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Surprises to be found anywhere

By Staff | Feb 3, 2012

The concepts of new American cooking have so permeated cuisine that it is possible to get an intelligent meal nearly anywhere. The philosophy of regionality – sourcing ingredients in season and close to home – makes chefs flexible in their thinking about what to put on the plate, and when.

For a foodie, this makes visiting new cities exciting. In addition to other attractions, there will be restaurants. Rising chefs are as likely to be found in small cities as in large ones, and surprising plates can emerge from kitchens in unlikely locations. New ideas, bubbling up unexpectedly, freshen cuisine for all practitioners.

So, a trip to Roanoke, Va., offered an opportunity. A little advance research and we had a list of restaurants to consider. A downtown spot, with a swank interior and deep wine list was where we ended up.

I can’t say that the meal was great. Simply mimicking the styles of new American cuisine can lead to some wrong turns. Beets are a terrific idea for the basis of a winter salad. Sweet and meaty, they carry bold flavors well. Ground pepper on top is a fine finish, but if the grind is too rough, the result is like chewing pebbles. I didn’t want to break my dental work.

A small serving of lobster ravioli arrived swimming in a strong broth. Fork or spoon? Drink the broth or merely dip into it? The kitchen didn’t seem sure, sending neither specialized utensils nor bread with the plate. And, although I like my pasta al dente, underdone pasta is awfully chewy.

Thank goodness for the trend toward boutique ice creams. In restaurants regionally, I’ve sampled recipes from assertive black pepper-vanilla to gentle lavender. This kitchen offered chocolate-bourbon, with dark chocolate bits swirled through. It was the best thing to come out all night.

Knoxville, Tenn. is another small city to deliver something surprising, that is discoverable in Roanoke. The Taubman Museum of Art, opened in 2008, is the vision of architect Randall Stout, a native Tennessean who once worked with Frank Gehry. Like his associate, Stout conceives sculptural architecture featuring swooping curves and acute angles, executed in glass and high-tensile materials.

Some hate it. In a city of early 20th century industrial architecture that sprang from a railroad-based economy, the soaring, odd building does stand out. But the space on which it is sited was previously underused, located under an undeveloped, barricaded interstate off ramp that was never finished. Now, instead of a gritty lot shadowed by a concrete stub, there is art.

Inside, a small gallery offers the crystal-encrusted handbags created by Judith Leiber for celebrity clients. Displayed on black velvet cushions, in plexiglass bubbles balanced on the fronds of an enormous water lily, the presentation extends the whimsy of evening bags shaped like penguins, elephants, wrapped gifts and an oversize rosebud. Leiber, too, is an American original, a Holocaust survivor whose bags have been carried by every First Lady since Mamie Eisenhower, as well as on “Sex and the City.” The Taubman collection numbers 115 bags.

I can’t help being enthralled with what’s odd and great and unexpected in America’s cities. Our nation is so large and so diverse. A traveler doesn’t have to go far to find a new taste, new impression, new idea. Visitors to Shepherdstown enjoy what is unexpected here, from surprisingly chic cuisine and boutique shopping to a tiny stone house on a university campus.

So, take yourself out there and see what you find.