When this year’s James Beard Award semi-finalists were announced a few weeks ago, Washington restaurateurs had plenty to be excited about.  And it isn’t just our tried-and-true veterans who are in the running for recognition from the James Beard Foundation; three of the thirty-one “Best New Restaurant” nominees are in the Washington area.  This weekend, we had the opportunity to check out one of the three: Trummer’s on Main.

Full Disclosure: We went with friends who have a family connection to the restaurant.  Though we didn’t identify ourselves as bloggers, our dining experience was hardly anonymous and random.  Consequently, we’ll only focus on the food and the decor.  We did pay for our meal, though we all received a tasting plate between our appetizers and our entrees and we were comped a few additional desserts for the table.

Back in the day (“the day,” in this case, referring to the late 19th century), Clifton, Virginia, was a resort destination favored by Presidents and other notable figures.  This relaxing getaway was a short train ride from Washington and Philadelphia, and visitors could enjoy restorative mineral springs and a good meal in town.  These days, the mineral water is more likely to arrive sparkling at your table, but Trummer’s is starting to bring the ‘destination’ designation back to Clifton.

After spending the afternoon in Leesburg (outlet shopping AND antiques, thank you very much), we were ready for an evening of dishes and flavors that were at once comfortable and creative.  Everything we had read about Trummer’s suggested we wouldn’t be disappointed.

Seafood, seasonal veggies and sensational sauces after the jump.

We arrived about twenty minutes early for our reservation, misjudging the distance between Leesburg and Clifton.  As it turns out, that was a very fortunate miscalculation.  We had the opportunity to sit at a table in the first floor bar area, where I tried one of owner/mixologist Stefan Trummer’s craft concoctions.  The seats that run the length of the stone and marble bar, lit from within to impressive effect, were completely filled.

I opted to forgo the house cocktail (the Titanic) and went with the Hibiscus Fizz instead.  The Fizz blends Bulleit (one of my favorite small-batch Bourbons) with lime juice and a house-made hibiscus soda.  It was painfully smooth.  The hibiscus flowers had been cooked down to a syrup before being blended with club soda and siphoned into the drink.  As a result, the rough edges of the Bourbon were rounded out nicely by the slightly sweet, slightly floral flavor of the hibiscus and the tang of the lime.

When our dinner dates arrived, we headed upstairs and were seated at table 301, one of Tom Sietsema’s ten terrific tables of 2009.  We were able to look out across the dining room to the large windows that ran the length of the space.  Between us and them, a long communal table made from two solid pieces fashioned from the heart of a tree allows large parties (and intrepid strangers) to enjoy a meal together in the center of the action.  The room was big and airy; I can only imagine the amount of work that went into the renovations of the space.

We put our wine fate in the hands of sommelier Tyler Packwood, who came to Trummer’s by way of the Inn at Little Washington.  He promised to find us a red that would stand up to short ribs without overpowering sea bass, and I was eager to see what he’d return with.  His recommendation: Robert Biale’s 2007 “Black Chicken” zinfandel.  This California Zin is produced on pre-Prohibition vines (the family sold bootleg bottles of wine to agricultural customers who requested a “black chicken” during the dark days), and their approach to the wine allows it to develop a deep, complex flavor that is nowhere near as fruit-intensive as some of the bigger zinfandels out there.  It was an impressive call, and it definitely worked.

We tried to pry some recommendations out of our dinner companions, who are familiar enough with the menu to know when a vermouth sauce gets replaced by a red wine cream sauce on a dish.  No dice.  Too many favorites to pick just one.  We were on our own (albeit with assurances that whatever we ordered would be delicious).

We began at opposite ends of the spectrum.  Elizabeth’s first dish was an oyster stew whose base was rich, buttery and creamy all at the same time.  The oysters were plump and tender.  It had all the elements of classic comfort food.  My dish, on the other hand, combined roasted beets with pistachios, pickled shallots and bacon.  The dish had a clean acid note from the pickled shallots and the beets that was piercing in all the right ways.  It was a light, crisp way to head into a big meal.

Soon after we had finished our appetizers, we received a gift from the chef.  This was no light palate-cleanser.  Those of us who had ordered fish entrees received a tasting of veal cheeks and bone marrow with roasted root vegetables and a potato round fried in duck fat.  The dish had threads of horseradish and a horseradish-inflected sauce.  The decadent combination worked really well, though the spicy notes of the horseradish didn’t quite deliver as promised.  It was a symphony of richness, but it lacked that astringent element that would have really made things pop.  Tim, the lone carnivore of the evening, enjoyed a piece of brined, smoked and grilled mackerel that made him think twice about his aversion to the frequently fishy-tasting fish.

Then it was on to our entrees.  My Mediterranean sea bass made it to Trummer’s by way of the East.  The fish was marinated in miso and cooked to the point that even the skin was fork-tender.  Baby bok choy and pickled watermelon segments added some crunch and some tang, while a tempura-fried shiitake mushroom was a welcome surprise.  For Elizabeth, a breaded skate fillet atop a bed of spaetzle (so hot right now) was an excellent reinvention of a classic German schnitzel dish.  And those short ribs that I mentioned earlier were tender and juicy, with everything rendered to the point of melting in your mouth.

At this point, we were nice and full and ready to split one dessert for the table.  The Three Citrus caught our eye, but it came out of the kitchen accompanied by three friends: a Bailey’s-soaked brioche with two kinds of ice cream, orange sherbet with lavender and Pop Rocks, and the house favorite “SA” Sundae* that blends vanilla ice cream, malted meringue, chocolate crunchies and peanut butter powder.  It was sweet torture, but somehow we managed to do significant damage to all four.

There’s a lot to like about Trummer’s menu, and although we left pleased with our selections we were definitely thinking about some of the roads not taken.  It’s a damn good thing Trummer’s is in Clifton, instead of downtown DC.  Between the inviting menu, the $38 Rush Hour three-course special and the Thursday night $25 wine tastings with Tyler, there would be plenty of reasons to come back over and over again.  Thankfully, it’s just far enough away to make it a destination and a perfect option for special events.

Trummer’s on Main
7134 Main St.
Clifton, VA
Trummer's on Main on Urbanspoon

* = Several bar menu items have the “SA” label, from a burger to the aforementioned dessert.  What does it mean?  Sick-Ass, of course.