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The perfectly cooked steak was complemented by Cabrales blue cheese. Photo by Isaac Harrell
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Ashland is a charming town, home to a college, historic houses and quaint shops. It is often referred to locally as the Center of the Universe. It's also home to the restaurant Iron Horse, named for its location along the railroad tracks that run through town. Easily accessible off the interstate, it's worth the drive.
My husband and I used to live in Hanover County and frequented the restaurant until we moved two years ago. We haven't been there in more than six months, but we were greeted like friends and seated promptly. It was also nice to see that we weren't the only ones to receive this warm greeting.
When you enter Iron Horse, there's a delightful bar to your right and the dining room to the left. High ceilings and architectural details, combined with massive front windows, make it a lovely place to dine. But more important, there's not a stuffy bone in this restaurant's body. It's casual and comfortable, but it takes its food quite seriously. Once seated in the restaurant, you might notice a formidable wine rack. The wine list is extensive, and there are some great bargains to be had. The staff is always very helpful. Before you peruse the menu (described as Southern/modern American), listen to the nightly specials from chef Russell Stone, as there is always something nifty.
We started with some crispy and light fried oysters. I think the crust was cornmeal, but it was very thin, allowing the oysters to shine. The accompanying sauce was the perfect touch, and the serving was fine for the two of us, but I think Handsome Hubby probably would have been happier if he'd had them to himself. We then turned our attention to the menu.
This is one of those smart menus with interesting dishes that are cooked directly and simply, so that if you have a picky eater for a friend, they could be happy here, too. Hubby loves a well cooked steak, but when you put Cabrales blue cheese on it, he couldn't be happier. The steak was cooked exactly as ordered — tender, flavorful and well seasoned. I ordered the pork tenderloin, which came with amazing cheese grits, perfectly cooked green beans and a cider reduction. There was also a berry sauce that, while it tasted very good, had the strangest color. It looked like creamy grape jam, but that didn't deter me from eating it.
The chef pays close attention to the layouts of the plates and the balance of the meal, with no unnecessary flourishes.
A real challenge here is saving room for dessert, and that's well worth doing. The first night we visited recently, my husband ordered the chocolate pavé, which was rich, smooth, creamy and chocolaty — in short, killer. One of the nightly specials was Homestead Creamery's vanilla ice cream with candied nuts and a maple syrup reduction. I snuck a bite of Handsome Hubby's chocolate pavé, so I was OK with the ice cream decision. And when the ice cream arrived, I was much more than OK. It was not too sweet, with an elegant texture that suggests the work of an artisan. I don't know what those nuts were coated in, but I could've eaten a whole pound of them.
On the second visit, there were four appetizer specials, and we chose fried mushrooms. Frying fresh mushrooms is difficult because they give off a lot of moisture and quite often make the crust very soggy. This was not the case, as the mushrooms had a thin, crisp crust, and the spicy ranch dip was great.
Ribs were the special of the day, and my husband couldn't pass them up. Tender, moist and flavorful, they quickly disappeared. I ordered manicotti with crabmeat and Alfredo sauce. Delicately cheesy, the crêpe-style manicotti was freshly made, and the cheese and the crab perfectly complemented each other.
For dessert, we shared the crème brûlée. One of my pet peeves about crème brûlée is that it should be made with egg yolks only, not whole eggs, and this one met that standard. It also included wonderful vanilla bean flecks, meaning that the chef took time to seed the vanilla bean. The texture, flavor, and sugary snap of the crust were spot on.
A fixture in Ashland since 1991, Iron Horse seems to be better than ever under the ownership of Joseph Comfort, who bought it in December 2007. This is a comfortable restaurant with good service, a solid menu and a fascinating wine list. It's an asset to the dining scene in Hanover County. Come on y'all, it just isn't that far away!
100 S. Railroad Ave., Ashland, 752-6410
Prices: Lunch $6.75 to $12.50; dinner entrées $17 to $28; bar and light fare $7 to $13.50.
Hours: Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; noon to 2:30 p.m. Saturday; dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday; Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. http://www.ironhorserestaurant.com/