The Piedmont, the rolling terrain in the middle of North Carolina, has long been known as Tobacco Road for its most famous farming export. Lately, however, the region has turned its attention to a more healthful harvest. Not that the area has forgotten its agricultural roots—you can still drive half an hour in just about any direction from the capitol building in Raleigh and find yourself surrounded by farmland. But instead of tobacco rows, you're now more apt to see fields of sustainably grown heirloom tomatoes or pastures of grazing dairy goats.
What prompts that kind of change? Eating from the land is woven into the culture here. The diverse topography of North Carolina (only 500 miles separate western mountains from eastern coast) means chefs can source everything from oysters to apples, both likely harvested within the same day. Public health policy has certainly helped, too; with smoking rates dwindling, North Carolina farmers have turned to other crops just in time for the rising local-food movement.
But the main driver is an increasingly cosmopolitan population drawn to the region by the three major universities (Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, NC State) and scores of international technology firms that now make their homes in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—the three cities in the eastern Piedmont that are collectively known as The Research Triangle.
While the recession hasn't cast as dark a cloud over the region as it has over other parts of the country (thanks in large measure to the strong presence of nearby electronics and pharmaceutical manufacturers and researchers), its shadow can still be seen in a dramatic increase in fine dining establishments now offering bargain meals. The quality of ingredients isn't sacrificed, but portion size is often reduced—a silver lining for those seeking to eat healthy.
Among the most enticing of such dining deals is Chef Scott Crawford's seasonally evolving Market Menu at Herons, the restaurant in the Umstead Hotel and Spa. With a focus on local produce—much of it grown in the Umstead's garden—the three course prix fixe lunch might feature winter squash consommé, roasted Carolina flounder, and a Honeycrisp apple tart for $20. An additional $12 yields wine pairings for each course.
Crawford is one of a growing number of chefs discovering inventive new ways to present traditional Southern flavors. At Panciuto, Aaron Vandemark peppers his contemporary Italian menu with dishes such as grilled pork rib chop with wilted Tuscan greens and that country-cooking classic, red-eye gravy. At Watts Grocery, Chef Amy Tornquest's Frogmore stew includes white corn, shrimp, lump crabmeat, and potatoes in a spicy tomato broth seasoned with house-cured bacon. Butcher Jeff Barney brought fine dining way out into the country—and into an old, no-frills gas station 17 miles west of Chapel Hill—when he opened Saxapahaw General Store in 2008. The day's menu will likely be a mystery until you arrive, but expect dishes like hearty chickpea succotash or burgers made from goat raised just down the road.
"We love our Southern cuisine, and we have lots of fantastic restaurants that gladly provide it to us," says Dave Artigues, a Duke researcher-turned-farmer. "But if you look carefully, ingredients are fresher and more locally produced. Preparation is ingeniously executed, allowing for a more healthful meal that still honors the Southern tradition that we all hold so dear here."
Among the rapidly growing number of organic farms in the area is Hilltop Farms, where bok choy and tatsoi might just as easily be harvested for a chef's sophisticated Asian stir-fry as sweet potatoes and collard greens for a home cook's old-fashioned Southern supper. Cane Creek Farm provides grass-fed beef and heritage breed Ossabaw and Gloucestershire Old Spot pork for restaurants like Piedmont, where chef-partners Drew Brown and Andy Magowan transform them into shortrib ravioli and Italian sausage. And Artigues' Elodie Farms hosts monthly Dinners on the Porch, where area chefs highlight Artigues' goat cheese in five-course gourmet meals.
"Though you'll see young hipster farmers working happily alongside a 75-year-old tobacco grower, it's not just about being trendy for North Carolina farmers," says Sean Wilson, of Fullsteam brewery in Durham. "We're just doing what we've always done. There's an authenticity and permanence to the South that we're proud of. Local food isn't just a novelty here; people really support it."
As in other other cities, Triangle diners pay as much attention to what's in their glass as to what's on their plate. Here, though, tradition is as revered as innovation.
Mixologist Gary Crunkleton and his staff readily regale customers with the history of meticulously researched classic cocktails—Manhattans, Sazeracs, Pimm's Cups, and Old-Fashioneds—at The Crunkleton. At Fullsteam, meanwhile, the focus is more current and closer to home: Locally grown sweet potatoes, parsnips, and mulberries make their way into subtly nuanced brews (there's no cloying pumpkin-pie spice in the sweet potato beer, for example).
One thing you won't find at these spots (or any other bar in the area) is a haze of cigarette smoke. In January of this year, North Carolina—whose name has been synonymous with tobacco since the days of Sir Walter Raleigh—passed a statewide ban on smoking in restaurants and bars.
Nowadays, if there's any smoking going on in a restaurant on Tobacco Road, it's probably something tasty being cooked up.
LUNCH AT GUGLHUPF
After more than a decade of supplying some of the area's best restaurants and sandwich shops, local artisanal bakeries are now offering their own dine-in options. At La Farm Bakery in the nearby town of Cary, master baker Lionel Vatinet fills his Parisian baguettes with charcuterie and Gruyère, and transforms his rustic farm bread into croques monsieurs. When the weather is fair—a reasonable expectation here well into October—the landscaped patio at Guglhupf fills quickly with customers hungry for light salads of shrimp salad with radicchio, local tomatoes, and green goddess dressing or sandwiches ranging from roasted beef with arugula and blue cheese spread to house-roasted turkey with watercress. Top it off with a cup of locally roasted coffee and a Linzer cookie.
Go there: Guglhupf
Make it at home: Fall Salad with Apples, Walnuts, and Stilton recipe
DINNER AT BU·KU
For the menu at bu·ku, Chef William D'Auvray draws inspiration from the pushcarts and markets of the world. Diners can embark on a gastronomic tour that might include Colombian arepas, Polish beer--braised chicken pierogis, Thai-style barbecued pike, and a sashimi selection unrivaled by any of the traditional sushi bars in the area.
Go there: bu·ku
Make it at home: Coconut Red Curry Hot Pot with Braised Chicken and Mushrooms recipe