Where taste and innovation meet
By Debra Cornwell
What a memorable and enjoyable meal! I've been on the "grab-aquick- bite-business-lunch-dinnergala- fundraiser" dining circuit for a few months, so I chose Lot 12 Public House in Berkeley Springs at the first opportunity to dine out "just because." I chose well. Who wouldn't love a restaurant where the chef comes out of the kitchen while carrying his glass of wine to check on his guests?
During the drive to Berkeley Springs, although it is considered local, one can shed the stresses of a busy life from a few miles east. There is just enough change in scenery and terrain that Berkeley Springs seems like miles away. Arriving at Lot 12, then, is all the sweeter.
Berkeley Springs, or Bath, West Virginia, was founded in 1776 around the warm springs, which still draw visitors to "take the water."
In 1777, Captain John Swann of Washington County, Maryland, was the original purchaser of Lot 12 in the town's deed book. In 1913, a lovely Victorian-style home with a wrap-around porch was built to take advantage of the leafy-treed promontory overlooking the town.
It is here that Chef Damian Heath and his wife, Betsy, opened Lot 12 in 1999. Economically, they've seen it all: before the boom, the peak of visitor spending, the bottom, and the slow climb out. The fact that the Heaths are celebrating thirteen years in business in 2012 is a testament, not only to their business sense, but especially to their creative menu and abundant hospitality. Betsy, an Inwood (WV) native, remembers, "We didn't have a grand plan. After several years of working for restaurants and caterers in other cities, we wanted to express ourselves with our own food style- to create our own food and dining experience-so we moved to back to Damian's hometown and did just that." Chef Damian admits, "The peak was fun-we were stretching the limits with food, and no one was worried about pricing."
Opening the restaurant at a time when locavore and organic were not prevalent in the national, much less local, lexicon, the Heaths are pioneers of sorts in that movement.
"We can't be one hundred percent local because we serve seafood," Damian explains, "and there are a few other ingredients that come from outside the area. When we started, it was difficult to get certain products, and out of necessity, we worked with local farmers to get them to grow what we need."
Speaking of local, Damian says there was a buzz in town when it was known he was moving back to open a restaurant. "The folks were curious and hopeful about our project, and local folks still support us. We're a special occasion restaurant for residents, and we're a popular spot with visitors, as well as those with vacation homes in the area."
To be sure, Lot 12 is fine dining- upscale comfort food with a modern twist. Damian says he casts for every palate, but not in a pretentious, foodie way. The menu has something for everyone.
There's also an intimate bar- perfect for enjoying a martini with a savory appetizer. (If you're so inclined, Lot 12 pours distinctive wine, microbrews, and fine spirits.) The double-parlor dining room is cozy and engaging, but not crowded. Dining on the porch in warm weather, while taking in the view, is a must. Our server, Becky Hutchinson, also an Inwood native, has been with Lot 12 since day one, and provided attentive, informative service.
For dinner, we selected the freshest of the fresh-ramps and morels. There's just something wild and wonderful about cooking with these gourmet delectables-prized and delicious, and at the skilled hands of Chef Damian, quite heavenly. Our feast began with soup for me, a salad for one guest, an appetizer for the other guest, and an appetizer for the table-wild ramp vichyssoise, spinach salad with goat cheese, sautéed morels, and tuna nachos.
There were several surprising things about the vichyssoise. I've always experienced it chilled-this one was warm, and with the crème fraiche, very decadent. The ramps were bright but not overpowering, and the ham juliennes absolutely zinged with flavor.
Spinach salad is spinach salad, right? At Lot 12, it's truly something special. Topped with local goat cheese medallions tossed in panko crumbs and quickly sautéed, the local spinach is then dressed with a whole-grain mustard vinaigrette. Damian learned a simple yet divine preparation for morels from a master chef in Ireland-sauté in butter and cream and deglaze with duck stock and sherry. Served with sippets of artisan bread for sopping the incredible pan juices, this dish is made more precious by its seasonality. Wait, someone tell me those sippets were for juice sopping? If I committed a faux pas, it was worth every drop!
Tuna nachos? It's a simple concept- something that might be seen more frequently along the West Coast- but surprising in Morgan County. My mouth is watering as I recall the crispy wontons piled high with sushigrade tuna-yes, piled high. With Napa slaw and paper-thin jalapenos scattered about, then dressed with ponzu (a citrusy soy sauce concoction) and wasabi-drizzle, this creation is bright, tangy, and crunchy, with the rich smoothness of the tuna.
After a palate-cleansing and -pleasing intermezzo of pear sorbet, we could hardly wait for the main course-two for crisp-roasted duck and one for Lobster Thermidor.
When the server passed the plate of duck in front of me, a stunning aroma caught my attention. The rosemary in the potato cake leapt off the plate-mashed potato-y inside and crisped on the outside, with an herbaceous perfume. Duck is a rich, silky, dark meat, and when the skin is crisped to a thin, crunchy perfection, and served in bourbon pan juices, the flavor and texture is transcended. The classic Lobster Thermidor featured a lobster tail in a pool of brandy cream sauce with pearls of pale yellow saffron couscous-a sumptuous dish.
Can you believe we had room for more? Dessert hash, coconut rum crème brûlée, and a warm brownie with chocolate sauce and banana ice cream rounded out the meal.
The crème brûlée was superb, with a sweet crunchy lid and rich creaminess beneath. Honestly, I didn't get to taste the brownie and ice cream; I think that tells the story. Dessert hash is a combination of diced doughnuts, raisins, apples, and walnuts, with vanilla ice cream and caramel. It's one of the most uniquely delicious desserts I've eaten-and the proper finish to a wonderful evening.
Tucked away charmingly on a perfect hillside in Berkeley Springs, Lot 12 Public House is a place where taste and innovation meet. The result is an award-worthy dining establishment, and a lovely chance to get away "just because." Find them online at www.Lot12.com and on Facebook at Lot 12 Public House.