Chain restaurants may be a threatened species in North Carolina. Many chefs in the Tar Heel state are drawing record crowds of diners by embracing the ‘farm to table’ or ‘slow food’ philosophy and serving their guests only fresh, local ingredients with a southern twist.
On a recent trip to the scenic and very hospitable western end of North Carolina we purposely avoided the chains and stuck with Carolina cuisine that reflected southern roots and imaginative flair.
Our introduction to this culinary creativity came in Charlotte, the state’s largest city, with its new emphasis on fresh and local. Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen on North College Street is a good example. Chef Joe Kindred told us he creates a “new, southern cuisine” by mixing Italian, French and Southern US influences and getting all his ingredients from local farms. Even the furniture is made locally. Meats and many of Chef Kindred’s vegetables are roasted over hickory wood imparting a succulent flavour. We especially enjoyed tender and juicy barbequed chicken. The only exception to Roosters’s local rule is the fresh mussels and we were delighted to learn that they’re flown in from Prince Edward Island!
Even more down-home southern cooking comes from Mert’s Heart and Soul, a lively African-American restaurant that specializes in mac and cheese, hot buttery sweet cornbread, shrimp and grits and huge glasses of sweet iced tea. After lots of jerk-seasoned BBQ pulled pork, black-eyed peas and collard greens we left very full and very aware that we were in the south.
Our final Charlotte stop was at the Harvest Moon Grill, located within the historic Dunhill Hotel, one of the few older downtown buildings to escape the wrecker’s ball. Chef Patty Green insists that all her supplies are organic with no hormones, pesticides or antibiotics. She buys free-range pork and grass-fed beef from local farmers to produce dishes that “appeal to all the senses.” She says she wants her food “to fill your mouth with flavour.” After sampling her trout three ways, fried okra, carrot salad with garlic, chicken comfit and pork chops with smoked sweet potato purée we agree she has succeeded admirably. Her salted caramel pot de crème dessert was divine.
Heading west on the way to Asheville we stopped in Hickory, a city of 40,000 best know for its furniture manufacturing and huge furniture retail outlets. But its cuisine follows that ‘slow food’ philosophy with several talent chefs providing tasty local fare.
Chef Josh Phillips attended the Culinary Institute of America and his restaurant, Josh’s on Union Square, combines casual comfort food and fine dining. His lunchtime sandwiches, on sourdough or multigrain, are particularly good. Youssef 242 is considered the best restaurant in Hickory and we met Chef Youssef Amrani who told us about his Moroccan roots and commitment to local products. The Mediterranean influence was obvious in delicious dishes like deep fried green and purple okra with pimento cheese and lamb tenderloin with couscous. His desserts, however, were mixed. The pineapple upside down cake was spectacular but the bread pudding was somewhat dry.
When we hit Asheville after a picturesque drive from Hickory along the Blue Mountain Parkway, we headed for the 12 Bones Smokehouse, reputed to be President Obama’s favourite BBQ joint. Known for long lines and generous portions of pungent, aromatic cuts of smoked beef, chicken, turkey and pork, we felt positively presidential as we enjoyed brisket, ribs and pulled pork along with made-from-scratch corn pudding, mashed sweet potato, collard greens and jalapeno cheese grits.
Dinner in downtown Asheville was a special treat at Posana, a totally gluten-free and organic restaurant that’s also the first in North Carolina to be certified as Green. The low-carbon footprint did not affect Chef Peter Pollay’s cuisine however as we began our meal with an imaginative brussels sprout salad (with apples, sunflower seeds, stilton blue cheese and honey-buttermilk dressing) and a tasty kale salad (with toasted pumpkin seeds, currants, manchego style cheese, lemon and olive oil). Both were unusual and, apparently a big hit with kids as well. Our main courses were equally innovative and included giant scallops and local barrelfish (a type of bass). We didn’t need it but a dessert sampler included Opera Torte, caramel cheesecake and North Carolina Apple Cherry Pandowdy.
One of Asheville’s most popular restaurants, and deservedly so, is the Tupelo Honey Café where everything s made from scratch. With generous servings big enough to share, this North Carolina institution serves its food southern style with flair. The unique Appalachian Egg Rolls use pulled pork in BBQ sauce rolled with braised greens, pickled onions and shredded carrots while amazing main dishes include tangy shrimp and goat cheese grits and root beer molasses glazed pork tenderloin accompanied by hot biscuits and honey.
We didn’t expect North Carolina’s most popular tourist attraction to include an outstanding restaurant. But the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, featuring the largest private home in the United States (built by George Vanderbilt, it includes some 250 rooms), includes several great places to eat. We tried the popular Stable Café that used to house horses 100 years ago but now feeds thousands of tourists authentic southern cuisine at reasonable prices. Chef Brian Hough makes everything in-house including fried local cheese curds, bangers and hash (with hand-made grilled sausage) and a Stable sampler of spice-rubbed baby back ribs, pulled pork and rotisserie chicken with white beans, collard greens, cole slaw and sweet pickles.
We marvelled at the extraordinary landscapes, unique attractions and friendly folks of Western North Carolina but we especially enjoyed the southern hospitality of the many restaurants that promote the fresh and local concept. It’s a philosophy that makes this state extremely attractive to any visitors who want the best of southern food while avoiding the bland sameness of chain restaurants.
All photos by John and Sandra Nowlan – All Rights Reserved
Chef Brian’s spicy shrimp & grits Tupalo Honey Cafe
Posana chef Peter Pollay with dessert assortment
Posana Giant Scallops with beans & pumplin puree
Tupalo Honey Cafe in Downtown Asheville
Youssef 242 Lamb tenderloin with couscous & roasted vegs
Mert’s Heart & Soul – Southern Cookin’ and plenty of it.
President Obama’s favourite BBQ – 12 Bones in Asheville