This installment concludes—finally—my documentary of our trip to the mountains near the end of October. If you missed the other installments, click here to read about Grandfather Mountain, and here to read about Linville Caverns and Falls.
It was nearly a month ago that Miss Chef and I were drawn to Banner Elk by the presence of one her former colleagues. Still, what with Thanksgiving just ahead, it seems appropriate to re-visit the feast we had at Artisanal. This is a pure foodie post, consisting mostly of food pictures…so you might want to grab a snack first.
Let me begin with a little history. Artisanal was originally opened in a smaller venue on the main road through Banner Elk, by a husband and wife team. Though he is originally from this area, and did his training at the Culinary Institute of America, the two met in Charlotte. Unfortunately for us, that’s not where they opened their restaurant.
Within a few years of opening, the chef’s talents were recognized by a very wealthy client, who turned into a patron and funded the construction of a new, dedicated building on a beautiful sweep of land.
You would never know this wasn’t a converted barn. Inside, there is a very obvious horse theme, which only added to my fondness for the architecture.
There are two other life-size horse sculptures by the drive as you approach the building. I believe they and most of this building are made from reclaimed wood.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Miss Chef’s friend April, and her boyfriend Brian, are sous-chefs here. They work 14-hour days, six days a week, from May through October. It’s very intense, but it enables them to put out extraordinary food.
It was an amazing night for us. Miss Chef had mentioned that this trip was for our anniversary, so April had the entire staff on high alert. They must really like and respect her, because we got the red carpet treatment! The owner introduced herself to Miss Chef at the hostess stand as if we were long-lost friends, and said she was excited we could join them. Well heck, we were pretty excited, too!
After we were seated, and had ordered a drink each, the server told us April wanted to offer us our choice of a bottle of wine. We had already heard a few stories about the sommelier the night before, as they are good friends and live in the same neighborhood, so when Gary came over to find out what we would like, we simply asked him to choose a pinot noir from Washington State. From what I remember, he did a very good job. ;-)
Once we got down to examining the menu, Miss Chef wanted to let Brian (main sous-chef) and April (garde manger/dessert sous-chef) send us out whatever they wanted, but at the last minute I demurred. There were a few dishes I really wanted to try, and was afraid I’d miss out if we didn’t order them specifically. So the waitress asked what I was interested in, and they put together a shared-portion tasting menu that included those, plus a few extras.
Are you ready!? Fortunately for you, we kept a copy of the menu, so I can tell you exactly what each dish is.
The first course was one of the ones I’d wanted to try: Duck confit with house-made ricotta cavatelli. Served with butternut squash, spinach, roasted sweet peppers. Oh…and a flower.
Doesn’t it just look warm and hearty? The temperature outside had been steadily dropping, so this was a rich, welcome taste after a long day hiking the mountains.
Next up was a frisée salad with a quail egg, bacon and vinegar-glazed onions.
Miss Chef was surprised I was interested in this salad, because frisée is usually quite sharply bitter, a taste I cannot stand. But they must source some very young frisée, because there wasn’t a bit of bitterness in this. The richness of the egg yolk played brilliantly against the acid of the vinaigrette.
You may have noticed these photos aren’t the sharpest. That’s mostly because the lighting was fairly subdued—I don’t like to use the flash when taking pictures in a restaurant, so I just set it on low-light, turn off the flash, and hold my breath when I squeeze the button!
Our next course was Maine diver scallops, served with white cheddar grits, chorizo with black-eye peas and a tomato reduction. Yes, scallops and tomato sauce!
As you can see, the tomato sauce is lighter than you might expect, so it provided a light, sweet acidity to cut some of the heaviness of the grits and beans. I really appreciated the way they used typical southern ingredients married with the northern scallops. The fact that it worked so well together is a testament to the talent in this kitchen.
Now we were starting to get a bit full. I forgot to mention that they start you off with house-made bread before your meal begins. That is, three options of house-made breads. There was a yeast roll, a soft herbed scone and a miniature iron skillet of southwestern cornbread with peppers baked in. Though the cornbread didn’t really seem to fit the rest of the food, we did manage to finish all the bread off.
Fortunately, the service was paced slowly enough to give us a slight breather now and then. Here’s a picture Miss Chef took of me “breathing,” using the panorama function of the camera. This covers nearly 180 degrees, from left to right. As you can see, we were given prime seats to catch the action in the open kitchen. You can also see the character of the wood in the wall behind me. Oh, and the concrete box behind me is planted with moss. Pretty cool décor all around.
That’s Gary, the sommelier, standing by the servers’ station to the left of the kitchen. You’ll see him again a bit later.
Meanwhile, Brian and April were putting together a special plate for us. Miss Chef had mentioned her love of foie gras, but they also wanted to send us some of the duck breast I was longing to try. So they did a combo of the two, making perhaps one of the richest dishes I’ve ever been served!
By the way, these are not shared plates; we each got one of them. Here, the mid-rare duck breast is at the top and the foie gras at the bottom. The presentation is a bit messy because we almost forgot to take a photo, and mine was the least bit-into plate!
According to the menu, the foie gras is normally served with a sweet corn coulis, but I think they just used the sauce for the duck dish, a port wine and raisin jus. (Don’t ask me the difference between a sauce, a jus, a coulis, a reduction…I just eat them!) And that’s a baby carrot draped over my foie, not a jalapeno.
Anyway, this was Miss Chef’s favorite dish of the night (mine was the cavatelli). The duck breast had a perfect sear, giving the skin edge of each slice a delicious caramelized crunch, and the foie gras was seared to perfection. Miss Chef thought this was the equal of the dish we had at the Artichoke outside London last year. We really are starting to become those kind of people…
At this point, I was totally sated. I was stuffed. Je n’en peux plus! Remember, we had each had a drink before we knew we were also going to be drinking a full bottle of wine! I tried a second visit to the ladies’ room, hoping walking around a bit might help things. Then the server informed us that April wanted to send us a special dessert. I decided to do some more walking around.
Here’s a closer look at the kitchen.
While I was at it, I decided to shoot a video. The chef/owner walks up to the counter on the left side; Brian shows up briefly on the right around 0:15, bringing a dish up to the expo station. (Lingo note: “expo” is short for “expedite.” This is the final station, where dishes are given a last check, wiped clean, and the last sauces and garnishes are added.)
Miss Chef wanted to show this video to her students, so they can see what a real working kitchen looks like. Notice the urgency in the cooks’ movements in the back. Few students seem to understand that!
Back at the table, getting ready for dessert—there’s a separate dessert menu, which we hadn’t even seen, so we had absolutely no idea what we might get.
When the server brought these to the table, we were so relieved, Miss Chef exclaimed, “It’s the perfect size!”
It’s a bread pudding studded with chocolate chips and topped by house-made coffee ice cream.
Then a second server showed up with this!
If you glance at the upper-right side of the picture, you can see how deep this dish is—at least we only got one to share! Now, let’s see if I can remember what’s on here. From top to bottom, it’s house-made donuts (yum!), a lemon curd cake with butterscotch ice cream…and, um, I think a pumpkin bread thingy with nuts and raisins. I kind of got stuck on the butterscotch ice cream. And you wanna know what’s funny about that? I don’t like ice cream.
(Note to self: ask Miss Chef to get butterscotch ice-cream recipe from April.)
We ate what we could—once I hit that lemon cake and ice cream, my poor bread pudding sat melting slow ice-cream tears. I tried, but…ugh, my stomach hurts just thinking about it! April and Brian thought they were taking it easy on us, since we had already told them of how our friend Luca over-feeds us when we visit his restaurant.
Gee…nice problems to have, huh?
The staff assured us we should take our time finishing up our wine, which we were happy to do. When the bill arrived, it was a shock. Not only had April paid for all our drinks (including a post-dinner cocktail Miss Chef just had to try), but she comped our dessert extravaganza too. As a result, the bill was less than half of what we had expected. I don’t know what Miss Chef did when she and April worked together, but she must have really made an impression!
And yes, I drove home that night. In the fog, slowly.
Oh, but don’t think the story’s over yet! Brian and April were disappointed that we hadn’t had a chance to see the downstairs party room, so the next morning April drove us back over to get a more thorough tour of the place.
The party room has a long table overlooking the ridiculously extensive wine cellar. The floor of the cellar is pebbled—as April explained, it’s to protect accidentally dropped bottles from shattering. Brilliant; who thought of that!?
Think that’s a nice collection of wine? Yeah, that’s just one of five bays!
If you click on the photo, you can see it a bit larger. You might spot Gary there near the left, taking inventory in jeans and a baseball cap. Slightly different from the suit he was wearing the night before.
And if you count, you’ll notice there are more than five bays in this picture. That’s because the last two are the private collection of the wealthy client who financed the building. And here’s the door between the restaurant wine cellar and his private stock.
Yeah, you may think we eat and drink well, but we’ve got nothing on this guy!
Just a couple more pictures…here’s a sitting area next to the party room. I found out later these are all retired saddles. There were more by the stairs. Did I mention there was a theme to the décor?
We also took a tour of the kitchen, but this is the only picture I took.
That’s a heckuva lot of sheet and hotel pans. And saucepans. And stockpots…all the sauté pans I’d seen the night before were All Clad, which cost about $100 a pop. As Alton Brown might say, these are some seriously good eats.
Finally we bid the restaurant goodbye. I took a few last pictures outside…
…and then it was time to get on with our day. We did a little shopping at a pottery store April loves, and probably spent everything we hadn’t spent on dinner the night before. Then it was to pack up and leave.
Yeah, I wish I could stay longer too, little dude…but believe me, we have every intention of coming back!
Want to see more about Artisanal? Click here to visit their website.