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.