A Bountiful Table: The Omni Homestead Resort
With thoughtfully sourced ingredients and an abundance of restaurants to choose from, Omni Homestead dining offers up something for every taste and mood.
By Catherine Shannon Ballman
Deep in the Alleghany Mountains in Virginia sits an American historical treasure that has been serving guests from around the world for 253 years. In 1766, the naturally warm and hot springs were the main ticket. In 2019, it’s all that and more at The Omni Homestead Resort, America’s oldest resort and certainly one of its oldest hotels. But knock any idea equivocating old with fusty because The Homestead is contemporary in attitude, activities and, oh, goodness, yes, the food. The lovely food served in seven restaurants and bars offers an example of self-assured tradition and up-to-the-minute expression and execution.
The offspring of a powerhouse team, John Ferguson, executive chef, and Leen Kim, banker-turned-pastry chef, the food hews closely to the mountain terroir. A distinctive 4-season climate, high location and agricultural tradition of small farms make for food that is incredibly clean and enticingly fresh. Chef John is on first-name terms with the farmers who raise meat and vegetables and make cheese and beer for his seven restaurants. He knows Jon Donaldson and his whole family at Meadow’s Pride Farm. They provide two lambs a week year-round; summertime, they grow gorgeous heirloom tomatoes and golden zucchini. He’s proud that he’s been the winning bid at the Highland County Fair for the past two years on a lamb raised by a Donaldson daughter for 4-H.
Other neighbors raise specific crops for the kitchen. For instance, Michael and Kari Sponaugle grow beautiful gold bar squash and graffiti eggplants on their farm, Church Hill Produce, in nearby Doe Hill, VA.
Sometimes, the bounty is even closer at hand. The on-property Chef’s Garden produces 60+ herbs and vegetables for use in the kitchen. This summer, the on-site apiary’s 18,000 Italian bees are expected to start producing chemical-free honey.
Chef Leen knows the dairy folks nearby who provide the cream for her hand-churned ice cream and farmers who bring her eggs, milk, and fruit for her pastries. Probably one of the few things that can’t be obtained locally is the chocolate she loves for creating fantastical stiletto cakes and whimsical Halloween pumpkin and spiders.
Omni Homestead Dining Options
Each restaurant maintains its own culinary identity and function.
Woody’s is the hamburger joint of your dreams. Brick-oven pizza, local trout, and imaginative burgers are the headlines here. The show-off burger is the Maitre d’Burger, a veritable feast on a (brioche) bun. Patties of prime ground beef, 16-hour smoked brisket, two kinds of bacon and melting, oozy Gruyere are sprinkled with gold leaf for flash. And, tots, they have tots! Sweet potato tots. Just off the skating rink (in the winter) and the lawn (in the summer), Woody’s is a modern hamburger + more shop in a historical setting.
Kober’s at the Mountain Lodge
Kober’s is up the mountain at the ski facility. Which begs the question, skiing in Virginia? Well, yes, and good skiing it is. Named after Sepp Kober, the Austrian immigrant considered the father of Southern skiing, the apres-ski lunch menu is all about smoked meats from across the South: Texas beef brisket, East Carolina pulled pork, St. Louis pork spare ribs, South Carolina chicken wings, and chili and sandwiches. And only at The Homestead, noted for a rarefied level of welcome, would a smokehouse spot have room for vegans. Vegans can warm up after a morning on the slopes with a barbecue “pulled pork” sandwich and vegan slaw or a vegan burger with soy cheeses.
But maybe the best thing about Kober’s are the piles of Hershey bars, bowls of marshmallows and mountains of graham crackers that greet the winter hayriders for DIY S’mores. A skewer of delight along with a cup of hot chocolate – the real stuff, not a mix – while sitting around the circular fire pit, it brings that “Ahhh” feeling.
Rubino’s at the Cascades
During golf season, Rubino’s at The Cascades is a classic clubhouse restaurant with a menu with a case of the cutes: appetizers are under “Tee Off,” salads are grouped as “On the Green,” flatbreads are labeled “Slice,” burgers and sandwiches are the “Fairway” and dessert is “Sweet Spot.” It is sort of cute, actually.
At night, with a whisk of the wand and a snap of the fingers, Rubino’s turns into an Italian bistro. All courses are served family-style. Dinner starts with a salad, either a classic Caesar or Farmer salad. Then come the pastas, Garganeli all Vodka, Tagliatelle Alfredo, Ricotta Ravioli, and Spaghetti with Bolognese or Marinara sauces. Pick two. No choice for dessert but why would you want to when you have a tiramisu with mascarpone cream. Va Bene!
The Breakfast Buffet
Back at the main building, called “The Tower” by insiders, guests are faced with the more wonderful of dilemmas. Breakfast buffet – the scourge of dieters and scorn of food insiders – starts the day with a staggering quality and unusual quantity. Bacon and eggs and cream – and there is plenty of cream in that room – are from nearby farms. One end of the buffet service is a hot station where a laughing good morning crew turns out homemade waffles and eggs however and whatever you want them. Tables of breakfast meats, yogurts, and smoothies, sweet quick bread, and doughnuts, cheeses and salads and fruits will take out the peck of the peckish.
About those doughnuts. A favorite of guests for 50+ years, with some sources tracing the recipe back to 1902, these hickory-glazed sinkers really do melt in your mouth. Chef Leen credits technique for their popularity. As with all the baked goods and pastries that come out of her kitchen, ingredients are scaled to grams – no teaspoons, or cups in her kitchen – and her 100+-year-old workhorse is built into the foundation of the building, providing a constancy of heat and outstanding flavor. Get in line for the maple-bacon glazed cakes and the day will have started with a smile on your face.
Toddle off to lunch at Jefferson’s a few hours later and that smile will only get brighter. Open up the menu at Jefferson’s and you may be tempted to say, “Bring it on,” meaning all of it. Each ‘Small Plate’ is an invitation to consider the rich gastronomical history of Colonial Virginia, such as Old Bay Deviled Eggs and Blue Crab Cake from the Chesapeake Bay and the She-Crab Soup from the Tidewater region of the state. The Virginian, a sandwich of local ham, saucisson, bresaola, seasonal compote, and mustard all heaped onto grilled bread is kissing cousin to Richmond’s Sailor Sandwich, an essential to any list of America’s regional foods. But decide to make a meal of modern-day Bar Meatballs with horseradish tomato jam and organic ricotta and no one would blame you.
Move down the page to ‘Salads’ and consider the delights of Beets and Mountain Greens salad with its bourbon-pickled grapes, Virginia pecans, fire carrots, Bath Couty goat cheese, and lemon verbena vinaigrette. But that Virginia Wedge studded with sorghum-glazed bacon and the very rare Everona blue cheese from just west of the hotel in the Piedmont area of VA . . . well, two salads to go with the Bar Meatballs, maybe?
Those “fire carrots” illustrate the care the culinary team gives to each element of the menu, each piece of the recipe. It is a sweeter carrot than the orange Dutch cultivar typical to farmers’ markets and groceries across the country. Not often found in the United States, the red carrot is a staple of Middle Eastern cuisines, with red carrot jam common to most kitchens, and to India and Japan. When England ruled the world and delivered foodstuffs from all the world to London households, Arabella Fairfax called for red carrots in her carrot pudding recipe in her remarkable 1755 book, “The Family’s Best Friend, or The Whole Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy: Together With a Complete System of Brewery”. This is how Arabella instructed on the making of the pudding:
A Carrot Pudding.
Take three or four clear red carrots, boil and peel them, take the red part of the carrot, beat it very fine in a marble mortar, put to it the crumbs of a penny loaf, six eggs, half a pound of clarified butter, two or three spoonfuls of rose water, a little lemon-peel shred, grate in a little nutmeg, mix them well together, bake it with a puff-paste round your dish, and have a little white wine, butter and sugar, for the sauce.
‘Broiled Meats’ showcases the heart of the menu with special attention paid to local products, such as the Berkshire pork chop and rack of lamb from just over the ridge in Highland County. Sitting on a puddle of house-made horseradish cream and au jus to the side, the herb-crusted prime rib is a Homestead favorite.
Being Virginia, bourbon is practically a condiment; in the long and complicated history of America’s six distilled beverages, Virginia has a legitimate claim as the birthplace of bourbon whiskey. And, although excellent in a glass, it does a remarkable job with creamed corn, one of the seven sides to pair with your dinner.
As for ‘Large Plates’, it wouldn’t be Southern if there wasn’t a grits dish on the menu, in this case, larded with spiced shrimp and cheddar. The sweetheart of this section, however, may be the Alleghany trout. Tasting of fresh mountain streams, this trout is great fun to land with a fly rod and reel and even more fun to eat. It is light, tasty and pairs so well with a Vinho Verde or Albarino or some of the excellent whites coming out of Virginia.
Vegans won’t leave Jefferson’s hungry. Platters of roasted vegetables sauced with vegan pumpkin velouté or cauliflower steaks rubbed with jerk seasoning provide yum-filled flavors for vegan and meat-eaters, too.
Omni Homestead Dining Room
At night, the Breakfast Buffet room is converted into the elegant and sweetly romantic formal Dining Room. The chandeliers glitter, the linens are starched. The staff greets you with pleasure and accompany you to your table at an adult pace. The men are gentlemanly and the women charming. Laughter bubbles about and ice tinkles as cocktails are served and do try the Homestead Manhattan.
Every dish on the menu offers diners a special taste. Recipes are replete with caviar and pickled pumpkin and a nage of chestnuts and lobster. Take that caviar, for example, an unexpected and wonderful addition to the Caesar salad; that salty roe perfectly balances the rich dressing and complete the DOC Parmesan. Allegheny trout reappears on the menu in an Almondine preparation but with tiny marble potatoes and macerated grapes. Classic Châteaubriand is made even richer with crusted endive on the plate. Of course, that needs to be ordered because how often does “crusted endive” pop up on a menu?
The nage forms a part of the Dover Sole with Lobster Crust preparation made up to date with the addition of farro risotto, an excellent complement for balancing the fat of the lobster stuffing and creamy Savoy cabbage. A closer reading of the Roasted Duo of Organic Chicken might crack you up; it’s a Croque Monsieur with Virginia ham, made worthy for inclusion in the Dining Room by the addition of a brandy-apple purée.
Dessert offers a rich selection but the all-time favorite has to be the Classic Gold Brick with Vanilla Ice Cream. A menu stalwart for 40-50 years, it is hand-churned vanilla ice cream encased with two kinds of chocolate and sprinkled with gold pearls. All this goodness is embedded with chocolate sponge cake soaked in a bourbon-maple sauce. Candied pecans add a final flourish.
Between courses, work off those calories the old-fashioned way: dancing under the twinkle lights to the lilting music of a live three-piece orchestra. And afterward, make your way to the Lobby Bar for a nightcap
This cozy hideaway is decorated with paintings of the 23 U.S. presidents who have stayed there, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, James McKinley, William Taft, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. After a few days dining at The Omni Homestead Resort, it’s no wonder they were able to keep the democracy humming for a while longer.
Omni Homestead Dining Events
The Omni Homestead Resort has a continual stream of food and drink-related experiences, including whiskey and wine tastings. Some special annual events include:
- TBD Brew and ‘Que Lunch
- June Mixology in the Mountains
- Mid-Summer Taste of the Region
- Holidays. The entire hotel goes all out for holidays with special menus and desserts. Christmas, everyone from Santa and the Mrs. and the Sugar Plum Fairy, in toe shoes and tiara, and her Cavelier, the Nutcracker Prince, are in residence.
- Partnering with neighboring purveyors is integral to Chef John’s local partnerships. A recent event was held with Smooth Ambler Spirit, a craft distillery in staggeringly beautiful (and nearby) Maxwelton, WV.
The event calendar is regularly updated at www.omnihotels.
Benefits for You
The Omni Homestead Resort was an early member of the Historic Hotels of America and is a participant in Amex’ Fine Hotels and Resorts, both of which offer members significant special savings/amenities/upgrades when booking through them.
Wait, there’s more!
At 253 years old, a little refresh and redo are in the offing, rumor has it. But one thing that never needs change is the outstanding, even world-class service synonymous with The Omni Homestead. Whatever the department, guests are greeted with pleasure and queries answered promptly. Employees are empowered to provide the best service and beyond. Waiting for a slow elevator? A maid coming down the hall will pick up the house phone and let the engineers know to step on it. Wondering where yoga class is? The bellman at the front desk will not only tell you but report on how yoga took care of his sciatica. Trouble with the TV in the room? A new set will be sent up pronto, along with a bottle of wine for your inconvenience. A little girl waiting for Santa to come on Christmas Eve? The kitchen will send up homemade cookies – thank you, Chef Leen – and a glass of milk to set out.
This is doubly so in the dining rooms where staff have the exact balance of genuine friendliness and excellent service. No guest needs fear being asked “Is everything alright?” while chewing or giving the punchline.
You can do this.
Beef Wellington from The Homestead
- 2 – 7oz. beef filets
- Olive oil, for frying
- 8 oz. mixture of wild mushrooms, cleaned
- Pinch of thyme, finely chopped, leaves only
- ½ clove of garlic
- 1 sheet of puff pastry, thawed
- 10 slices of thin Serrano ham
- 2 egg yolks, beaten with 1 T. water and a pinch of salt
- Black pepper
- Season the beef filets with salt and pepper. Then sear the filets in a hot pan with a little olive oil until browned all over and rare in the middle. Remove from the pan and leave to cool.
- Finely chop the mushrooms and fry in a hot pan with a little olive oil, the thyme leaves and whole garlic clove. When the mushrooms begin to release their juices, continue to cook over high heat until all the excess moisture has evaporated and you are left with a mushroom paste. Remove the garlic clove from the pan and let mushrooms cool.
- Cut the puff pastry in half, place on a lightly floured surface and roll each piece into a rectangle large enough to envelop one of the beef filets. Chill in the refrigerator.
- Place 5 slices of ham in the middle of the pastry overlapping slightly, to create a square. Spread half the duxelle evenly over the ham.
Season the beef filets, then place them on top of the mushroom-covered ham. Roll the ham over the beef
Brush the pastry with the egg wash. Then wrap the pastry around each ham-wrapped filet. Trim the pastry and brush all over with the egg wash. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes.
- When you are ready to cook the Beef Wellingtons, brush with the egg wash again, then bake at 400°F for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is golden brown and cooked. Rest for 10 minutes before carving.
Oh my goodness! This is our kinda place. From fancy to fast, there really is an Omni Homestead dining option for everyone. Now, to decide which to order first – that mouthwatering Maitre d’Burger or the rib-sticking Brisket Poutine? Such a delicious dilemma.
For more of Cathy’s culinary adventures, check out The Temptation Restaurant is the Fish House of Your Dreams and Feast Like a Parisian at One of Manhattan’s Most Famous Brasseries.
About the Author
Cathy Ballman travels the world looking for a good meal.