As time goes by, I value authenticity more and more. Perhaps it's because it's becoming rarer--society seems to stamp out boatloads of copies of anything that's successful. There must be a dozen pleasant, but unmemorable, chain restaurants within five miles of my house. And little else. We're up to, what--eight?--Fast and Furious movies. On television, there seems to be an "NCIS" in every city and a "Real Housewives" in every neighborhood. Hard to tell any of them apart. I could go on and on. So when I find something that's genuine, original and good--it's worth shouting about. If you value authenticity and if you like food and wine, you owe it to yourself to visit The Whole Ox Butcher Bar & Shop in Marshall, Virginia.
Building something genuine, original and good isn't easy. It takes imagination...passion... commitment...patience...and willingness to take risk. Derek and Amanda Luhowiak developed a passion for good food early--in fact, it brought them together. They began with mobile presentations--the food cart/food truck idea. Offering creative, delicious food in that format took imagination. They were consistently looking for great sources--local, but not just local...well-produced, humanely produced, environmentally-sound. That was particularly true of meats. They couldn't find anything that quite fit the bill. So they took a risk and opened a butcher shop--initially, inside an IGA grocery store, then in their own space inside the old train station in The Plains, then--as of 2015--their own building on Main Street in Marshall. That's where I found them (at least eventually). I'd been making the drive to McLean to find a decent butcher. But I began hearing raves about a butcher in The Plains, so I set off in search. I found the old station...but couldn't find The Whole Ox. I thought I must have the wrong address. I drove around and around. No sign. Finally, I stopped at a little grocer and asked. The owner laughed and said "They moved to Marshall yesterday!" and pointed me down the road. I found it--and have been going back ever since.
It's a great butcher shop. If you live in the western DC suburbs or the Virginia Piedmont, I highly recommend it. But this is a wine blog, not a meat blog. So I want to get to the rest of the story. Remember, Derek and Amanda began in the (mobile) restaurant business. It wasn't long before they began to experiment with offering a few meals in the evenings at the shop--moving tables around at 5:30 to turn the Butcher Shop into the Butcher Bar. It was an immediate success--so successful, in fact, that they quickly realized they were going to exceed the capacity of their license and had to reapply for a full restaurant license. There's a focus on meats, of course...great meats, interesting cuts, creative presentations. But it's not just meats. I've had some great vegetable side dishes, for example, some interesting appetizers and the soups are among the best anywhere. Oh, and the cheeseburger? Fabulous! Best I've had in a long time...maybe ever.
It's very casual--very unfussy. For example, wines are served in small tumblers--the way they might be at a classic trattoria in Italy. And wines are the rest of the story. While the focus in the shop is on meat, they have evolved into a specialty grocer as well. They have things like fresh vegetables and breads from local producers. And they have an interesting selection of wines. Andrew Napier is the wine buyer for The Whole Ox. Andrew has a variety of experience, working in vineyards and wineries as well as food venues. He has a knack for finding interesting, food-friendly wines from off the beaten path--for example, whites from San Gimignano (Tuscany) and reds from Vittoria (Sicily)--they can offer at reasonable prices. It's not all low-priced--I found a rare blanc de blanc from Champagne superstar Ulysse Collin there. But much of the selection fits the ambiance of the place itself: unfussy, authentic and delicious.
Here's where it all comes together in something unique. Imagine if you could go into a butcher shop and pick out anything you want...then turn to a wine shop and pick out anything you want...and then give it all to a talented cook and say make a great meal out of this--all for an affordable price! That's pretty much what you can do at The Whole Ox! You have an outstanding casual restaurant with creative cooking. It capitalizes on the meats of the best specialty butcher in the area. And now, you can choose any bottle of wine in the shop and they'll open it and serve it to you for price plus $10 corkage fee!
Derek and Amanda have created something genuine. Something original. Something really good.
The restaurant is open evenings Tuesday through Saturday. You owe it to yourself to go.
Oh, and if--like me--you value authenticity, in thinking about this story I think I developed some insight into how to find it. Start by looking for authentic people.