Chef Creates Comfort with a Twist
story & photos by Pam Lettie
Last fall, Desiree Garcia walked into Domestic as the new executive chef. Twenty-four hours later, the Shepherdstown bastion of modern home cooking had a complete menu makeover. The evolution continues as Garcia brings quality ingredients and contrasting flavors together to create 21st century comfort food.
The friendly staff, ambiance and Web site suggest that Domestic is the place where you can relax and “come as you are.” The menu is a creative interpretation of childhood favorites, sourcing ingredients locally whenever possible. Yet, the Domestic experience is never simple mashed potatoes and gravy, or traditional fried chicken. Each dish has a surprise, a tension between old and new.
While the choices showcase childhood favorites, reminiscent of mealtimes with family and friends, the addition of Cajun spices or new food combinations gives sophisticated diners a chance for exploration.
The restaurant’s two rooms are a study in contrasts. Diners enter through the bar, where table seating is also available. A map on the wall describes wines; dim lighting makes it a place where regulars might feel at home. The far end serves as a stage for bands that liven up the atmosphere.
A right turn brings diners into a slightly brighter dining room, with minimalist, modern décor, wood shelves against the back wall stacked with memorabilia. The chandelier of repurposed glass bottles casts interesting shadows across the ceiling, while a barn door acts as the canvas for an abstract painting. All of this evokes a feeling that Domestic is definitely not about the quick bite. It’s a place to slow down around the dinner table amidst good food and drink, recalling our collective memories about home and family where we linger and unwind.
The menu item that best illustrates the blend of tradition with a modern flair may be the macaroni and cheese. Sharp white cheddar cheese sauce clings to cavatappi pasta, with the perfect balance of sauce. Full strips of applewood-smoked bacon garnish the side of the bowl, while slightly sweet and delicately browned caramelized onions accented by diced chives and the crunch of the breadcrumbs top the corkscrew pasta.
The sweet-savory flavor combination is a theme that Garcia explored throughout the meal, often combined on the same entrée, a creative mix calculated to surprise and to please. Consider the Monte Cristo, a deep-fried sandwich of ham and cheese dusted with powder sugar and accompanied by jam. Garcia hasn’t decided if it will make the cut and become a regular menu item, so for now, diners wanting to give it a try will have to keep an eye on the specials’ menu.
One of the seasonal dishes on her tasting menu for the evening was a grilled quail, butterflied and served on a bed of brown rice with wilted greens. Fresh roasted cranberries punctuated the dish with color and tartness, while clementine poppy seed sauce added a sharp, yet sweet, citrus flavor. The sweet sauces and savory quail work well together and hit the perfect balance. Biting into one of the cranberries releases a rush of juice that rewards the diner, without overpowering the quail.
Quail is one of the ingredients that Garcia tries to source locally, therefore making it a dish only found on the list of special offerings.
The challenge with local sources is that they change constantly, she says. Prices change. Availability changes.
She says she’s worked hard to build relationships with her suppliers, to ensure consistent high-quality ingredients. She laughs as she tells the story of the 3 a.m. phone call from one of her suppliers, who was out of a key ingredient for the next day’s menu.
Garcia describes a hamburger, talking about the importance of using quality ingredients. She uses her hands to show the layer upon layer of flavors, the layer upon layer of ingredients – each one something that she has selected for its ability to blend or to stand out from the other ingredients. The careful selection of each layer – from the house made bread to the local bacon to the Maytag blue cheese – shows her thoughtful preparation.
Another flavorful menu choice is the buffalo fried oyster (think buffalo chicken wing sauce) served on an oyster shell with a dollop of blue cheese dressing. The oyster shell is positioned on a bed of peppery arugula. The presentation was not only impressive, but also made for a terrific blend of flavors. The creamy blue cheese dressing contrasted with the spicy burst of flavor from the buffalo chicken. My only regret was that it was hard to get at the arugula, and I didn’t want to leave a bite behind.
In the words of server Kayla Conrad: “Desiree is not afraid to try new things” – or to spice up old favorites with a little kick. The kick is evident in the blackened shrimp with Andouille and sharp white cheddar grits. A spicy sauce reminiscent of Louisiana creole cooking added a little zing to the dish.
Even the regular menu has plenty of interesting variations on traditional favorites. Fried chicken livers, for example. Fried chicken would grace almost anyone’s comfort food list – especially anyone living within 100 miles of the Mason-Dixon Line. Domestic takes this classic in a different direction using fried chicken livers, served on a house-made biscuit and resting on black pepper cream gravy. Sweet pepper relish dots each corner of the plate and accents the savory fried chicken livers.
Ending the meal, bread pudding gets an update as well. Garcia uses croissants as the basis for a bread pudding that ends up flaky and flavorful. An intense dark chocolate punctuates the otherwise sweet dessert, served atop a mild bourbon sauce that walks the line of adding flavor without overpowering the delicate croissant. With so many choices, Domestic is a place to graze and to sample a diverse menu, perfect for sharing. The options for libations are plentiful, offering a selection of wines, cocktails and a well-rounded list of beers on tap and in the bottle.
The new interpretation of home – Domestic. — Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.