My March to the Sea: A Journey to Some of the Best New Southern Cooking

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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.

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Chef
Tucker Yoder of the Red Hen cutting house cured bacon

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.

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Dishes at the pass at The Red Hen

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.

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Chef John Shields of Town House

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.

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Vegetable "Minestrone" at Town House

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.

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Pastry Chef Karen Urie Shields of Town House

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.

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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.

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South Carolina quail at The Admiral

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.

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Chef Sean Brock of MacCrady's

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.

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Preserved parsnips at McCrady's

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.


This entry was posted in Culinary Personalities, Food and Drink, Restaurants, Slow Food, Southern Food & Cooking, Top Restaurant Meals, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to My March to the Sea: A Journey to Some of the Best New Southern Cooking

  1. Brianemone says:

    McCrady’s and Town House are two places I would love to visit if I find myself in the US. There’s also something fantastic about places like The Red Hen, one guy, doing his thing. It’s a shame places like that don’t often get the recognition they deserve.

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