Cary Grant in "Suspicion" (1941)
IN THIS ISSUE
VIRGINIA'S COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
TBar STEAK AND LOUNGE
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
THE WILLIAMSBURG WESSEX
By John Mariani
VIRGINIA'S COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG
By John Mariani
Photos courtesy of Colonial Willamsburg
THE GOVERNOR'S PALACE
It is a charge with no merit. For one thing “CW” pre-dates Disneyland by three decades, conceived in the late 1920s and supported by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (now called Preservation Virginia), the Colonial Dames and the Daughters of the Confederacy, with the principal benefactors including John D. Rockefeller Jr., and his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, whose idea was to make CW a living museum, not a theme park. (In fact, Walt Disney World’s The American Adventure attraction in Florida owes its inspiration to CW.)
As part of the Historic Triangle of Virginia, which includes Jamestown and Yorktown (I will be reporting on these at another time), CW was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1960. The village derives its name from King William III (as does the nearby College of William and Mary), but after nearly a century as the center of Virginia’s government, political and economic activity shifted to Richmond, so that by World War I the town was seriously derelict and most of its colonial buildings beyond repair.
When restoration came, more than 700 post-18th century structures were razed and 500 buildings were reconstructed, including 88 that were salvageable. After World War II, CW became one of the primary historic destinations for Americans and foreigners, hosting the first World Economic Conference in 1983.
Further blunting the charge of artificiality was CW’s focus from the beginning on rigorous historical research, which today includes the Teaching Institute in Early American History, and constant interaction with school groups. A good deal of emphasis in recent years has been on black history via the “African-American Experience,” and there are numerous craft demonstrations in book binding, cabinet making, cooking and gardening.
The food has steadily been improved at the taverns—especially the King’s Arms (dating to 1772) and Christiana Campbell’s (supposedly one of George Washington’s favorites)—utilizing fruits and vegetables from local gardens and offering dishes typical of 18th century cooking, like peanut soup, a seafood fricassée and rum cream pie. The estate’s most expensive restaurant, the Rockefeller Room, in the luxurious Williamsburg Inn, has a more eclectic menu and has been undergoing some updating in service, though my meal indicated that the kitchen has a ways to go to be called contemporary fine dining.
There are several CW ticket packages, with a single day ticket $40.99 for adults and $20.49 for children, which includes shuttle service, interpreter-led tours of the Governor’s Palace, Capitol Building and all Government Buildings, admission to two art museums and seasonal tickets on carriage rides. One of the problems at CW is that it is an open, un-gated village, meaning anyone without a ticket can just stroll through.
Tourist visits have been down since their peak in the 1980s, and operating deficits have plagued the foundation, causing a sell-off of some properties; in 2017 CW President and CEO Mitchell Reiss admitted there’d been too much dipping into the foundation’s endowment, which for the 2016 fiscal year reportedly dropped from $713 million to $663.6 million. With a $317.6 million debt, Reiss was forced to outsource management of the operation of the hotels, golf courses and several retail stores.
Key to CW’s continuance is to convince tourists to spend more time in and around the area, rather than the one or two days typical of a family visit. Increasing that to three or more days by exposing people to nearby attractions, including Jamestown and Yorktown, is critical.
On a recent trip to the area, aside from enjoying the breadth and depth of CW itself, I was also able to visit the Copper Fox Distillery in Williamsburg, opened by Rick Wasmund (right) in 2016 at what was previously the Lord Paget Motel. He makes applewood-smoked single malt whiskey, a rye and gin, and the quickly expanding distillery is open to visitors.
There is also the Silver Hand Meadery (left) in a nondescript strip mall, which makes a number of limited quantity meads with beguiling names like Dream by the Fire, All Blues and Ginger Me Slowly. Tastings of the meads are free, along with a tasting of six honeys for $6.
Then there is the Williamsburg Winery at Wessex Hundred, which, in addition to producing some very good wines, offers hotel packages, wine tastings, and delicious food at The Gabriel Archer Tavern, with a lunch that ranges from crab cakes and a pork sandwich to artisanal Virginia cheeses and charcuterie.
The Williamsburg area is rife with all levels of accommodations, and there are a dozen golf courses designed and landscaped by the likes of Pete Dye, Rees Jones, Robert Trent Jones Sr., Arnold Palmer, Curtis Strange, John LaFoy and Nicklaus Design Associates. One of the most highly regarded is Kingsmill Resort & Spa (above), with two golf courses—the River Course and the Plantation Course—and a range of AAA Four Diamond condos available. The resort is under new management that plans needed upgrades of the rooms and restaurant.
In a few weeks the full flourish of springtime will reveal the Virginia coast and countryside at its loveliest, just as it was three centuries ago when Williamsburg was truly a colony and the center of political clout in the South.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
1278 3rd Avenue (near 74th Street)
“Under the radar” is a term usually reserved for people, places and things that never attract much media attention but that always have a full complement of faithful fans. In the case of the ten-year-old TBar, its popularity has as much to do with its redoubtable owner, Tony Fortuna (below), as with its solid American cooking.
Tony is on the one hand very old school in his demeanor and professionalism while on the other he is sensitive to changing times and tastes without ever glomming on to the merely trendy.
Tbar’s menu, under its first and only chef, Ben Zwicker, can easily be characterized as modern American or contemporary NYC, and the restaurant is clearly a neighborhood place, in this case the Upper East Side in the Seventies, so TBar draws a crowd not otherwise in the mood for the slim pickings in the area that begins with J.G. Melon and ends with a slew of cookie-cutter Italian restaurants.
TBar is a smart-looking 100-seat dining room with brightly lighted bar, fabric-covered banquettes, soft overhead lighting, crisp tablecloths, votive candles and a rear wall painting reminiscent of Paul Klee. When full, the room can get very loud up until about 8:30, when the tenor of the place loosens and the early crowd moves on. The women dress well, the men, who once might have sported blazers, now wear XXL polo shirts and Xtra Comfort jeans.
You will be greeted by some of the loveliest and most capable hostesses in NYC and cordially shown to your table, where a waiter pops up within seconds to give you your menu, cocktail and wine list. Tony cruises the room, and just about everyone wants to chat with him.
Although pizzas have become far too common on non-Italian menus, TBar’s ultra-crispy version makes for a good starter for four people ($17), as does a seared Spanish octopus with potatoes, celery and olives ($20), tender, of course, and nice and smoky. A foie gras and chicken parfait ($15) takes on a piquant accent from a cherry compote to slather on a toasted baguette, and four fat tiger shrimp come with a zesty cocktail sauce and lemon ($22).
Among the main courses, if you’re in the mood for roast chicken, you’ll be very happy with TBar’s version, which is dependent first and foremost on a good, flavorful bird.
A place like TBar has to serve a couple of beef dishes, and in that category Fortuna and Zwicker deserve high praise for the quality of the meat they buy. The 14-ounce NY strip ($52) was one of the best, most flavorful, mineral-rich, fat and sweet examples I’ve had outside of the city’s finest steakhouses, and that same beef—Prime aged Black Angus--registers just as high in the burger here ($26), a nicely sized, lightly packed patty with plenty of juice, layered with nothing but lettuce, tomato and pickles, and sided with a good portion of freshly cut French fries. It’s a much better burger than the vaunted example at J.G. Melon, though it’s a good deal more expensive.
The desserts at TBar are remarkably generous, all set in jars and layered with first-rate ingredients that include a strawberry shortcake sundae ($20), a banana cream millefeuilles cookie tower ($20) and luscious warm cookies ($10), all suitable for sharing at the table.
TBar’s wine list is exemplary for a place this size, with wines by the glass $11 to $22. I wish Tony would put it on the website.
If TBar were only a good, solid neighborhood American restaurant it would thrive. I do wish there was more change in the menu after a decade, but what works really works well, And the presence of Tony Fortuna in the mix makes it one of a very special place on the Upper East Side.
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, brunch Saturday and Sunday, and every night for dinner.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
THE WILLIAMSBURG WESSEX
By John Mariani
As with everything in Virginia, a little history is in order: Wessex Hundred is actually a 300-acre farm that is now home to the Williamsburg Winery, as well as to the Wedmore Place hotel, Café Provençal and the Gabriel Archer Tavern. The use of “Hundred” to name a property dates to the Colonial era to describe parcels of land sufficient to support a hundred families, regardless of actual acreage.
In 1606, the Virginia Company sent three ships led by Bartholomew Gosnold to attempt to settle a permanent English colony in America. Sailing up the James River and coming upon the region now called Wessex, Gosnold’s second in command, Gabriel Archer, believed this protected tributary of the river an ideal place for a settlement, but the rest of the crew insisted on sailing further, eventually setting down in what became Jamestown on May 13, 1607.
Flash forward to 1983, when Belgian-born Patrick Duffeler (left), a former Philip Morris executive, sought to leave the corporate rat race to become a gentleman farmer and to build his own winery, purchasing 300 acres in Williamsburg. In 2007 he opened a European-style country hotel, Wedmore Place (right), on the property; in 2013 his son, Patrick Duffeler II, was appointed president and CEO of the company.
I met with the estate’s winemaker, Matthew Meyer, a Brit who studied at the University of California at Davis, earning a degree in Oenology and Viticulture with a minor in Business and Marketing. After graduation he worked with notable California wineries that included Grgich Hills Wine Cellars and Heitz Wine Cellars, arriving at Williamsburg in 2002 to become VP and Winemaker. He has since won an array of medals that in 2014 included his Adagio bottling winning the Virginia’s Governor’s Cup Award as the state’s highest rated wine.
In 2013 a Forbes article proposed that Virginia wine country was “poised to be the East Coast Napa,” and today the state has more than 300 wineries and has widely promoted its dozens of wine trails as tourist attractions. Williamsburg Winery is open year-round for tours and tastings ($10-$38 per person; $35 with lunch, $78 with dinner).
I sampled several of Meyer’s wines over a lunch with him and his charming wife, Elena Barber (left), who is the estate’s On-Site Trade Sales Manager, at the rustic Gabriel Archer Tavern. (I’ll write more fully about the restaurant in an upcoming article) Just like the food, which included some splendid cheese and charcuterie, there was an honesty about the wines. Though some were curious varietal choices, none seemed manipulated to appeal to a specific market profile. Alcohol levels rarely hit above 14.5 percent, and there was good balance in all the wines I sampled. Many of the wines are in limited, seasonal release and sell out at the winery.
The Petit Manseng grape is well known in southwest France but rarely seen in American vineyards, and it is best used to make a tangy-sweet wine. Meyer’s 2016 vintage has wonderful aromas of citrus and ripe autumn fruit, and its light sweetness was a true complement to the cheeses and would be as easily enjoyed as an aperitif this summer.
Viognier is a varietal that I find is not well understood by American winemakers, who too often produce an overly herbaceous style, but Meyer’s 2016 has far more finesse because of the acidity and for its spending a year in French oak. The winery’s website extols the wine as if “standing in a fresh field of wild flowers eating a lemon pie made from Granny (Granny’s always make the best pie),” whose hyperbole I’ll forgive because it seems to make sense when standing in these lovely Virginia vineyards.
The 2015 Gabriel Archer Reserve is a blend of 36% Cabernet Franc, 25% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Petit Verdot and 7% Malbec. (Meyer uses Argentinean Malbec root stocks.) But Meyer didn’t release a 2016 because he didn’t think he could make as good a wine as he’d wish from the vintage.
His 2015 Petit Verdot Reserve is a blend of 87% Petit Verdot, 11% Malbec, and 2% Cabernet Franc, and it’s a big, bold red whose tannins have yet to loosen but which went nicely with the sausages and charcuterie on the table.
Adagio is one of Meyer’s proudest achievements, the 2015 a mix of 58% Petit Verdot, 15% Merlot, 15% Tannat, 12% Cabernet Franc. There’s something to the name, for, if wine can be compared to music, this Adagio evokes a slow movement whereby each of the flavors, the fruit, the acid, the texture and the satisfaction reveal themselves little by little, a wine to savor, sip by sip, peppery, earthy and with a fine long finish.
Some of Williamsburg’s wines are made from grapes grown entirely at the estate, others are sourced from Virginia vineyards elsewhere, and many are available only to the winery’s Club Members.
I mentioned to Meyer that he seems to make too many different wines, including spiced wines and a Vin Licoreux de Framboise blended with raspberries. But, he said, that’s the beauty of having a winery of Williamsburg’s size and private ownership. “I can experiment, go in new directions, and, if I don’t think a wine will be good enough, I don’t have to release it. And thanks to the tourism, the hotel and restaurants, people are very open to trying whatever it is we’re doing on a seasonal basis. They take their time here.”
DULLEST--AND STRANGEST--OPENING LINE OF THE MONTH
“The biggest fruit native to
the continental U.S. is the pawpaw, sometimes called the
poor man’s banana.”—Hanna Raskin, “Pawpaw,” Charleston Post and
The re-opened Modernist restaurant
Noma 2.0 in Copenhagen will feature new menus, at $364
per person, that will
The re-opened Modernist restaurant Noma 2.0 in Copenhagen will feature new menus, at $364 per person, that willwill focus on Scandinavian seafood, including “weird shells, deep water seaweed, the eyeball of a cod, slivers of fresh lobster,” according to the restaurant's announcement.
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