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With an all-new culinary team and a renewed focus on building relationships with local and regional farms, Williamsburg Winery is hoping to take its dining experiences to a whole new level in the coming months.
At Wessex Hundred – the 300-acre property that houses the Williamsburg Winery, a 28-room boutique hotel and two restaurants – a new emphasis is being placed on a comprehensive culinary experience that encompasses both the farm’s award-winning wines and an array of delicious, locally sourced menu items.
“The Williamsburg Winery is the most recognized part of our brand, but we’re going much more toward the Wessex Hundred experience – that the property is the place to go to enjoy all of Virginia’s bounty,” said Michael Kimball, Wessex Hundred’s marketing director.
In keeping with that spirit, Wessex Hundred’s signature fine dining establishment Café Provencal is debuting a new menu Friday that more prominently features meat, seafood and produce provided by farmers throughout the state.
“Partnering with farmers in Virginia and the surrounding areas, we get to really highlight them, and their products complement what we’re doing in our food and beverage programs,” said Simon Smith, Wessex Hundred’s food and beverage director. “All of this is focused on supporting those farmers and making an amazing dining experience.”
Smith’s vision for a “farm-to-farm” dining experience – his twist on the popular “farm-to-table” movement that many area restaurants have recently begun embracing – is being brought to life by the property’s new executive chef Ian Robbins, formerly the executive chef at Millie’s Diner in Richmond.
“Ian brings tremendous talent and passion to Wessex Hundred, allowing us to excel to new levels from a culinary perspective,” Smith said.
Working directly beneath Robbins is Troy Buckley, who most recently worked as a sous chef at Silt and now joins the team at Wessex Hundred as Café Provencal’s chef de cuisine.
“I was searching for two individuals who had a true passion for sourcing local food for French-inspired cooking,” Smith said of the recent hires. “It’s very important to have artists here who are committed to showcasing the bounty of this state, and of course the marriage between the food and the wines here is critical.”
One factor that indicated to Smith that Robbins and Buckley were the right fit for the job was their enthusiasm for the recently launched Farmer Spotlight Series, which encapsulates Wessex Hundred’s new food philosophy.
The series is a three-pronged initiative that will highlight the best food products Virginia has to offer, Smith said. Every couple of months, Café Provencal will select a new farm that produces a particularly exceptional food item to highlight on its a la carte, tasting and newly launched midweek prix fixe dinner menus.
The series launched last month with Border Springs Farm – located in Patrick Springs, Virginia – as the inaugural partnering farm. Border Springs produces what Kimball considers to be “some of the best lamb in the world,” and that lamb is now being showcased across the three menus.
“There’s nothing else like it,” said Kimball, praising it for being the sort of product the Farmer Spotlight Series is meant to highlight. “In my opinion it’s the purest representation of high-quality lamb that’s grown in America.”
Guests at Café Provencal can order the lamb in various different preparations off of the a la carte and tasting menus, or they can opt to stop by the restaurant on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday nights to take advantage of the new three-course midweek dinner menu – a concept that launched with the spotlight series.
The current midweek dinner menu includes a choice of vintner’s salad or soup du jour and an orange and cinnamon-infused baked custard dessert book-ending the main event – braised lamb shoulder with roasted carrots, Brussels sprouts and whipped potatoes.
Though the midweek dinner menu will vary depending on the farmer spotlight partner, the price – $42, excluding tax and gratuity – will stay consistent. Each menu will also come with its own unique list of suggested wine pairings.
Each Farmer Spotlight Series partner will be highlighted for about four to eight weeks, during which time the culinary team at Café Provencal may play around with multiple different preparations of the featured food product.
The launch of a new spotlight partnership will often be accompanied with an opportunity to dine with the farmer himself, Smith said.
“A lot of places do the farm-to-table menu, but this is a deeper level,” Smith said.
As for what future featured food products guests to the restaurant can expect to see, Smith has being talking to a variety of standout regional farmers to solidify a lineup of partnerships that will keep locals wanting to come back over and over again to check out each new offering.
“It really could be any kind of farm – a shepherd, a cheesemonger, a beekeeper – it’s just about using the bounty of the land to create a product,” Smith said. “Our culinary team has a tremendous amount of connections, and we could really do the Spotlight Series for 100 years without running out of great farms to feature.”
Robbins and Buckley have come on board just weeks into the launch of the Farmer Spotlight Series, and Smith says they have been quick to embrace it because it lines up neatly with their own personal passions and strengths.
“Even though [the series] was our idea, when they came to discussions with us they were already asking ‘Are you partnering with other farmers?’” Smith said. “It’s totally their style.”
Though the series is the emblem of Wessex Hundred’s new approach to dining, visitors can expect to see changes across the board.
“I think the biggest change that people are going to feel is the element of having a culinary team driven by farmer spotlight is going to have an impact on flavor, creativity and the artistic approach overall,” Smith said.
New menu selections outside the scope of the spotlight series include an escabeche appetizer featuring mussels, clams, shrimp and octopus in a citrus marinade, a new take on foie gras with brioche, peanut brittle, brown butter and vanilla strawberry jam and a creative approach to seared rockfish with cashew puree, watercress, potatoes and lion’s mane mushrooms.
As for why Wessex Hundred is choosing now to embrace the farm-to-farm concept so completely, both Smith and Kimball said it has everything to do with recognizing the mutual obligation that producers of fine food products have to boost each other.
“It’s not always easy to support a local wine or restaurant, that’s what our industry faces,” Kimball said. “In order to be congruent with who we are, we have to support those that are in the same position we are with our wine. It’s a high-quality product and it’s a specialty product. We’re trying to encapsulate the flavors of what makes Virginia special.”