By Donnabeth Leffler

Savvy Splendid Eating

By Donnabeth Leffler Posted October 15, 2012 at 5:30 pm

A diversion today for frequent readers of my rantings:  some savvy and splendid eating is on the table for this column.

 
The grande dame of Chapel Hill, The Carolina Inn, sits in all her glory, basking in her history, commanding our respect, garnering our affection, and being the perfect place for that special occasion. 
 
But with the arrival of new Executive Chef James Clark, The Carolina Inn is asking to add something else to her replete resume: Dining Destination.
 
I sampled some much of Chef Clark’s new fall menu for Carolina Crossroads Restaurant this past week and his fondness for fish and seafood was well-represented as was his southern soul together in the very first dish of thin raw flounder served with fried green tomatoes and pickled okra.  A fresh and full taste sensation! 
 
I have many weaknesses.  Further, I have many menu weaknesses.  One of them is duck.  If it’s on a menu, it will be hard for me to choose anything else.  Thus, I share with you a photo of the next course:
 

 
Oh, did you think I’d save you some?  Sorry about that.  My hands had two choices:  fork or phone (camera), guess the winner!  This duck was crispy and moist and served with grits and a red eye gravy so flavorful that this combination is likely to soon be found on menus from coast to coast as the rest of the nation continues to find southern cuisine to be worth imitating.
 
Strong flavor used as an accompaniment continued in the next two courses with ham adding depth to a reduction served with crispy oysters that were also quite tender.  In the next course it was the heavenly essence of truffles, added to a dollop (I do love that word!) of goat cheese mousse in a sweet potato bisque.  If there is one spoonful which evoked autumn’s richness, this was it. 
 
The mix of traditional southern ingredients used in modern ways (Chef Clark calls it Contemporary Southern Cuisine) continued as I bravely made my way through delicately seared scallops with peas, squash and bacon vinaigrette.  Crispy pork belly and rainbow trout tasted like they’d never been served apart.  Despite my will failing, I did manage to enjoy a Carolina quail stuffed with duck sausage (it said duck so I had to have it) and then the apple cider reduction and pickled fennel offered a refreshing contrast to some incredibly tender braised pork cheeks. 
 
I took a break from the abundance at this point so I will offer you one as well.  It’s not just the food offering a new flavor (sorry!) in the storied structure.  Against the traditional moldings and sconces adorning the walls, I enjoyed wine pairings that offered choices, not rules.  In fact, I delighted in the suggestion that diners “dance” among the wines poured for our courses.  The tradition-with-a-twist theme extended to the visual as my amuse-bouche, placed on a square plate, was placed in front of me on the diagonal, as if to signal the unexpected is on the way.
 
Now, a photo to signal what’s next and, yes, this time, I got to my phone before I got to my fork.
 

 
Surely you don’t begrudge me a sweet after all I’ve been through thus far?  Which would you prefer I have?  The sophisticated toffee fig cake with brie ice cream?  The luscious cinnamon apple creme brulee?  Or shall it be the chocolate marquise cake, topped with a rich fudge caramel sauce which was then topped with a light peanut butter mousse?  Executive Pastry Chef Sara Beth Thomas is as deft with creating dessert as I am with destroying it.
 
If we were in the wild west, Chef Clark would have finished preparing this meal, blown into his pistol ladle, re-holstered it, and sauntered off with a satisfied smile.  I had a similar smile but my exit was more of a waddle than a saunter.
 
Do you have any great local meals to share?  Any fond memories of special meals at Carolina Crossroads?  Please leave them below or write to me at Donnabeth@Chapelboro.com

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