and adding a touch of Southern sweetness. Sweet potato soup with country ham, the November soup feature ($4.75), is delicious but needs a bit more than the dollop of garlic creme fraiche to bring out its hidden flavors. And two salads, easily overlooked, are worthy of a course: Manakintowne greens with shaved fennel, green olives, fresh orange sections and a citrus-olive oil vinaigrette; and the watercress with golden apples, pistachios and sherry vinaigrette.

Desserts, while good, were not as remarkable as the appetizers and entrees. The creme brulee was a touch overdone and the bread pudding was a little too dry. Still, with a menu that changes monthly, The Ironhorse is a destination worth a regular round-trip ticket. If only the trolley still ran to Ashland.

The Ironhorse
100 S. Railroad Ave., Ashland
752-6410
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m.;
Friday, Saturday, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.
Live music in the Calvert Room Tuesday-Saturday nights.
Reservations recommended for dinner.

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