Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Chef and the Farmer

The Chef and the Farmer has become North Carolina’s best known restaurant. That happens when the chef has her own weekly television show (PBS/WUNC). I enjoy the show, and it provides interesting insights into the operation of a restaurant diligently devoted to the farm to table concept, as well as a celebration of an eastern North Carolina culture that is close to the land.

When tobacco collapsed as a cash crop, the economy of Kinston, Lenoir County, and surrounding areas collapsed with it. To some extent, Chef-proprietor Vivian Howard is helping family farms survive, as local farmers transition from tobacco to food crops. Unlike most restaurant chefs, who design a menu and then buy ingredients to fit it, Howard buys whatever local ingredients are available, fresh, then designs the menu around them. That freshness is evident in every bite.

The restaurant’s popularity- now, after a rough couple of years before 2010- sometimes translates into limited access for prospective customers. The region has profited from the Global Transpark, in the form of several huge factories (I noted a party of about 20 Japanese guests checking in when I stayed at the Kinston Hampton Inn), and it is within a reasonable drive of the Triangle, Greenville, New Bern, and the Crystal Coast. I have looked at reservations several times in the past, to no avail. But when I spoke to the Kinston Rotary club recently, they helped me get in. (When you need to get something done, ask a Rotarian!). If the online reservation shows no availability, call just to make sure. I noted some open seats on the night we visited.

First impression: this place is really loud, and I do not like that at all. Our waiter positioned himself in a location that allowed him to communicate without yelling at us, but he had to work at it, and it was obvious he was aware of the problem. Hard surfaces throughout the interior exacerbate the volume. But they are attractive hard surfaces, with multicolored plank floors and brick walls, in a historic downtown Kinston building. Ample parking is available in a large lot just outside the door. I like looking into the open kitchen, and a line of seats along that wall allows full view. These may be the best seats in the house!

Second impression: I was unnerved somewhat by the wine list. I recognized only a very small number of offerings. The waiter suggested the services of a sommelier, but the long standing tradition of such positions in high end restaurants notwithstanding, I feel more comfortable making my own selections, and I automatically assume that higher markups are necessary in order to support the position. So we opted for wines by the glass. We were pleased to find that small samples are routinely poured, so you don’t have to commit to anything you don’t like. And from the small number of selections by the glass, the ones we chose turned out to be quite good and not too expensive- an Oregon pinot noir, a New Zealand savignon blanc, and a Proseco. Among the handful of bottle selections I did recognize, a Turley zinfandel ($58) made me want to go back and order it with the menu pasta selection. I wish management would post the wine list on the website. Wine misgivings were mostly forgiven.

Our waiter was affable, he knew the menu well, and he made good recommendations. This turned out to be a comfortable place, easy to enjoy, with unique treatments of mostly familiar ingredients.

We started with okra, delightfully tender, fried crisp within a light, almost tempura style treatment, enhanced with ranch ice cream. Let the ice cream melt, and you have one of the best ranch dressings I’ve ever tasted. Dab it on cold, and you get an entertaining interplay of temperatures and textures. We were hooked.

My wife ordered two appetizers, to be served in sequence, for her second and third courses. Fried green tomatoes are quartered (as opposed to sliced, which is the more common treatment), coated with benne seeds (an heirloom variation on sesame seeds), and scattered with goat cheese and tart, green strawberry chutney. The crust is fairly heavy, noteworthy for crispness, and the combination of flavors adds up to one the best renditions I’ve encountered of this perennially popular dish. Slow cooked grits, ladled with gumbo interspersed with andouille sausage and shrimp from Pamlico Sound, was served in a hot iron skillet. Too solid to be a soup or stew, this burst with robust flavors!

My second course was charred green beans. They are scattered with lamb ham, mellow and smoky, plus grilled onions. I could eat these all night. So could my wife, and it is a rare occasion when a kitchen cooks green beans done enough for her but firm enough for me.

I chose trout for my entrée. A whole fish, the cavity stuffed with sliced lemon and herbs, is roasted in a wood burning oven. Pulling the flesh away from the bone is fairly easy, given the tenderness of the fish and the intact spine/ribs. With a bit of care, you can produce almost a quarter of the fish at a time. The flavor is light and pure, infused with the lemon and herbs, complemented with pecan vinaigrette. It was presented over pink lady peas and mustard greens, with sliced muscadine grapes, lightly charred, strung alongside. Visually attractive and imminently fresh.

Concluding impression, based on just one visit: I want to go back. Nothing I have had in the Triad is this original. The attention The Chef and the Farmer has received is justified.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Bigger isn’t better: New England and Canada on Carnival Splendor

My wife and I booked a New England and Canada cruise on Carnival Splendor, after enjoying a Caribbean experience on Carnival Pride. (See my review at We were attracted by the relatively low price as well as the itinerary: New York to Boston; Portland, ME; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and St. John, New Brunswick; back to New York. Other people have written more and better about the destinations; I will concentrate on experiences aboard ship.

Splendor, according to a handout from Carnival, is in the upper range of the line’s ships. The list showed 5 larger ships, 19 smaller, although 5 of those, the Conquest class, also hold close to 3,000 passengers, a size similar to Splendor. The big ship negotiates the water very well. Early in the week, moving at nearly 20 knots into a 40 knot headwind with whitecaps as far as I can see, there is little motion on board.

I heard a Customer Relations officer tell several guests that this cruise is fully booked- approximately 3,100 guests. (Pride, in the Spirit class, carries about 2,000.) Our first impression: Splendor is much more crowded than Pride. Lines of 8-10 people waiting to get water or tea (self-service) at lunch, similar lines to get food at cafeteria style serving stations. Whereas Pride’s Guy Fieri Burger Bar impressed us with hand-packed patties and fresh cut French fries, burgers and fries on Splendor looked and tasted like a frozen product- firmer patties, weaker beef flavor, fries with only mild potato flavor. Good, fresh vegetable preparations in the Italian buffet section, though, and good chicken and shrimp burritos, which we had also enjoyed on Pride.

First night’s dinner impression- a really weak menu. My wife and I both chose salads for a first course- chilled and fresh, but small. She got braised beef brisket- tender but lots of fat; root vegetables consisted mostly of potatoes, flanked by a scoop of mashed potatoes. I got sausage and linguine with tomato sauce, which contained four pieces of Italian sausage. Breakfast the next morning- I got up early enough to avoid a crowd, but “background music” was already too loud for me at 6 a.m. A wide range of morning offerings. Missing- smoked salmon, although there were plenty of breakfast meats and cheeses. As it turned out, breakfast was the only consistently positive meal experience of the week.

The first day/night got off to a bad start, even before the disappointing dinner. I read the FAQs and Carnival contract long before packing. Cruise documents state that each guest is allowed to bring one bottle of wine on board, for consumption in the stateroom, or with a $10-$14 corkage fee if you want to have it in one of the restaurants. When our luggage did not arrive in our room after several hours, we asked our steward for help (cabin stewards are great, btw- on both ships). He immediately asked if we had any alcohol in our bags, then directed us to go to Security. There, we were informed that Carnival prohibits bringing alcohol on board in luggage. We were directed to remove the offending bottles (one in each suitcase). They gave us a receipt and advised that both would be destroyed the next day. No returns allowed. Polite but firm. “Nothing we can do.” I noticed a stack of other impounded bags.

I discussed the issue further with Guest Relations. A very polite officer printed a copy of the policy and contract, after I insisted, and we read it together. According to their interpretation, alcohol is permitted in carry-on luggage, but not in checked luggage. I asked to meet with the Guest Relations manager. After more discussion, she offered to send a bottle of Champagne to our room as compensation for the two bottles that were confiscated. I thought that was reasonable. After re-reading the policy, I still do not find it clear. I would point out that Carnival’s procedure is the opposite of airlines policy, and it also seems to me that if alcohol is permitted in carry-on luggage, in order to ensure verification, after I removed it in front of security, they could have verified it and sent me on my way. In retrospect, Carnival could avoid the problem completely by simply stating that bringing alcohol on board is not allowed. Then I would have known better. As it is, this policy seems to me to be an invitation to conflict.

Here’s hoping the next few days go better. A lot better. We are in an Ocean Suite. We had a veranda suite on Pride, but OS is a lot better and well worth the price difference. Of course, it’s not as nice as staying home, which after the first day/night, is where we wish we were.

After a couple of days, food not improved. Lunch/Brunch in the restaurant is mediocre at best- dryish, overcooked salmon, served barely lukewarm, with a dab of tiny diced peppers with butter, a few pieces of an almost tasteless, room temperature potato casserole alongside; eggs benedict with a strange hollandaise sauce that tasted more of chemicals than fresh egg yolk and butter. Dismayed, we ate dinner Monday night in port- Boston- and lunch Tuesday in port in Portland, Maine. A frozen margarita on board ship in mid-afternoon tasted very sweet, with a chemical aftertaste. (Doubt I’m getting vitamin C from fresh lime juice.) Dinner Tuesday night on board ship- dismal. First courses: very weak flavored, limp shrimp in shrimp cocktail, lots of black beans in chicken quesadilla, two salads. Dry, tough, overcooked pork loin and short ribs (menu word) that consisted of sliced roast beef, dry and firm, with an old beef flavor. Good green beans, barely warm fried rice. Waiter offered to bring something else, but we had had enough. An ongoing impression of crowded spaces- my wife and I have to turn sideways to negotiate a path between tables in the restaurant.

Décor in Splendor’s public spaces, especially the restaurants, looks weird to me. Gaudy Gaudi. Elongated horn of plenty constructs spewing balls. Gray and pink color scheme. Everywhere you go, somebody is trying to sell you something. To get anywhere, you have to walk a gauntlet of hawkers. On the other hand, if you like to play games- Trivia, Bingo, etc.- there are lots of opportunities, and we see clusters of people concentrating on their boards and/or listening intently to the caller.

Comedy Club was a big draw for us, based on our Pride experience. But no shows early in the week until 11:30 p.m. Schedule moved up to 7:30 and 8:30 later for PG rated shows, and it’s good to see comedians who can be funny without being profane. Later shows on Wednesday night were adults only, and they were hilarious as well. These guys don’t just tell jokes. They show the humor in day to day situations, on board ship or wherever you are. Four nights of Comedy Club, all excellent. The highlight of the trip. Our favorite: Rob Little (

Impressions of music are mixed. Some of these performers have difficulty carrying a tune accurately or singing on pitch. But others are really good, and the good ones develop a following early that lasts throughout the cruise. Best, according to my appraisal is Greg Aulden, who sings and plays acoustic guitar. (

Fourth night dinner- finally, a decent meal. Broiled lobster tail and shrimp, on the menu each night for a $20 upcharge, was one of the no extra cost choices this evening. Not overcooked, a simple, buttery preparation. Lukewarm, dryish mashed potatoes and broccoli were the vegetables. Our other entrée selection was broiled red snapper- again, not overcooked, not fishy, another simple preparation with a bit of butter. Service much better than other nights, due to a different seating location with a different service team. I asked the team leader how we could be seated in her section again. She said, “Just ask at the desk.” “No,” was the reply, “you can’t reserve anything in advance, in this restaurant, everything is first come, first served.” So, for prospective Carnival passengers- I would recommend choosing the reserved seating instead of open seating. We got in line early
on subsequent evenings in order to get the seating we wanted.

Cabin stewards not only do their jobs really well, they are just a friendly, happy presence. But most other personnel have a different persona compared to Pride. On Pride, everybody seemed to push the envelope to ensure guest comfort and enjoyment. I remarked that Carnival seemed to have that “fun thing” figured out. But on Splendor, it’s as if managers/officers have been trained to tell you through a smile that there’s nothing that can be done if you are not pleased. Dissatisfaction is your fault and it’s your problem. I had another issue with Customer Relations- charged three times for excursion tickets, credited back once, so still double charged. “I can help you,” replied the very nice lady at the desk. I realized after a few more comments that she meant “I can’t help you” but her articulation in English did not allow the “not” contraction to come through. “Come back at 6 tonight when the excursion desk is open.” We did. They fixed it.

Fifth night dinner not up to par again. My wife ordered lobster tail, based on previous entrée, but tonight’s serving was overcooked and tough, at $20 extra. I ordered braised lamb loin. Even after I peeled away the tough outer gristle and fat, this was tough and chewy and dry. Just poor quality meat. First courses were better- a really good chilled peach soup, and spinach salad with sliced Portobello mushrooms. Fried shrimp were gummy, devoid of quality flavor. I returned my lamb and got beef stroganoff. Small, thin pieces of beef, pasta alongside, swirled in sour cream- mediocre, but edible.

Sixth night dinner somewhat better. A baked white fish with marinara sauce and black olives plus a few capers, for one entrée, broiled large tiger shrimp with tomato sauce, the other. The white fish was touted as a competition winner. Let me assure you, it was not one of the competitions that I have judged, but it was better than most of what we have had. Chilled seafoods appetizer- one small, limp shrimp, very weak flavor, tastes like a frozen product; tuna ceviche- pretty good; and smoked salmon- also pretty good. Aioli and cocktail sauce alongside. Chilled soups are very tasty- peach one night, corn another. Dessert, listed as “Baked Alaska,” is pitiful- chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream of poor quality with a thin meringue on top, sliced and served on its side.

Lunch on the last day, a sea day: Pizza turns out to be the best food on the ship. Flavorful crust, quality cheeses, moderate acid tomato sauce, good quality pepperoni. Poor Reuben sandwich- gristly, tough corned beef. Dinner: We got our hopes up for a good last meal when we tasted the crab cake appetizer- the only thing I have had on the ship that compares favorably to dishes I have rated 2-3 stars in my reviews. An arugula salad was fine, too. But entrees got back to normal, with panko crusted jumbo shrimp turning out to be what appeared to me to be a processed product that might have had shrimp in its heritage but bore neither the taste nor texture of real shrimp. Baked mahi mahi was served lukewarm, roasted potatoes actually cool to the touch. A small ramekin of spinach was decorated with a black olive.

I often speak to civic clubs that meet at Golden Corral. Food on Splendor reminds me of what I encounter in those locations, at least as far as style, but I think the quality of ingredients at Golden Corral is better.

If you can’t enjoy the ship, you can’t enjoy the trip. Although I would give good marks to Splendor for accommodations and entertainment, I considered the food among the worst dining experiences in my life, and I’ve been writing about restaurants for 35 years. Our experience on Pride encouraged us to book on Splendor. Our experience on Splendor ensures we will never book again on Splendor or any other large Carnival ship and makes us reluctant to consider Carnival again at all.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Table 16

My wife and I have been to Table 16 twice recently, with stellar experiences both times. On the current menu, we have had Fried Chicken Livers, Potato Gnocchi- starters, and Halibut and Chicken entrees. Chef/proprietor Graham Heaton is using Poulet Rouge chickens, long, bare-necked ugly birds that have the best flavor and texture of any fowl breed. We also had the Downtown Restaurant Week special- Scallops, pan-seared with fresh cut corn in corn broth with figs and assorted other vegetables, with a glass of Rombauer Chardonnay (one of our favorites). This comes with White Chocolate Tart in caramel sauce with fresh berries. Lush! Price for entree, wine, and dessert: $20.18. Chef Heaton came here from La Rez in Chapel Hill, to open his own restaurant. That's one of the premier places in the state, and he has done an admirable job of adapting prices (lower than when he started) and styles to Greensboro, while retaining his high level of creativity. Whenever anyone asks, "What's the best restaurant in town?" Table 16 always comes to mind first. The Restaurant Week special is still available tonight (Friday, August 28).

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

MELT- new panini restaurant

Jennifer Bringle, my colleague at the News and Record, has written about Melt (2270 Golden Gate Dr, Greensboro, NC 27405, 336-617-4664). I want to add my voice to the accolades. Check menu at The brussels sprouts are crisp and richly flavored, fried, augmented with dried cherries. The duck fat fries convey the flavor of real potatoes plus duck. I have had bites of several paninis, all exceptional, prepared from quality ingredients. Salads are large and abundantly flavored. Highly recommended!

Friday, May 29, 2015

Upcoming Public Appearances

I’ll be signing copies of my new book, Chefs of the Coast: Restaurants and Recipes from the North Carolina Coast. You are invited to these events. No admission, no ticket needed!

Tuesday, June 2, 7 p.m., Scuppernong Books, 304 South Elm Street, Greensboro. I will be serving crab dip. Open bar!

Wednesday, June 10, Scuttlebutt Nautical Books & Bounty, 5:00 p.m., 433 Front St Beaufort, NC 28516. Local chefs will be attending, too

Saturday, June 13, Walkertown Library, Walkertown, 10 a.m.-12 noon

Monday, June 15, Asheboro library, Asheboro, 6-7 p.m.

Wednesday, June 17, Pomegranate Books, 5:00 p.m., 4418 Park Avenue, Wilmington. Several local chefs will be attending, too!

Thursday, June 25, Duck’s Cottage, 1240 Duck Road, Duck. Several local chefs will be attending, too!

Friday, June 26, Downtown Books, 105 Sir Walter Raleigh St., Manteo. Several local chefs will be attending, too!

Saturday, June 27, Page after Page bookstore, Elizabeth City, 10-2. Andy Montero, chef/owner of Montero’s, will attend, too!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Dinner at Bluewater Grille

Another outstanding meal at Bluewater Grille ( Their calamari is unique- cut like French fries, but tender. Crab Cake, with grilled artichoke and caper remoulade sauce, is one of the best preparations in the Triad, full of crabmeat lumps. BWG Shrimp are pan-seared, treated with a beer and Worcestershire broth. Blackened Mahi Tacos are augmented with a pineapple salsa, which marries well with the blackening spices. Mussels rest in a bacon, shallot, gorgonzola broth. My wife and I shared an Arugula Salad, with roasted red and yellow beets, sliced apples, prosciutto, toasted pumpkin seeds, and pickled shallots, dressed in a blood orange-ginger vinaigrette.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dinner at Cafe Pasta

Enjoyed dinner at Cafe Pasta last night. Their almond crusted salmon exhibits pleasant texture and flavor, and it represents a particularly good value, even by the high value standard of Cafe Pasta. Also had a sea bass special- nice and fresh, pleasantly seared. I still like their pastas, but I mention these to point out that they do a lot more than pasta. Cheesecake is the best!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Carnival Cruise in the Western Caribbean

My wife and I booked one of those supposedly deep discounted Caribbean cruises this fall. We spent a week on board Carnival Pride. The ship seems huge, although it is not by any means in the largest class. Ten story elevators transport 2000 passengers, with one bank of three elevators glassed in, providing a multi-story view. Décor reminds me of Las Vegas- a little glitzy, nothing understated, but pleasant enough.

Initial reactions to the food yielded some misgivings. For lunch, about a dozen stations follow various themes- burgers, tacos and burritos, Chinese, Italian, a salad bar, a deli, a carving station. The salad bar is pretty much like any other. A grilled Reuben from the deli came on nicely grilled bread with good rye flavor, but the meat was fatty-soft.

There are bars all over the ship. We bought an inclusive package, which covered all sodas and alcohol, up to 15 alcoholic beverages in a 24 hour period. I would not do that again. It added over $800 to the bill, and there was no way we would drink that much. We tried a couple of the bars on the first afternoon. My tequila drink tasted like chemicals and water, plus sugar, with mild fruity flavor. Dale’s “tea” was a lot better- mostly fruit and citrus flavors, followed by liquors.

We chose dinner at the Steakhouse, mainly because the meal included a free bottle of wine for first night guests. The menu is steakhouse-conservative. A shrimp cocktail turned out to be one of the best we’ve ever had- large shrimp in citrus marinade, mesclun greens, and a horseradish cocktail sauce. Crab cake was good, too- lump crabmeat, enough breading to hold it together, solid crab flavor, augmented by mild remoulade. Tuna tartare used good quality tuna, with almost all gristle trimmed out, seasoned with a little garlic. Caesar salad was prepared tableside. Steaks were disappointing, though. Meats were beautifully displayed on a trolley, but what we were served did not match up to what we were shown. Filet mignon was gristly-chewy; ribeye bore a texture more like NY Strip, not marbled, with only mild flavor. Portions were big- over a pound. Both were cooked slightly more than ordered. The steakhouse added a $35 per person supplement. We did not go back.

The Carnival website provides good photos of the rooms. We booked one of the lower priced cabins, one step above the lowest, with an outside veranda. It turned out to be large enough, well arranged, and we liked the balcony. An accommodating guest services agent let us visit an unoccupied ocean suite, and if we took another cruise on Carnival, I would think seriously about that upgrade.

The first day’s safety drill was held about an hour later than scheduled. At muster, I asked a crew member which lifeboat we should get in. It was obvious that he did not understand what I was asking, due to limited English proficiency. He looked at my room card, shrugged, said we were station “B,” which we knew, and that’s where we were standing. He looked around and replied, “They’re all OK.” Which I guess is actually the arrangement. A misgiving- I can imagine the chaos that could ensue if hundreds of people tried to board the lifeboat of their choice in a real emergency. While we were waiting, a guy nearby pointed out that the sound system was playing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” He commented, “I like Gordon Lightfoot, but if they play the theme from Titanic, I’m outa here.”

The more acquainted we became with the ship and its amenities, however, the more we liked it.

Lunch in the taco-burrito bar used quality pulled pork and chicken, with myriad serve yourself condiments, all tasty. Pizza was good, and you can get pizza just about all day or night. We especially enjoyed fresh roasted turkey from the carving station. The real winner was Guy Fieri’s Burger Bar- excellent, hand packed patties, and fresh cut French fries. Lesson learned- if you choose well, the food is good.

Dinner on all subsequent nights was good, too. You can schedule a reservation in advance or take open seating. You have an assigned table, so you get to know your waiter well. Food and wine service were excellent, and that’s not a word I use casually. Wines by the glass are very good and reasonably priced- most below $10, and those above that price point were well worth it. They top out around $12. Bottle selections are quite reasonable as well. Reinforced conclusion- just buy your alcohol one drink at a time or splurge a bit for a bottle at dinner. This kitchen is at its best with comfort food- slowly braised meats and chicken, for example, or lasagna. And they are very flexible. If you want a couple of appetizers instead of an entrée, that’s fine.

We did not try room service. Only sandwiches are available. A mild disappointment.

A ship this size provides more entertainment opportunities than smaller ships. We went to the comedy club every night after dinner. The stand-ups weren’t just good, they were hilarious. I worried about whiplash as I watched my wife slashing back and forth, she was laughing so hard. They change out comics in every port, moving them from one ship to another, so there is a fresh act every night. Music was quite good, too, in several venues from singers in a bar to a show tunes ensemble on stage.

As far as ports go, in the Caribbean, I am coming to the conclusion that it almost doesn’t matter. We stopped in Cozumel, Belize, Isla Roatan in Honduras, and Grand Cayman. In each location, and in all the other Caribbean ports we’ve been to, there is a nice beach side shopping area with duty free goods. But you have to know what you’re buying. I found that liquor prices ranged from about 30 percent less than what I see at home to about 30 percent more. I’ve never seen what I considered a good buy in wine at any shop in the Caribbean. Jewelry- well, not my thing, anyway, although this seems to be the real specialty. If you plan to shop, check local prices and internet prices before you go, and compare. Don’t assume duty free means lower prices.

You can buy tours of the ports. But a ship hostess cautioned that venturing out on your own might not be such a good idea, at least not walking around in towns. There are plenty of rental cars, so you could explore the islands if you wanted to. Grand Cayman is much more modern- think Myrtle Beach or Miami, without high rise buildings- with traffic going in the wrong direction. Some other Caribbean islands route traffic to the left, too, if they were formerly British colonies. Don’t plan to drive unless you’ve figured this out.

The main reason to take a Caribbean cruise is to enjoy the ship. And we did. Carnival touts their “fun ships” and I think they have that fun thing pretty well figured out. We found ourselves comparing the Carnival experience to another Caribbean cruise we took on a small, “boutique ship” on one of the all-inclusive, premium lines. I’m not saying Carnival is just as good. It’s not. But it is very enjoyable, entertainment is better, and Carnival costs a lot less. You could take at least two, probably three cruises on Carnival for the price of the premium lines. A very attractive alternative.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

I have a real website now

I have a real author website now! Check out (How's this for a short post?)