Olivia Dish

Chef & the Farmer

In North Carolina, Restaurant on April 5, 2011 at 10:21 pm
Chef & The Farmer

Even the tulips were from a local farm.

“No reservation? We don’t have a table open until 9:30.”

Not what I expected to hear in Kinston, North Carolina, a place where people wait in line for barbecue but only make reservations at the country club for the Mother’s Day buffet.

That’s when I realized that Chef & the Farmer is like that quirky guy you’re crazy about: you’re shocked to find out that everyone else thinks he’s hot too.

Ever since I heard about it three or so years ago, I’d been reading more about Chef & the Farmer with each month that went by. I’d finally made it in. And now, really, no table?

“We do have open seats at the counter overlooking the kitchen.”

I didn’t even consult my companions.  “Yes, that will be great,” I said.

Like so many restaurants these days, Chef & the Farmer is (no surprise) all about the fancy farm to table thing. But this isn’t Chapel Hill, Raleigh or even Wilmington. This is a small town in eastern North Carolina where you expect to find tobacco auctions, not fine dining.  And I appreciate it even more because this is where I grew up eating farm to table every meal, every day–all the while wishing my godforsaken family could just drive into town and have dinner at Pizza Inn.

Turns out the restaurant’s chef, Vivian Howard, had a similar upbringing on a tobacco and hog farm in Deep Run, about halfway between my family’s farm and her present restaurant.  Now she’s sourcing food for Chef & The Farmer from our neighbors–people who used to grow tobacco just the way both our families did

Chef & the Farmer

Good wine and the best seat in the house.

My mother, niece and I took our seats at the pretty, rustic wood counter attached to the kitchen, ringside seats for watching the staff prepare meals. I wasn’t sure how my mom would respond to this. I could imagine her saying, “If I wanted to be in the kitchen, I could’ve stayed home and saved us the money.”

Chef & The Farmer

Niece Dish gives her review of the monkey bread with deviled ham.

But Mother Dish loved it. And for my nine-year-old niece (the only child in the restaurant) this was the perfect perch. Within minutes, she stopped badgering me to play Angry Birds on my iPhone. She was too busy quizzing the cooks about what they were cooking.

We started with a couple of glasses of wine–a pretty Riesling for Mother Dish, a wonderful Negroamaro for me.

Chef & the Farmer

Her smile only turned upside down when she realized she'd eaten it all.

And we ordered the monkey bread with deviled ham spread. The bread, made with cheddar and roasted red pepper, came out in a small cast iron skillet. I worried the bread would be heavy or heavy-handed with the cheese and peppers, but it was perfect and the deviled country ham as a hit.

My niece couldn’t get enough and spread more of it on the house-made bread our waiter brought out to tide her over.  Niece Dish held up the dish of deviled ham and demanded from the cook in front of her: “how do you make this?”  She took a slug of water and declared, “this ham stuff makes my water taste like blood.”  Then she grinned.  So apparently, that’s a good thing.

risotte

The magical risotto...

For her entree, Mother Dish had the shrimp and grits, and she was well-pleased with it.  Niece Dish had a side of macaroni and cheese. “It’s sweet,” my niece said, delighted.  After considering the hanger steak, I had chosen the Caramelized Spring Onion Risotto with a shitake, asparagus and leek ragout and a truffle/parmigianno broth. I’m so glad I did.

bread basket

A basket of awesome housemade bread with creamy butter.

It is the kind of dish you can’t stop eating. You want to share it, and yet you want it all for yourself.  After you’ve finished, you swab the plate with bread, just not ready to believe it’s over. Then, days later, you wake up missing it and wondering how you and it can be together again.

I was still entranced by my risotto when a giant, Jenga-like tower of a dessert went by.

10-layer cake

The Jenga cake

“Whatever that is, I’ve got to have it,” my niece, her mouth stuffed with mac and cheese, instructed our waiter.

The waiter looked at me. I nodded. So we three shared a 10-layer chocolate cake with caramel sauce and a chunk of toffee.

Full and happy, we drove home over the familiar country roads, remarking about our out-of-the ordinary experience. And talking about how soon we can possibly return. And agreeing that we’ll be sure to make reservations, because now I see, completely, why you need them.

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