Magnolias at the Mill, Purcellville, VA

Every small Virginia town seemingly has its “restaurant by the train station,” and Purcellville, where the W&OD Trail ends shortly after mile marker 45, is no exception.

Magnolias at the Mill is Purcellville’s “detour off of Route 7” restaurant, with a charming, historic mill as its location, a full selection of good beers, and one heck of a talented crew working pastry.

I arrived just in time to see the Nats getting shellacked in game #2 against St. Louis, and took a seat at the bar to watch the carnage over a Williamsburg Aleworks Caledonia ($5.50) which the entertaining beer menu describes as “Scottish Ale at its best” – honestly, it was just too hoppy for me to consider as a great example of a Scotch Ale, so much so that it almost prevented me from ordering a second one.

The beer list is a strong point at Magnolias, featuring 29 drafts, and a description of Bud Light which says, “You can almost tell it’s beer.” What’s not to like? In addition, they have a significant “Big Bottle” selection featuring larger format bottles from across America and around the world. Justin, my bartender, was kind and enthusiastic.

My first choice for an entree, a “Wood-Grilled Bone-In Pork Chop (Loudoun County 4H),” a daily special, was 86’d, so I changed my order altogether, starting with a salad.

I rarely order salads in restaurants “such as this” (charming places out in the “country”) because of the exact reason I shouldn’t have ordered it tonight: despite sourcing local and seasonal ingredients, the whole is almost never greater than the sum of its parts, and is often less.

No exception here. The Endless Summer Harvest Salad ($9), was, despite the same name, completely different on the paper menu than the internet menu. My version consisted of oak lettuce, dates (cut to look like sliced olives), (soft) candied pecans, smoked Gouda, and cranberry vinaigrette, and the salad was nothing more than the ingredients piled on a plate – exactly what you’d do when tonging together a salad at Whole Foods’ salad bar. Essentially, if you think this combination of ingredients would appeal to you, then sure, order it; and if you don’t, then steer clear. For my palate, there was no magic here at all, and it tasted very much like a poorly conceived salad-bar salad. The salad, incidentally, came out almost instantly, certainly in less than several minutes – it was assembled in haste, and it showed.

However, there was an early standout: the basket of Focaccia (gratis) with a ramekin of sweet-salty butter which forced me to take note of the Pastry Chef, Marcy Mergler, for the first time. This was excellent focaccia which was better than what I’d had two weeks before at Robert Donna’s Al Dente. Example number one.

From the “Magnolia’s Specialties” section, I ordered the Pork Scallopini Involtino ($22.75) with prosciutto, aged Provolone, asparagus, Asiago polenta, caramelized shallots, and Madeira mustard sauce. Unlike the salad, this took at least twenty minutes to be prepared, and I suspect not many people were ordering it on this Monday evening. An involtino is essentially a roulade – a meat rolled around a stuffing – and this was an honorable attempt at a dish which failed. It came out inedibly hot, the cheese inside was liquified, it was very salty, and most importantly, it was so herbaceous as to be unenjoyable. Magnolias at the Mill sources well, and I believe one of the things it has access to is good, fresh, local herbs. The problem with this is that these herbs, in the hands of an overzealous chef, or inexperienced line cook, are such an exciting find that there becomes a need to “highlight” them. “Diners! Look at these babies!” Unfortunately, fresh herbs are so much more potent than their dried counterparts that they can easily overwhelm a dish if not applied sparingly, and such was the case here. I could not get past the herb-dominance of this dish, no matter how I tried, and whoever is cooking it needs to avoid the temptation to show off their superior product, and treat these as the restrained embellishments they are meant to be, no matter how good or fresh they are. It hurts me to say this more than you might imagine because I am, in essence, discouraging the (over)use of an excellent product.

With the involtino, I ordered a Left Hand Milk Stout ($6) from Longmont, Colorado, and I wish to stress that the three things that stood out here were the beer selection, the atmosphere, and Example number two: the Parmesan-like tuile that came with my involtino. Like the focaccia, I believed this tuile must have been at the hands of the Pastry Chef, and as silly as it might sound, I began to develop a quiet kinship with Marcy Mergler – enough so that, despite being very full, I felt a moral obligation to order a third thing under her jurisdiction.

With my check, I ordered an Individual Key Lime Tart ($7) with graham cracker crust and pomegranate reduction to take home with me.

When I got home, I had a text message from two restaurant friends of mine who wanted to stop by and pick up some wine that I was holding for them (it was Eric and Celia). “How about a glass of wine?” I said. Well, they weren’t going to turn that down after their extremely disappointing Italian dinner in Falls Church. “And I have what might be a really good dessert to go with it,” I added.

I plated the key lime tart, with three forks, and opened a bottle of 1959 Gaston Huet Le Haut Lieu Vouvray Sec that I just knew would pair perfectly with this, and sure enough, it did. The 53-year-old Chenin Blanc was magnificent, and the bone-dry, “sec” nature (“sec” means “completely dry”) all of a sudden showed some fresh sweetness alongside the beautifully executed key lime pie. “I don’t even really like key lime pie, but I really like this,” I said. “Well I do like key lime pie, and I really like this,” Eric said. Marcy had batted three-for-three on this evening. Kudos to a very fine pastry chef, laboring in anonymity out in Purcellville.

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