I've had the happy occasion to spend a fair amount of time in Williamsburg, Virginia in recent months for book signings and to visit a very special someone. Experiencing this celebrated Colonial American town morph from the bright sun and hot days of late August into the muted hues and chilly nights of early October has increased my fervor for fife and drum corps and tricorn hats, while simultaneously stunting my fear of ubiquitous, bland tourist food.
While all are plentiful, Williamsburg and her smart, talented restauranteurs have largely taken the high road away from stodgy corn pudding, stale ale, and fast food restaurants. This is especially true in Merchants Square, a stone's throw from the hallowed, beautiful William & Mary campus and in the heart of the colonial hustle and bustle. There, on and around Duke of Gloucester Street, shine three oustanding examples of some of Williamsburg's culinarian best.
Purely a family affair, this classically French-inspired restaurant with a penchant for local, seasonal produce, is an extension of neighboring The Cheese Shop and The Trellis Restaurant, just across the street. All trace their origins back to the Power family, which are in one way or another affiliated with each eatery. Fat Canary's Executive Chef Thomas Power, Jr. deftly borrows from his CIA culinary training and travels around the world to create a brief, but power-packed menu.
Rappahannock oysters dance with sweet onion, tomato, and sweet peppers in one starter, while nutty, buttery seared foie gras is served with hazelnut bread toast points and tart/sweet blackberry coulis in another; both emblems of Power's knack for balancing French technique with local ingredients. Wine selections and pairings are handled expertly by a professional yet relaxed staff, which blends beautifully with the wooden, sage-colored walls, and comfortable banquettes in the intimate dining room. Not to be missed here—any and all things slow-cooked and braised, in particular the Fred Flinstone-sized lamb shank, capable of seducing even the most practiced gourmande with its layered nuance of flavor which extends right down to the towering bone. Reservations highly recommended. Dinner only.
Meanwhile, during the day, don't miss a visit to the adjoining cheese shop. All 9,000 square feet brimming with deliciousness—international cheeses, Virginia ham, fresh breads, and sandwiches, and downstairs, a wine lover's dream cellar. Pack it all up for a picnic across the way on the lush greens of William & Mary. Or, cross the street to The Trellis and dig into some of their hearty soup and sandwich combos, served in a series of rooms decorated with a sophisticated swirl of mosaic tiles and amber-hued seating. The Trellis grilled cheese, an irresistable heap of thinly sliced Virginia ham, Tillamook cheddar, bacon, a slather of sweet caramelized onions and a hit of pickled okra on thick slices of buttery, toasted sour dough, is a meal fit for Colonial appetites, indeed.
BLUE TALON BISTRO
The one that almost got away, but thanks to the advice of a Facebook friend, did not. I was able to sneak in one last lunch on my last visit before heading home, and was glad I did. Situated just a block or two behind these other restaurants on Prince George Street, Blue Talon Bistro resonates with Gallic charm—this time with hungry-man bistro style—but manages to fit in just enough room for Virginia ingredients.
For example, a mac 'n cheese so sinful I'm sure I'll have to recite a minimum of three Hail Marys at the gates of heaven—that is, if I even get in. Owner/Chef David Everett reduces whole cream way, way down and threads it with cheddar and Parmesan cheese, then broils it just enough so that your spoon makes a "crunching" sound as it breaks through into the gorgeous, cheesy sauce wrapped around tender penne and drizzled with fresh thyme. Not enough? Scatter some shards of salty Virginia ham served along side on top.
Blue Talon's exceptional mac 'n cheese comes with VA ham shavings
Like the mac 'n cheese—and really all the food we so enjoyed—the restaurant is spackled with whimsy, but bridled with taste. For example, borderline tacky coq curios are everywhere, but they slip deliciously into the French blue-painted walls, comfortable rattan seating, and seas of sunlight spilling in through French doors. Most dishes come served in gratins or sauce pans "stuck" to the plate with colorful plastic hot plates.
After sampling such rib-sticking, yet sophisticated fare, it should come as no surprise that Blue Talon's motto is "Serious Comfort Food." Check out the open-faced pot roast sandwich. Comfort food, yes, and seriously so. Not just your momma's pot roast—this one is loved and coaxed and seasoned into consummate flavor and tenderness, swaddled with sweet carrots and onions in a sumptuous broth. There is no way anyone's getting away without every bowl scraped clean with the likes of Blue Talon's fare.
Open-faced sandwiches just do not get better than Blue Talon's Pot Roast treat.
Add in easy access, reasonable prices, and exceptional service and there are three more reasons to make a visit every time beautiful Williamsburg, Virginia makes your traveling calling card.