Some desserts have really good PR machines. The chocolate lava cake, also known as molten chocolate cake, flourless chocolate cake and chocolate fondant cake, has been the hands-down darling of the past couple of decades. Diners can’t get enough of the stuff, even when it’s a mediocre rendition (sometimes a prepared, frozen product!) that’s coming out of the kitchen.
Then there’s lemon meringue pie. Not an ounce of drama, no cachet, no sensationalist articles in newspaper and magazine food pages. But the simple, glossy British-American classic has been pleasing its fans since the 19th century.
Of course, my personal favorite is the one my mother made every year for my birthday (who said it had to be a birthday “cake?”) Hers was the condensed milk variety, a pale, smooth and creamy filling topped with fluffy egg white peaks bronzed in the oven.
But recently I found another version that I love, sorry Mother, just as much. OK, OK. Almost as much.
That's the Lemon Meringue Ice Box Cake at the The Ivy Inn in Charlottesville, VA, where I dined a week ago with my husband and his college friends.
The elegant creation starts with a wafer-thin, buttery graham cracker crust and moves onward and upward with tangy, zest-infused lemon curd and caramel cream layers. On top, an ethereal cap of toasted meringue, along with barely-there pieces of candied lemon zest and coarse organic sugar. On the side, a delicate lemon lace cookie. And it's all framed by a fresh, fragrant lemon-berry coulis.
The combination of tastes and textures is awesome…which is why my husband and I went back to the Inn for a second dinner two nights later. Professional food critics aren’t supposed to do that….with only three nights in Charlottesville, I should have dined in three different restaurants.
But the lemon meringue wonder, by pastry chef Jon Thornburg, lured me back to the Inn just as effectively as mythology’s Sirens seduced sailors to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island.
And the fact that I had also flipped over chef-owner Angelo Vangilopoulos’ Puree of Butternut Squash
Soup on the first night made the repeat visit an easy call. (Yes, I ate the soup, swirled with scallion cream and dotted with smoked bacon bits and glazed, spiced pecans, on the second visit, too!)
Both dishes were in perfect sync with the Inn’s gracious, homey Virginia-horse-country vibe ---
sophisticated but understated. The original property – a multi-building estate – was built shortly after a fire destroyed the original building in 1815. Since then it has changed hands several times, including years of stewardship by the University of Virginia, whose “grounds” are a mile away. (The property was once called “Faulkner House” after William Faulkner, who was a distinguished University “Writer in Residence.”)
Since 1973 the quaint cottage surrounded by overgrown gardens, has been The Ivy Inn restaurant. (This photo is from the blog HarvestThymeHerbFarm.) In 1995 it was purchased by Vangelopoulos, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of American (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY, and trained at Washington, D.C.’s Galileo restaurant and Cilantro’s in Del Mar, CA.Today he runs the restaurant with his wife, Farrell.
The rest of the menu, which changes frequently and features products from the central Virginia area, is as enticing as the dishes that hooked me. Consider Polyface Farms Slow Cooked Chicken with cloud-like gnocchi, local Andouille sausage and wild mushrooms; Pumpkin-Seed Crusted Red Drum Fillet with couscous, avocado, lime and Carolina shrimp; Homemade Pumpkin Ravioli with crispy leeks, pumpkinseeds and fresh sage; Sticky English Toffee Pudding…then make a detour to this captivating academic town and check out The Ivy Inn.
(2244 Old Ivy Road, Charlottesville, VA; 434-977-1222. Appetizers $6-$12; entrees, $22-$36. Lemon Meringue Ice Box Cake, $8.)