Most hotel visits are like blind dates: An arrangement is made, you may even see a photo or two, but you enter with a sense of uncertainty, hoping for the best. As with love, however, it is often a chance encounter with a hotel that is likely to set your heart alight. So it was the day I arrived at Morrison House in Old Town, the historic district of Alexandria, Va. I had come for a send-off brunch for a bride and groom, but I was the one who fell in love at first sight—with the 45-room hotel and its restaurant, Elysium.
The hotel was recently granted membership in the prestigious French-based Relais & Châteaux confederation, a remarkable accomplishment considering that Morrison House is the handiwork of Peter Greenberg, a former real estate entrepreneur who, with no previous experience in the hotel business, bought the property in a foreclosure sale, intending a quick resale. That was in 1996, after Greenberg and his wife, Edy, had just completed a six-month joyride in a Ford Bronco. They had driven throughout the West and Northwest and then to Alaska, improvising the route, sleeping in the back of the Bronco—its rear seat had been removed to create enough room for a makeshift bed—and dining on beans and rice.
Perhaps it is because Greenberg, now 39, possesses the soul and stamina of a traveler that he so intuitively grasped what it would require to make his hotel and its restaurant such standouts. Or maybe it was just a matter of inspired amateurism when he decided that he did not want his guests to order meals from a menu. Instead, Elysium offers what Greenberg calls A Chef of Your Own. You decide what you would like for dinner from the ingredients that have been procured earlier that day, and chef Gian Piero Mazzi will create a meal consisting of at least seven tasting-size courses.
My dinner began with seared Hudson Valley duck foie gras over a ginger puree with butternut squash. Wine pairings are given the appropriate level of consideration, and for this dish in which the foie gras predominated, the selection was a sweet white from the Rhône: Domaine de Coyeux (a Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise). The main course featured perfectly cooked rack of lamb served atop a bed of golden chanterelles and accompanied by a small oven-roasted pumpkin filled with sautéed seasonal vegetables. The wine was a Shiraz from Bulletin Place in southeast Australia.
The meal concluded with the Palette d’Amusement from pastry chef Annie Meaghan. It was a plate of four or more colorful spoon-size desserts, including crème brûlée torched and served on a silver teaspoon. Graham’s Six Grapes port proved to be an excellent complement.
Following the meal, I adjourned to my room upstairs where a surprise awaited: a snifter of Amaro Averna, an elixir of 32 herbs devised long ago by Italian monks. Had I preferred, I could have concluded dinner with a digestif—or begun it with hors d’oeuvres and Champagne—in the Federal-style parlor. There are no rules at Morrison House, only the desire to make everyone feel at home.