Math is a funny thing.I don’t typically find it intuitive. It always gave me headaches in school, but I somehow managed to get through it. Sometimes, though, it makes complete sense. Such is the case with Chefs Kim Floresca and Daniel Ryan, two chefs who have forged a personal and professional team of themselves over the last twelve years and work together as a single entity. It is perfectly appropriate, therefore, that the first restaurant strictly under their guidance, located in Chapel Hill, N.C., is called [One] Restaurant.
Floresca and Ryan met about twelve years ago while working at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, CO. They have been together ever since, compiling individual and combined culinary resumes the envy of any chef of their era, including stints at elBulli (where they were featured in Lisa Abend’s sterling read, The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli), Mugaritz, Alinea, Per Se, The French Laundry and The Restaurant at Meadowood amongst others. Their time in Spain was as winners of the prestigious ICEX program that brings talented foreign cooks to stage in Spain. They learned a lot along the way and it shows in the quality of their concepts and their execution.
I recently had the opportunity to visit One with my son, L.J., on our way home from a family trip to Hilton Head Island. At One, we met up with an old high school buddy of mine, Pete, who lives in the area. Initially, we were to just have cocktails, but the evening was looking so promising, that Pete, who hadn’t previously dined at One, stayed to join us for dinner.
The background of Floresca and Ryan is clearly embedded in the world of fine dining and One Restaurant certainly is that. Their years in Spain at the meccas of Vanguardism taught them both many tricks and techniques as well as a strong sense of humor, which they continue to utilize in their cooking, albeit without an overemphasis of the display of the technical side of their cooking. Their time with Keller, Achatz and then Kostow imbued a sense of American fine dining style in their work as well as in the ambiance of the restaurant.
The Triangle of Raleigh/Durham and Chapel Hill has experienced tremendous growth over the past few decades in many ways. The population, many of whom have descended from the northeastern USA (e.g. my friend, Pete) has exploded, as have the economic opportunities and the money that comes along with that. An off-shoot of that economic stimulation is a greater potential to support an ambitious food scene. The result is the ability of a restaurant like One to take root in the kind of environment in which it has. The talents of Floresca and Ryan are such that they could conceivably create a destination restaurant in the middle of a difficult to get to location and its success, at least critically, much like that of John and Karen Urie Shields under similar circumstances at Townhouse in Chilhowie, Virginia, would not come as a surprise. What does come as a bit of a surprise with One, however, is that it foregoes the bucolic charms of a country destination spot, for what is, essentially, a location in a glorified suburban strip mall. The fact that the experience provided makes the diner forget that fact, is a testament, not just to their skills and talents, but also to the vision and commitment of the restaurant’s owners. At the higher end of dining, in places like elBulli and The Restaurant at Meadowood, the setting is often a major component of the experience. At One, that may not be the case in the positive sense, but a lot of work goes into keeping it from being a detraction. It’s not that the setting around the restaurant is ugly or run-down – it isn’t. It just isn’t anything particularly special in its own right. It is a modern American development.
The spacious lounge and bar is located off to the side of the main entrance of what is a surprisingly large restaurant space for a fine dining establishment. The lounge is smartly laid out and stylish with a bank of synced tv monitors behind the bar playing classic black and white movies, which create an alluring visual effect. It is clear that expense had not been spared in the design of any part of the restaurant itself.
Even more alluring are the cocktails, which are well-conceived and crafted with quality ingredients. The presence of Sherry and Axta Spanish Vermouth hinted at the chefs’ Spanish culinary backgrounds, a fact that warms my heart given my personal predilection for Spanish culinary custom and product. The Ancho Libre was a very tasty cocktail that combined my love for the Spanish in the form of the aforementioned Axta Vermut Rojo with that for Mexico in the form of Ancho Reyes liqueur abetted by “Spanish Bitters” and lime juice.
We had the choice of sitting at the bar overlooking the ample open kitchen or at a table in the dining room. Had we been there on a romantic tete-a-tete or a business meeting, we likely would have chosen the latter, but since just being together and enjoying the meal in all of its aspects, of course, we chose the former. We also chose the “Impromptu Chefs Tasting Menu” over a smaller four course tasting or a la carte options.
I love the view of a well run kitchen. It is quiet and intricate, detailed and informative and a show in and of itself. A kitchen must have confidence to work openly and it was quite apparent from the earliest stages that that was present at One. A frequent peeve of mine in high quality restaurants is low quality lighting. If food is prepared with presentation in mind then the diner ought to be able to fully appreciate that by seeing it in good light. The designers of One understand lighting. It was good enough to appreciate the work of the kitchen, but focused enough that neither mood nor romance had been lost.
Shortly after being seated we received a battery of small plates, each showing a sense of place as well as a sense of humor. But it wasn’t just the dishes that had a sense of humor. Kim Floresca brought us our initial snacks and with a totally deadpan delivery, laid me low, cutting to the heart of what I do here. It turned out to be a wonderful ice breaker and a harbinger of the sensational meal that was to come.
We received three different snacks at the same time with each providing reinforcement of our geographic and cultural locations. Pimento cheese and crackers screams of the South and has about as many variations as there are communities in the region. Floresca and Ryan delivered about as elevated a rendition as can be imagined without removing the essence of the cultural icon. Pimento cheese is not high-fallutin’. It’s trailer park food in the best sense. It is a conglomeration of normally humble ingredients turned into something synergistic. While I suspect that the ingredients at play at One may not be as humble as most forms of the classic, the bite retained its creamy, slightly sweet pepper nature enveloped by a crackling crisp cracker. This was a nod that the chefs, though not originally from the region, knew very well where the were.
Hush puppies were another nod to classic southern food, but once again these were dressed up, here with blue corn, trout roe and crema, that made them resemble Russian blinis more than the classic southern hush puppy.
The opening ode to the South closed with a Modernist version of “Shrimp & Grits.” Incorporating the flavors of the classic, this example took great liberties with the texture, transforming the dish from a paean to creaminess to one of supplication to all that is crispy. None of these interpretations were meant to displace the Southern traditionals, but to honor them by recognition and a creative approach.
The last snack was the only one of the four that did not reflect on Southern tradition. Instead, it was a creative homage to the Thomas Keller classic, Salmon Cornets. Having worked at both The French laundry and Per Se, its no surprise that their Keller experience should come through here. While visually suggestive of that Keller classic, the flavors and textures were sufficiently different to make this their own. Each of the snacks demonstrated a strong sense of whimsy and a recognition of tradition and history, albeit with a transformative edge. Three of the snacks exclaimed that the chefs know very well where they are, while the other stated that, while respecting the location and tradition, they would not be beholden to it.
We enjoyed wine pairings with the courses. The wines were well selected, starting with an Italian sparkling wine made from pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes with the methode champenoise. Wine director Sean Rouch did a nice job of keeping the wines interesting and en pointe with the dishes served. His choices, highly international in nature, supported the dishes without overshadowing them.
The first full course was a green-tinged shell, Hawker’s Island (N.C.) oyster finessed with a frozen pork broth, Kim’s chee and mustard oil. Its coldness made it a very refreshing treat on a summer’s night. The flavors were balanced and more nuanced than I might have expected from some typically assertive components.
Is there a more Southern vegetable than okra? If there is, I can’t think of it. This dish is emblematic of the couple’s creative approach to food, locale and tradition. Fried okra is particularly Southern, but they didn’t do the expected and fry the vegetable itself. No, they stuffed and fried the okra flower, thereby riffing on a number of traditions, while tipping their collective hats to the region that they are in. This was a very well thought out, constructed and executed dish that amused, bemused and seduced me.
The next dish was one of sheer brilliance, undoubtedly destined for my year-end list of Top 10 dishes. Called “Golden Flavors” the dish was a sensational study of the flavors of gold with subtle shifts of flavor from one ingredient to the next. I’m not a huge gooseberry fan, but its use here was perfect as it served to tie together all of the flavors. I am a huge fan of sea urchin and typically prefer it to stand out on its own. Here, it was clearly a supporting element that while mostly in the background, contributed a luscious richness that blended beautifully with the fruits and flowers found on the plate with it. Golden, indeed!
It seems that tartares have become contemporary restaurant measuring sticks and the Border Springs Farm lamb tartare here was just superb, measuring up quite favorably to others. As the best tartare I’ve had in some time, this was a beautiful and delicious dish that was second to the Golden Flavors dish only by virtue of that dish’s sheer conceptual genius and fabulous execution. The flavors were bright and fresh and though the portion was generous, I still wanted more once it was gone.
This oat and potato bread accompanying the tartare lured me in and was wonderful enough that I enjoyed its carbacious richness without a shred of guilt.
This unusual, tinted basque Txakolina proved a tremendous accompaniment to the tartare, resulting in real synergy between the dish and the pairing.
A decidedly savory treatment of foie gras, course five showed a Spanish influence as strong as in any dish put before us and not just because it incorporated a Manzanilla sherry component into the dish. The figs provided some sweetness, but that aspect was muted and reasonable, where too many foie preparations inundate the palate with sugar. Here that element was treated with wonderful subtlety and great finesse.
This lovely pretzel bread was served to go with the next course.
Creative and interesting, this corn-based dish would likely have been a stand out at many another meal, but here, the corn-dominated, sweet flavors lacked the degree of complexity and subtlety of many of the other dishes served, although texturally it pleased as well as any.
If any dish reminded me of Andoni Luis Aduriz and Mugaritz, it was this tour de force centered around black cod. It’s not that the dish reminded me of any specific dish from that great restaurant, but rather, it showed a way of thinking about food and its surprising capabilities and transformative potentials similar to the genius of Aduriz. They clearly absorbed much culinary wisdom from that master.
As my son and I were heading up to Lambstock in southern Virginia at the Border Springs Farm and Kim and Daniel use Border Springs lamb, it was justly fitting that the final savory course would be in honor of that event and farm. There was plenty of skill and love in this dish that covered so many different parts of the animal. Each was exquisite and delicious.
My preference in wine does not typically run to big, bruising high alcohol reds, but they do have their place and this one, from Cayuse in Washington state washed down the lamb quite nicely. This was exactly the kind of wine to go with that dish and vice versa.
Daniel and Kim were not able to generate their extraordinary culinary resumes because they were unable to pick up skills along their way. As might be expected from individuals coming from such a rarified background, their skill level is truly extraordinary. They have also been able to gather an excellent team around them including sous chef, John Fisher, another ICEX winner, who spent several years working at El Celler de Can Roca. Fisher brought and introduced several dishes to us including the desserts. The first one was a beautifully prepared “faux” watermelon slice of tarragon puree, coconut, watermelon sorbet and black sesame seeds placed to simulate the seeds of the watermelon. This sat atop a chiffon cake of watermelon and coconut. A touch sweet for my preference which leans decidedly to more savory desserts, it was nevertheless delicious and extremely impressive.
It was the height of peach season and I would have been shocked if they had not been included in the menu at some point. While once again, a tad sweet for my diabetic preference, the flavors were lovely and this was a very well conceived and prepared dessert.
This dessert was another visual pun, that of a seasonal sunflower. It was the most straightforward of the desserts in terms of its flavor profile and like the flower it was made to resemble was very good at bringing a smile to my face.
The nose also brought a smile to all of our faces even as it signified that a fabulous evening of food, drink, family and friends was coming to a close.
Kim Floresca and Daniel Ryan are serious talents who are reaping the benefits of their patience as they took the time to learn from the best. It shows. They have also assembled a fine team to work with them at One. It shows. Like John and Karen Urie Shields before them, they were brought to the southeast by restaurant owners desiring to create serious, destination dining. They have come with their extensive worldly experience and embraced the product and culinary traditions of the area in a way that acknowledges the significance and quality of the product and those traditions, but without making the restaurant a “Southern” restaurant. Instead, it is a restaurant that reflects the two of them, at least in the food. If there is a disconnect, it is that the location and large space is not ideal for the kind of food that they have been groomed to produce. That is not to say that the location and space are poor or bad fits. They work well enough, but the experience Ryan and Floresca can provide calls for a more scenic destination to maximize the potential of their cooking. It is no accident that the finest and most memorable restaurants in the world are or have been in very special locations – see elBulli, noma, Asador Etxebarri, Osteria Francescana, Meadowood and so many others. Yet, One is a great opportunity for them to build upon and establish themselves. They have shown great patience throughout their careers and I have no doubt that they will continue to be patient and continue to maximize the potential of One through the synergies of two. One is a restaurant quite worthy of a special visit and this dynamic couple continues to be one to watch as they further evolve. I may not be great at math, but in the case of Ryan and Floresca combining the two certainly equals One.
See the entire One photoset on Flick’r.