FOOD- THE EATER- Valley victory: for Polyface and for new Zynodoa


I spent one of these last Technicolor days of autumn enjoying a Blue Ridge city where local artisans leave their studio doors open, Obama lawn signs stood poised in gardens of freshly painted Victorian homes, growth and preservation are self-conscious and reverential, and farm-to-table restaurants are not an ideal but the reality.

This is, of course, Staunton. Should you need another excuse to visit the Valley, it just might be Zynodoa.

Local, seasonal ingredients. Perfect execution.

My dining companion and I settled into a booth one Sunday evening and started with their oysters, a large serving lightly fried in cornmeal, and the smoothest butternut squash soup I've yet seen— thick and creamy, perfectly salted. I regretted ordering the scallop appetizer, overlooking dishes with ingredients from the same zip code, and it was good if forgettable.

For my entrée I ordered pork stuffed with smoked tomato and goat cheese, served over mushroom risotto and generously garnished with green beans.You must love goat cheese to appreciate this. My dining companion received his steak medium rare as he requested, with juicy mushrooms and chard.

I returned on a Saturday evening with my mom. Ten years ago, she dropped me off at a Governor's School French immersion program at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind, a beautiful campus of red brick and white columns that overlooks downtown Staunton. (Counterintuitive– there are many stairs.)

My French has faded, but the nostalgia has not– the glassblowing studio and Gypsy Park's duck pond and bandstand are still there.

In 10 years, I expect to say the same of Zynodoa.

My mom began with the spinach salad. A serving reminiscent of a foothill of baby spinach was ever-so-lightly dressed in fig balsamic vinaigrette with soft butternut squash, chewy toasted pumpkin seeds, and creamy goat cheese. The spinach leaves had clearly been completely dried before being tossed, so that the thin coat of flavorful dressing did nothing to weigh down its perk. The broth of my shitake mushroom and onion soup was an intense reduction, savory and salty.

The restaurant departs from bread and butter by serving lavash and breadsticks with hummus, made daily. On both occasions we had a roasted garlic and herb hummus, which was as gentle on our palates as our breath.

I more or less begged my mom to order the meatloaf entrée, curious about what interesting ingredients they might use to stretch it– this can make meatloaf really interesting but also conceals lower grade cuts or simply adds mass. Zynodoa's meatloaf was not stretched. It was a good cut of beef, ground roughly so as to retain its original grain and moisture, and it peeled and flaked like unleavened bread dough. Smoked tomato was incorporated to the meat, and the aroma paired beautifully with a sweet red pepper puree. Vivacious collard greens and diminutive smashed potatoes accompanied. My mom asked if the smoked tomatoes were something she might be able to purchase for her own kitchen, but they are smoked over the grill with mesquite on site and, according to our server, the aroma canvasses the whole restaurant.

I would have ordered the meatloaf myself had my heart not been quite so set on the Polyface Farm chicken breast with bleu cheese grits. Polyface is well known among those in the agriculture industry and literary world alike given its sustainable farming philosophy and the attention Michael Pollan gave it in the best-selling The Omnivore's Dilemma, and Zynodoa is one of a slew of local restaurants that lists it as one of its many local suppliers (with my family favorites, Everona Dairy and Caromont Farm).

My dish was golden– the chicken breast and wing joint were cooked to a light crisp and served atop white, creamy grits from local Anson Mills, and the taste revealed blue cheese where the hue did not. A light broth was poured over the chicken and grits, and difficult though it would be to believe, it could be the juice from the baking pan with nary a drop of fat left unstrained. I wouldn't put it– or any labor of love– past that kitchen.

The dining experience is unrushed, unpretentious– food arrives when you anticipate it, with each piece of the dish appropriately heated. My servers provided cutlery as needed, filled beverages before empty, and answered questions well, with good nature. We were... relaxed.

By 7pm, the dining room was full, and parties were waiting. The space reminds me of glowing embers: slate gray walls and booth upholstery with unique cast iron sculptures on each table, a skylight of indigo glass, and the bar backlit in a soft amber.

My mom ordered spiced pumpkin flan. On my first visit, the caramel sauce smelled of burnt sugar, and it was fixed by the second. My dessert was a large ramekin with vanilla custard on the bottom, wet chocolate pudding cake baked over it, and a scoop of ice cream on top, melting into the hot chocolate beneath.

I felt warmth all over.