Unlike another invader who came from the north, I did not descend upon the south to plunder and conquer, intent on leaving a wake of devastation. No, I came to discover for myself some of what I have heard so much about, the reawakening of contemporary southern cooking from Appalachia to the Carolina coast. While I have heard many good things about contemporary cooking all over the south and have become familiar with much of it in and around New Orleans of late, I decided to focus on a path that would lead me from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Carolina sea.
Starting out from a weekend of excellent eating in Philadelphia, I ventured south into Virginia with my wife and 10 year old son, shooting down past Washington, D.C. to Charlottesville to reacquaint ourselves with Mr. Jefferson, his home and his “academical village.” Unfortunately, we didn't eat anything of positive note there, as our time was spent revisiting old haunts.
Our next evening found us in Lexington, VA, to some the heart of the old south as it was the home of General Robert E. Lee. Set amongst the beautiful rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley, Lexington is an atmospheric academic town, hosting both Washington & Lee University and The Virginia Military Institute. Both institutions boast of close associations to both Lee and Stonewall Jackson, Lee's close associate and legendary general, who ultimately succumbed from complications of “friendly fire.” Today though, Lexington has something special for those on the trail of really good food to go with their history and scenery.
The Red Hen is a cozy, casual restaurant located in downtown Lexington with beautiful, big flavored food that highlights the area's produce and respects the area's culinary traditions while expressing the culinary creativity of Chef Tucker Yoder. We sat at the 3 person kitchen bar overlooking the action, while Chef Yoder, who cooks alone, prepared our dinner and that of the other guests of the restaurant. Yoder utilized seasonal locally sourced elements such as rabbit, beets, arugula, grits, grass-fed beef, wheat berries, favas, house cured bacon from local heritage pigs and mixed these with ingredients brought to the mountains like scallops, halibut and chocolate to create a personal cuisine, that while not strictly local, had a definite sense of place and personality. Whether doing a version of North Carolina style barbecue with rabbit, vinegar based bbq sauce and pickling spices or pairing local, grass-fed beef with stone-ground Anson Mills grits or a perfect scallop with a bright green arugula sauce with house cured lardons or any of the other outstanding dishes, Yoder never failed to please. Amongst the excellent wine pairings, Yoder also poured two local hard ciders from nearby Foggy Ridge including the crisp and bracing “First Fruit” and with dessert, the acid-balanced, but sweet and delicious Pippin Gold. The Red Hen, though easy to miss due to its diminutive size, is not a restaurant that should be overlooked. In addition, the nearby Hampton Inn Col Alto, which incorporates an old mansion, is simply the finest Hampton Inn I have ever seen, let alone stayed in.
Hopping on I-81 South, a few hours later we arrived in Abingdon, Virginia, a town known for a few things including The Barter Theater, The Martha Washington Inn and the unfortunately now defunct Camp Sequoya, famous (to me at least) as the place where my wife and her sisters spent several summers of their youth. Heretofore always a main attraction of the area, Abingdon is now also becoming known as a town close to Chilhowie, Virginia, which is located about twenty minutes further north on I-81.What is so special about Chilhowie, you ask? While I suppose there may be other elements to recommend this quaint, blink-of-an-eye town, there is one thing that must make any contemporary food-obsessed person make a beeline for it. John Shields and his wife Karen Urie Shields, with Tru, Charlie Trotter's and Alinea on their combined resumes, decided several years ago to answer an add seeking a chef to run a restaurant in the middle of this small town. They took the job rather than go to Las Vegas to open the new outpost of Charlie Trotter. Arriving in Chilhowie in January of 2008. With restaurant owners happy to let them cook as they wished in order to make Town House a destination restaurant, the husband and wife team did just that and with an award as one of Food and Wine's 2010 Best New Chefs, the country has taken notice.
To my palate and experience, John, Karen and their team is the most Spanish, non-Spanish restaurant I have experienced in this country. With an aesthetic and sensibility similar to Andoni Luis Aduriz, Joan Roca and Francisco “Paco” Morales, the Town House Kitchen is using the best seasonal and local ingredients to serve exquisitely beautiful and delicious food such as the stunning “Chilled Vegetable Minestrone” with 19 different vegetables cut, rolled and placed on end in a bowl with a vegetable consommé poured around it. Additional highlights included a self-consciously “Spanish” homage entitled “The Orange From Valencia” in which liquid nitrogen is used to make an orange “skin” from orange juice with mussels, marcona almonds, bread crumbs and other delights occupying the orange's interior and a “risotto” of squid that utilized neither rice nor dairy products. Karen's desserts were equally exquisite, employing a symphony of flavors, herbs and textures to achieve beautiful, harmonious and delicious results. Since we were the last ones left in the restaurant by the end of our meal, John & Karen invited our son to help them plate the final dessert course. His ear to ear grin was priceless.
Our son was enthralled throughout the four hour dinner, tasting and enjoying each dish as well as the imaginative and successful non-alcoholic pairings prepared specifically for him (or anyone else who would like them). The wine pairings poured for my wife, my sister-in-law (who met us to re-visit Camp Sequoya with my wife) were equally imaginative and satisfying. Both the wine and non-alcoholic pairings were overseen and served by Abingdon native, Certified Sommelier Charlie Berg.
Though not limited to sourcing locally, John & Karen have committed to using the best of what this agriculturally rich region has to offer. While not the easiest place to get to, Town House is worth the journey and with accomodations like their own two-bedroom luxury inn Riverstead or the grand old Martha Washington Hotel to stay in, it can be quite comfortable as well.
We continued our journey to the sea, veering to the southeast to spend some time in the lovely mountain city of Asheville, N.C. It had been a few years since I had been to Asheville and it was a great opportunity to reconnect with some old friends. Asheville has become known as a beer making and beer drinking city, but that is not what we focused on. Instead, we went to a non-descript, self-described “dive” of a restaurant located in West Asheville called The Admiral. Non-descript and divey it may be, but The Admiral has certainly generated a following in Asheville. With food as flavorful as we had, it is no surprise that getting a last minute reservation proved difficult with us having to settle on the uncivilized time of 5:30PM (but at least they take reservations). With bold flavors and a lack of pretense, the restaurant struck me as a southern version of Momofuko Ssam Bar. Keeping the Benton's bacon, but substituting grits, peaches and green tomatoes for the Asian accents of David Chang, The Admiral delivered with dishes such as South Carolina quail with arugula, peach vinaigrette, avocado crema and pickled onion and Sonoma Farms duck breast with heirloom tomatoes, pickled plums, Benton's bacon and blue cheese amongst others.
Though not likely to open until late November, we spent a good part of the rest of the evening bringing together our old friends with some newer ones, who were telling us about their upcoming Spanish tapas oriented restaurant called Cúrate (which has me itching to return to Asheville once it opens). With a capable, motivated and seasoned team including the man who was primarily responsible for serving my table with poise, grace and fun during my first visit to elBulli, who will be responsible for running the front of the house and with advice and support from such luminaries as the Adria brothers and Jose Andres, Cúrate has the potential to be a destination restaurant in its own right.
From Asheville, it was a hop, skip and a three hour jump straight down I-26 to the sea and Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is a fascinating, charming and historic old city with plenty to recommend it. The city has plenty of excellent restaurants including ones like Fig, which boasts James Beard award winner Mike Lata running the kitchen, but on this occasion, the purpose was to visit a restaurant that has been on my wish list for quite some time – Sean Brock's McCrady's. What has intrigued me about Brock and McCrady's has been Brock's way of uniting two of my favorite culinary interests – preservation of biodiversity as it pertains to food and the use of creative technique to enhance the presentation and overall pleasure of a dish. Brock considers his style with food as “95% refinement and 5% play,” using various tricks from contemporary kitchen tools to enhance the delivery and sophistication of his dishes. With a farm at his disposal to help rescue and preserve seed stock of such important southern tradition foods as benne (the forerunner of modern sesame), Ossabaw pigs and various other entities, Brock has a kitchen and a pulpit to put them to use. His house-cured 18 month Ossabaw ham was silky and delicious in a way that I had never previously experienced outside of eating the best Jamon Iberico de Bellota in Spain. In the same way, the Ossabaw tenderloin reminded me in flavor of Iberico tenderloin in Spain, both cooked to a wonderfully flavorful and juicy medium rare. Brock is fanatical when it comes to flavor and freshness, using herbs freshly snipped from his herb garden just outside the restaurants entrance because, by using them freshly cut, they retain more of their aromatics and taste better. Brock is just as fanatical though, about preserving the bounty of the seasons, as much of the restaurant's kitchen time is spent preserving meats and vegetables for future consumption through curing, pickling or canning techniques. In the not too distant future, the Abingdon, Virginia born and raised Brock is planning on opening an additional restaurant in Charleston not far from McCrady's, called Husk. This restaurant will be dedicated to serving nothing but southern food, that is to say, food from the southern tradition and food that is grown and raised only in the South. It will be a place where much of Brock's heirloom seed and livestock are brought back to their rightful places of culinary glory.
Sherman wreaked havoc and destruction throughout the South during his march to the sea almost 150 years ago. Additional destruction and devastation arrived in the south as with the rest of the country later in the twentieth century as the rise of modern agricultural practice and large-scale agribusiness wreaked havoc on Southern culinary traditions nearly eliminating many heirloom products, putting many small farmers out of business and white-washing long-standing culinary traditions. Fortunately, thanks to organizations like The Southern Foodways Alliance and individuals like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills and Sean Brock, all has not been lost. I am happy to say, that in my march to the sea today, southern food is still alive and prospering with great local product, great creativity and a respect bordering on reverence for the region. Depending on the kind of Southern food one is looking for, there may be different routes to highlight the specific target, such as the Southern Foodways Alliance's distinct culinary tours. I daresay, however, that for fine dining, nary a better path for a week's worth of incredible dining, solemn history and beautiful scenery can be found to surpass the one described here.
Keep your eyes on this blog for more detailed descriptions of my experiences at the above restaurants.