On a recent visit to the Shenandoah Valley, I took the opportunity to visit the Joshua Wilton House Restaurant and Inn for an evening meal.
The inn is located in the heart of Harrisonburg, VA, a quiet city almost overlooked but most noted for James Madison University (JMU) and Rosetta Stone operations. Called Virginia’s “Heart of the Arts,” this Arts and Cultural district is just a little over two hours from Washington, D.C. or Richmond, VA, and makes for a leisurely day-trip with sights along the way.
The Joshua Wilton House, though, has its own notoriety. Built shortly after the Civil War, the inn was first the home of emigrant entrepreneur Joshua Wilton and his family, then changed ownership several times to also serve as a boarding house and an apartment house.
In the 1970s, frat wars ruled the day as the dwelling became a battlefield of wits for the local Tau Kappa Epsilon brothers notorious for antics reminiscent of the movie “Animal House.” It has been a restaurant and inn since 1988, its 150th anniversary.
It is now co-owned and operated by JMU friends Ann Marie Coe, Mark Newsome, and Sean Pugh who continue its legacy as a way-station for comfortable living and fine dining.
Today, faithfully restored to highlight its true glory as a pristine Victorian mansion, the Joshua Wilton House boasts a tranquil and genteel setting. Walls full of framed windows invite bright sunlight to enter expansive dining areas and an enclosed, brick courtyard beckons patrons to also dine outside.
White tablecloths and bright silver, fine porcelain and sparkling glasses provide a polished setting. Fresh, pretty posies appoint each table and small, flickering candles complete intimate spaces.
To my initial dismay, there were no condiments on the table except for various sweeteners for coffee or tea. I must admit I have a propensity to put black pepper on everything, but this time I would have to completely trust the chef.
Executive Chef Mark Newsome oversees an extensive menu for a myriad of palates and offerings change daily as if to allow him the opportunity to show off his self-taught skills, not just to utilize seasonal victuals. For his creations, the establishment has relationships with local farmers and producers like Polyface Farms, am Fogg, Wayside Produce, and Baugher Farms, to name a few.
On the regular menu, there were gourmet dishes like filet mignon served with potato gratin and port wine sauce, as well as traditional Southern fare like pork belly, gussied up for finer dining with carrot-ginger-orange puree.
Braised rabbit was an unexpected though area-appropriate surprise, and fish, shellfish, and chicken options rounded out the meat selections.
To my delight, there were sufficient vegetarian options for me to have full courses and a satisfying meal. They were also willing to do substitutions or omissions, within reason.
A warm assortment of tasty house breads, which included an interesting twist on cornbread and a delectable cheese bread, started the meal.
For my first course, I chose the grilled am Fog mushrooms. They were cooked to chewy perfection and served on a bed of herbed couscous, with a light cherry tomato and cucumber salad, accented by a roasted tomato vinaigrette.
The crispy spinach salad I chose for the next course was so amazing I want to replicate it! The spinach was almost as delicate and translucent as a butterfly wing, yet had a delightful crunch. The radishes were sliced very thin, adding a subtle flavor to the dominant cucumbers and carrots. Honey-herb dressing in just the right amount, blueberries, and toasted pecans made for a sweet balance to the salted greens.
My entrée, the vegetarian risotto, was a tad salty for my taste and made me a bit wistful for a shake or two of black pepper, however, the fresh, baby arugula atop was an excellent pepper-y substitute. Roasted corn, crisp peppers, summer squash, and carrots simmering in parmesan cheese resulted in an overall tasty and filling course.
What made me want to write this review, however, was the chocolate tart with raspberry sauce, served with vanilla ice cream. This off-menu special dessert had a smooth yet almost unnoticeable pastry and a dense semi-sweet chocolate filling, floating on a thin layer of raspberry sauce, to rival the best Belgian chocolates.
The raspberry sauce had just a touch of sweet to offset the naturally tart berries and there was just enough of it to mix all the flavors in every delicious bite. To be honest, it was hard to share it and I will likely return for more.
The hostesses were quick, friendly, and thorough, even following up at our table to ensure we had indeed arrived for our reservation. Alex, our young, bow-tied waiter, was attentive and timely. He kept the meal moving at a comfortable and efficient pace, politely waiting for me to catch up with my faster dinner partner before presenting the next dish.
Meanwhile, glasses of chilled water and vanilla-infused tea (a special treat!) were kept appropriately full. All in all, dinner at the Joshua Wilton House was a phenomenal experience with perfect Southern ambience.