Monday, March 23, 2015

Heaven Knows

Taking a cue from the National -

So happy I was invited
Give me a reason to get out of the city

- I accepted an invitation for a road trip out of Richmond today. Shortly after 11 a.m., we were headed west on I-64 toward Nelson County, leaving cloudy skies behind for sunshine over the mountains.

Our  first stop was at Dr. Ho's Humble Pie, fantastically named and improbably located in a giant corner white strip center with a doctor's office, a beautiful goddess spa and a gas station.

You know, for all your country living needs.

Inside, the spacious room was a pastiche of funky signs, posters and photos (a Kodak Film sign was mounted on a column by the lunch counter) and the music was solidly '70s: Spinners, Jackson Brown, Foreigner.

Most importantly, the pizza was right on with a properly chewy crust on our white pizza with housemade hot Italian sausage, spinach and mushrooms. Years ago, a blog reader gave me a hard time because I always order meat on a white pizza, but I will defend to the death my right to go white and eat meat simultaneously.

After enduring an Eagles song and stuffing ourselves silly with spinach salad and pie, we did the only logical thing and went for a hike.

Our destination was Delfosse winery, which was closed, because it's there that you pick up the the Delfosse Trail, part of Nelson County's department of conservation and recreation but located on the winery's land.

And may I just say, kudos to Delfosse for sharing their largess with the little people.

Parking behind the charming log cabin they rent out for parties, we started up a steep gravel hill to pick up the trail head. One thing immediately became clear: this was not a hill for the out of shape. Luckily, I'm not.

Making our way along the trail, a series of hills and ravines, we had a terrific view of the forest (a popular hunting ground November through January), something we won't have if we hike it again come Summer when the trees have leafed out.

But for now, we could see for great distances.

Before long, we had to go through a weighted gate in the fencing that prevents deer from snacking on the grape vines. Along the way were more than a few rock piles where people had artfully stacked rocks of descending size in the Japanese manner (naturally I added one of my own).

After an hour of fairly strenuous hiking, we were back at the log cabin snooping through the windows at the space and relaxing on the swing on the porch.

You walk the walk, then you drink the wine.

Just a few miles down the road was Democracy Vineyards where we spotted three people working in the fields and no one in the winery. Before long, though, the owner abandoned his fence-mending on the hill and came down to greet us in the tasting room lined with campaign posters and political artwork.

When he heard we'd been on the Delfosse Trail, he grinned. "You know they've been spotting bears on that trail. We're not near any wood line, so they're not a problem for us."

Let's just say I was glad to hear the bear news after the hike rather than before.

The glass garage door was rolled up so we could get out to the patio where we sat on wicker chairs with cushions and sipped a bottle of Declaration, their signature white blend while watching the activity in the vineyard and buzzards scouring the fields. Men and birds were hard at work.

Us, not so much.

I mentioned that it was a shame there was no music so I could get up on the table and dance and lo and behold, music was put on. For the record, I did not dance at Democracy.

After a bit, the owner joined us on the patio and shared stories of his days as a lobbyist. He laughed about how strict the General Assembly has gotten about accepting gifts ("It was a little bag of chocolate-covered peanuts!") and bemoaned the challenges he'd faced in getting his ABC licensing because he'd done business with so many of the agents in the past.

When we got off on a prolonged tangent about gerrymandered districts and local politicians, I expressed concern that we were keeping him from his fence fixing. "I'm done for today!" he said emphatically, no doubt one of the benefits of being the boss.

After a sunny drive to Charlottesville, we decided on Mas for dinner, taking a new route to the Belmont neighborhood to get there. We arrived early enough to be the first people at the bar for dinner, but hardly the last.

Since a road trip is as fine an occasion for celebration as any, we chose Castell d'Age Anne Marie Comtesse Brut Nature Reserva, arriving in the loveliest bottle adorned with what looked like an etched white floral pattern and tasting of ripe fruit. Cheers.

Then it was on to eye candy. No one had ever told me that the large-format black and white photographs on the wall were of the staff, so with that knowledge, I couldn't resist trying to match up faces.

In the case of the photo hanging over the bar of a guy in a toreador suit with the, ahem, obscenely large package, unfortunately I didn't see him, despite looking. Hard. 

Must have been his night off, drat the luck.

Mas' bar is such a pleasant place to eat, observe and linger, assuming you can ignore the line of waiting guests. It's wide with fresh flowers - tonight's were tulips - while a silver compote dish held blood oranges, a thoroughly pleasing tableau. Plus there's a great view of the kitchen as food is prepared.

The only downside of bar seating occurs when the sun drops just low enough in the sky that it beams directly through the west-facing front door into the eyes of bar sitters. That was us.

We managed as best we could until the sun made it below the roof lines mainly by focusing on plate after plate of food.

Thin slices of Jamon Serrano and aged Manchego we ate with our fingers while a  salad of baby lettuces and dandelion greens, fava leaves, kumquat (for the second time in 24 hours), beets and more Manchego (well, it is a Spanish place) required utensils.

Delivering some serious chili pepper heat was Pulpo, a deep bowl of local pork belly, Spanish octopus, salsa espelette, San Marzano tomatoes, mint, basil and semolina noodles cooked to toothsome perfection. I'm usually not much of a pasta person, but the coarser semolina speaks to me.

Sitting next to us was a Charles Manson lookalike and a hippie chick wearing knitted forearm warmers (very Stevie Nicks-like).

She kept looking over until finally asking our opinion of the octopus dish. I highly recommended it with the caveat that it was spicy. "I love spicy!" she enthused, lifting her arm with its unshaven arm pit, so '70s.

Go for it, honey. They did and they loved it. I'm always happy to be of service to the patchouli crowd.

The undisputed stars of the meal were two orders of huge wild-caught Gulf shrimp grilled and served with a buttery green garlic aioli. The meaty shrimp tasted more like lobster, even more so after a swipe in the rich aioli which also adorned every bite of bread I put in my mouth.

One of tonight's many topics was "change you can believe in," a compelling premise since it can be argued that it's impossible to determine the point at which you accept that change is real. And what if the change you thought you wanted ends up disappointing you? What if one change by rights deserves another and it isn't forthcoming?

That conversation got tabled in favor of finishing the bubbles in our glasses and hitting the road for home. In the few seconds it took us to stand up, a guy scooted over from his waiting position in the doorway to claim our stools, already warmed up for him.

All yours, friend. I'd gotten out of the city and I was ready to go back now, changes and all.

So happy I was invited.

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