Washingtonians looking for an escape from the city often venture out to Salamander Resort in Middleburg, Virginia, where they’re met with expansive countryside views, spacious accommodations and luxury spa amenities. However, city slickers don’t usually make the trek to Salamander just for the food. The property’s new chef, Ryan Arensdorf, hopes to change that.
Arensdorf has worked in respected hotels and steakhouses in Chicago for more than a decade, but his roots are in Kansas, where his family garden and his grandmother’s cooking shaped his culinary philosophy. Now, at Salamander, Arensdorf is drawing on his restaurant resume and his rural upbringing to transform the dining options at Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill and Gold Cup Wine Bar. His focus is showcasing local, seasonal ingredients, and the bounty of the property’s half-acre Culinary Garden and bee hives.
Since taking over earlier this year, Arensdorf has already made waves at Harrimans. “A lot of locals have expressed some happiness over the change in the menus, which makes me very happy,” he says. We sat down with the new chef to find out what he has planned to draw the D.C. crowd out to Middleburg to dine.
Why did you choose to come on board with Salamander?
Visiting here a few times was really what got me to come out. I love the property; I love everything it has to offer. We have the culinary garden, honey we make on property – things that, as a chef, makes me like a kid in a candy store.
What kinds of improvements or changes have you made at Harriman’s?
For Harriman’s, we tried—and hopefully have succeeded—at including everyone. We are at a resort, so one of the things I’m proud of most on the menu is that no matter what you like to eat, you can eat here.
What are the main differences between the new menu and the previous menu?
This is a ranch-style resort and we’re very proud of the Butcher’s Block area. Refining that, we make sure we cut as much or all of the meat in house. We source from as many local providers as we can to make sure that we’re still supporting the community. We want to make sure that everything’s fresh, clean, right off the boat if it’s seafood-related, pulled right out of the ground if we can from our own garden.
What is the overall style of cooking on the property now that it’s under your purview?
Refined casual. If you look again at the Butcher’s Block, if you go through my steakhouse roots, you’ll see a very good impressive protein, something that shines… You pair the protein with a sauce and a vegetable and a garnish and that’s it. You keep it to a very simple, four-step process and by that you let the protein or whatever I’m cooking shine.
Is there anything you think that locals and longtime regulars will be surprised to see on the menu?
That would be the World’s Best Chicken Nugget. It’s not a chicken nugget. It’s veal sweetbreads. It’s an introductory course to sweetbreads… [Customers] can relate to it, they can relate to the texture, they can relate to the flavor profile, they can relate to anything, so that next time when I move down the road, they’re more than willing to try the next one.
Do you have plans to continue to push the envelope with the dining offerings?
Yes, definitely, when I get my feet under me. Right now, what we’re doing is, we’re not playing it safe by any means, but we’re making sure that we’re back to the basics, and then once the basics are down we are going to continue to push ourselves.
How are you utilizing the garden and the other on-property resources like the bee hives?
We use the hives as much as I can. They’re dormant right now, but I think we salvaged 150 pounds of honey this year… We use it in our honey butter… [and] to glaze our roasted root vegetables that come from the garden. Right now, for the garden, I’m planning with our groundskeeper the spring menu. And the difference in what it was in the past and now is that we are going to mirror what we want to put on the menu through what’s in the garden.
Do you hope to make this a destination dining attraction, and how do you plan to do that?
That is definitely the goal. In my past experience, it’s to make sure that Harriman’s is not thought of as an amenity by the staff here or myself. Treating it as a standalone restaurant will bring everyone here. I want everybody at the hotel to be able to dine here upon request, but the real goal is, “You got to dine here, come back tomorrow, if you can get in.”
What changes will be made in the vein of treating Harriman’s like a standalone restaurant?
Just staying true to the tenets that we are. Making sure that we lead the show where we want to go. We want to do things from the garden. We’ve got to stay on top of that and make sure that everything we promise is delivered.