The Clifton Inn, perched on a Blue Ridge hilltop, is a Relais et Château property with an eponymous restaurant that has won plaudits for years. 

Nothing about Albemarle County’s renowned Clifton Inn could be called “grand,” except perhaps the elder silver maple shading the front lawn. Everything else about the setting is picturesque, intimate, and welcoming. Perched on a hilltop among the fertile foothills of the Blue Ridge sits the white-columned main house. Together with the clustered livery cottages and converted outbuildings, Clifton offers 18 rooms, each rich with antiques and landscape views. The hospitality is timeless: a bowl of fresh peaches, a gratis decanter of Madeira, a hand-written welcome note. The grounds are largely forested, allowing visitors to discover secret places—a walled rose garden, a crochet lawn, the lake. But the most sumptuous discovery is the Restaurant at Clifton Inn.

Years before Dean Maupin first set foot at Clifton, he dreamed of running its kitchen. He’d seen the growing attention from national food critics. But more important, says Maupin, was Clifton’s reputation among chefs as “a place of culinary freedom”—or as he likes to put it “a restaurant with rooms.” “As a young cook,” says the inn’s executive chef, “I always knew my destiny was to be the chef here.”

On a steamy summer afternoon, 35-year-old Maupin takes a seat on the inn’s cool, slate-floored veranda. He wears black-framed glasses and chef’s whites. His apron bears the gold fleur-de-lis announcing Clifton’s membership in the exclusive Relais et Château international luxury hotel association. Maupin’s back is to the broad windows and the verdant views beyond. He faces the open door to the kitchen, where dinner prep is in full swing, and recalls his path to Clifton.

Maupin was born in the hamlet of Crozet, less than 10 miles from the inn. Summer meant pitching in at his grandfather’s produce stand. In high school, Maupin took his first job in a professional kitchen. He’s worn the whites ever since. “I’m French,” he notes. “It’s in my blood.”

Maupin broadened and sharpened his skills in kitchens around Albemarle County including the Old Mill Room at Charlottesville’s Boar’s Head Inn, and the highly acclaimed C&O, where he served as sous chef. By then, he was ready to travel. “I needed to get out of Charlottesville,” he says. “I needed a change.”

In his early twenties, Maupin applied for a coveted spot in the apprenticeship program at the Greenbrier Resort. A year and a half passed and he’d nearly forgotten the idea, when he received an invitation to try out. Maupin made the cut, and spent the next three years in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia learning the fundamentals of “old school European” cooking. During seasonal breaks he cooked in Napa Valley’s Tra Vigne and Manhattan’s Felidia. Upon completion of his apprenticeship, Maupin brought his new skills back to Charlottesville. In 2004 he was serving as chef de cuisine at Fossett’s, Keswick Hall’s formal restaurant, when Esquire named it “One of America’s Best New Restaurants.”

A few hillsides west of Fossett’s sits Clifton. It’s been an inn since the late 1980s, but the floorboards in the bar are original—circa 1799—and have stories to tell. It was to those mortared walls that Thomas Mann Rudolph retreated, driven mad with offence when father-in-law Thomas Jefferson appointed his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, as the executor of his will.

In 1983, Mitch and Emily Willey bought the manor, outbuildings and surrounding land, which they nurtured into a travel destination. Then came a setback: In 2003, the inn was badly damaged by a fire. Renovations were extensive, but the property emerged to be welcomed into the exclusive society of Relais et Châteaux with Chef Christian Kelly at the helm. “If there was any canvas to mark in this town, it was here,” says Maupin. Then, in the spring of 2006, Kelly left Clifton and opened Maya in Charlottesville. Maupin left Fossett’s and stepped in as executive chef, his culinary destiny realized.

Or was it? After only a few months overseeing Clifton’s traditional menu format—appetizer, entrée, dessert—Maupin got bored. “I’d been doing that my entire career,” he recalls. “I was done with that.” He looked for a new concept, and found it: small plates. Today, each Clifton restaurant item is served appetizer size, allowing guests to explore and invent a meal. The change has been embraced by local diners and more sophisticated travelers, who come to a Relais et Châteaux table with what Maupin calls, “an expectation.”

To satisfy Clifton’s discriminating clientele, Maupin seeks out the finest raw materials. “I spend more of my time procuring ingredients than I do cooking,” he says. This includes heritage meats from nearby Gryffon’s Aerie and quail from Green Fence Farms, just over the Blue Ridge. Rabbits, lamb, eggs, produce: all come from nearby. Some food comes from the inn’s own garden. For three weeks at the end of July, every tomato used at the restaurant had been grown on the property. The same was true for several herbs—fennel, rosemary, cilantro and sage; the cooks just stepped out the door. There’s no way to overplay the importance of freshness, says Maupin. “You can’t take a mediocre ingredient and from the magic hands of a chef turn it into something of value. You need to start with something good and not over think it.”

Maupin’s staff were at their stations, ready to transform the summer’s freshest ingredients into elegant dishes, when the first diners of the night arrived. A thunderstorm broke the heat and staged a light show in the distance. We watched from our seat on the covered terrace, where the service was relaxed but attentive. The restaurant manager suggested pairings from the award-winning stone wine cellar, and moments after making our first selection, we were brought a graceful, understated amuse bouche: smoked salmon atop crispy potato skin with chive crème fraiche and fried capers. The delicacy and complexity of that tiny morsel, paired with glasses of Louis de Sacy Brut Grand Cru champagne, whet our excitement for the rest of the performance.

For the first course we chose two of the hand-crafted pastas—sweet corn mezzaluna with buttered crab and fennel pollen, and ricotta gnocchi with grilled mushrooms and shaved black truffles. The paper-thin mezzaluna cradled a buttery polenta and whole corn filling juxtaposed with the subtle anise-flavor. The success of the dish lay in that contrast, while the depth of the gnocchi came from the layering of related flavors—the truffle pulling richness from the lion’s head, trumpet and shitake mushrooms.

Smitten by these morsels, we took advantage of Maupin’s liberating small-plate menu. Our “second course” began with yet another pasta dish—pear and pecorino ravioli with sage butter sauce. We paired the timeless recipe with a 2008 Chardonnay Reserve from Barboursville Vineyard. Rounding out this course was a deconstructed cioppino, or bouillabaisse, with plump poached white shrimp, beautifully fresh mussels and a generous portion of pulled lump crab, topped with a dollop of saffron rouille and bathed in a complex tomato-fennel broth.

The evening had grown clear and cool by the time our next plates arrived. Slices of New York Strip offered a different tang with each bite; caramelized mushrooms here, roasted garlic chips there, with a deep Kecap Manis reduction and a proper maître d’ butter drizzled about the plate. The accompanying Pinot Noir—a 2008 from Hayman Hill in California’s Santa Lucia Highlands—offered a ruby richness that barely touched the tongue.

Our last savory plate held smoked quail with lardons, arugula, and chevre, demonstrating what Maupin and his cooks can do with wild game. The overall effect was light and interesting with the smoke and sharpness of the arugula melding into the chevre. All the servings were slightly smaller than one might expect—and want, given their flavor—but that only meant we could enjoy a selection of desserts.

First came fresh-ground coffee in a gleaming, stainless steel French press. The desserts ranged from homey and rich, to classic and refreshing. The warm, bitter-sweet chocolate torte with Virginia peanut nougat glace was mercifully diminutive, ideal for an old-fashioned sweet-tooth. In contrast, the “Coupe Elery’s” whipped white chocolate, roasted almonds, raspberries, and Grand Marnier Zabaglione was the ideal kicker, leaving our palettes perfectly refreshed rather than over-loaded.

In a state of delightful sedation, we left the table to wander Clifton’s dim grounds, strolling past the gazebo and under the arbor by a flag-stone pool. It was only an hour back to Richmond, but we’d booked the Thomas Mann room. We were grateful that, to paraphrase Maupin, this was a restaurant with rooms.

*Chef Dean Maupin has since left the Clifton Inn Restaurant.

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