(Fearrington House Facade)
The Fearrington House Restaurant is probably the most famous restaurant in North Carolina and on the short list of the most renowned in the South. The restaurant has the 5 Diamond Award from AAA and is listed in the Relais and Chateaux guide. Executive chef Chris Bedford was raised in England but a glance at the menu shows a strong familiarity with Southern ingredients. He has been at Fearrington since 2008. I had wanted to dine at Fearrington for the better part of a year, but decided to go to McCrady’s instead when I traveled south this past Spring. With the intention of comparing Fearrington with McCrady’s, my brother and I made reservations on a late November evening.
The Relais and Chateaux temperament strongly informs the identity of Fearrington House Restaurant. In my experience, the backbone of the Relais and Chateaux genre is a setting that is isolated from the world and appeals to people vacationing. In this regard, R & C restaurants indirectly manage to accomplish the defining characteristic of the 3* Michelin restaurants in that people do seem to make special journeys to dine at them. While I don’t mean to suggest that they are on a par with the 3* Michelin ones, I do think the comparison sheds light on the audience that dines at them and the accordant clout that the restaurants hold. Specifically, R & C restaurants construct their identity with the knowledge that their clientele is largely made up of out-of-towners; this has the significant effect of making it so that they have not cultivated as strong of a relationship with the local setting as one would find at a more communal fine dining restaurant like McCrady’s.
To arrive at Fearrington House, one must drive down a long dirt road, and the restaurant occupies a massive plot of land. It is actually a small village, with a number of shops and a couple of casual restaurants. The architecture is in the style of the genteel south, a real departure from McCrady’s, which is more reflective of the Low Country. In sum, the setting epitomizes the fetish of “Southern Hospitality,” and this aspect may be what drives many people to vacation there.
We arrived about 15 minutes early and were suggested to sit at the bar and enjoy a cocktail. I didn’t care for this since I don’t drink, but my brother had a beverage while we waited. What was unusual, though, is that the staff was not hard at work setting our table but instead ask all guests to enjoy a drink before being seated. There is a parlor with a fireplace, and most of the guests seemed to enjoy sipping on an aperitif by the fire before being seated; the procedure imparted a hospitable feel that would satisfy the fetish many people have for Southern Hospitality. However, I think that a fine dining audience—one more focused on the food than the setting—might not welcome their invented custom. Although I tend to place more weight on the décor than some restaurant enthusiasts and would ordinarily welcome a chance to familiarize myself with the setting, I was a bit taken aback by the instruction that we have a cocktail at the bar, as it seemed to me a fairly obvious attempt at making money. This procedure was the first episode that reflected how they certainly have their own way of doing things at Fearrington. I suppose that this ‘way of doing things’ carries its own sort of charm, but when I go to a restaurant I expect a certain baseline protocol, and it was a bit disorienting to be asked to enjoy a drink even though our table was already set for us.
A few minutes after our reservation time, we were led to a nicely situated window-side two-top. The dining room is low-ceilinged, which made for a bit of a cramped feel since there were a number of alpha male types on the wait staff ambling about in black suits with ties. The low ceiling is also extremely surprising in light of the massive exterior, which creates the expectation for a grand, high-ceilinged interior. Fearrington actually did a complete overhaul to the interior design a year ago, replacing the preexisting florid Rococo design with the current comfortable yet somewhat bland décor filled with lots of white and dark tones. Overall, the ambience had a bit of a country club feel—not necessarily out of character with the South, but not as dramatic as the expectation created by the building’s stately façade. I enjoyed the restaurant’s exterior for its stately gravitas, but I do wonder whether it has a reductive effect since it primes one to expect a more dramatic interior space. In this regard, a restaurant should perhaps make sure that the outside is not disproportionately more majestic than the interior.
Our server introduced the menu options and explained that they had just introduced their winter menu. Fearrington offers 3 and 4-course prix fixe menus and tasting menu options as well. My brother chose the meat tasting menu and I went with the vegetarian option, inspired by the specific dishes and my general love for winter vegetables.
The canapés were pork terrine and chicken liver pate. Neither was the sort of taste that I’d be inspired to try on an a la carte menu, but the South is known for its cured meats and so I suppose that may have been the inspiration.
The bread service contained three varieties; all were warm, and the one on the left, a cornbread with apple filling, was particularly outstanding. Although it didn’t pair well with the savories, the cuisine at Fearrington veers toward the sweet end of the spectrum and so the rolls weren’t too disorienting.
Our amuse bouche was a shot of pumpkin bisque; it was seasonally appropriate (the meal was the day after Thanksgiving) and a refreshing jolt of flavor. The bisque and the charcuterie were noticeably heavier than most opening tastes.
My first course was another soup: “Cauliflower and Parmesan Soup with Caper Panna Cotta, Hazelnut, Raisin, Black Garlic, Watercress.” This menu title reflects the general Fearrington style, with an extraordinarily long list of ingredients; in this regard, the style is similar to Charlie Trotter’s or Boka. What interests me is the way they managed to unify the many disparate ingredients into a precise composition. The ingredients were similar to those of the cauliflower soup I’d had at Herons earlier that day (both had capers and raisins), although the panna cotta in this rendition made Fearrington’s version much richer. I enjoyed both the taste and appearance and this was one of the most satisfying dishes I’ve had in a long time.
Course two was a very Trotter-esque composition and continued the emphasis on creamy flavors that had been initiated with the cauliflower soup. The ingredients included truffle and Madeira custard, artichokes, pickled quince, wild mushroom, leek, potato, fennel. The laundry list of ingredients made it difficult to locate a focal point to the dish; the net result was a sort of collage aesthetic that I appreciated but could certainly infuriate those who appreciate a more precise style. To be fair, the lack of a true “centerpiece” to the dish may have been a natural consequence of the fact that this was a vegetarian tasting, but I still feel as though this style was iconoclastic. When I noticed this course on the menu I expected the truffle to refer to truffle oil in the custard, but instead there was shaved burgundy truffle, a smart choice as it tempered the creaminess of the custard.
My third course had a more identifiable centerpiece—butternut squash ravioli. It was paired with sweet onion puree, smoked farmer’s cheese, cranberry, pecan, cinnamon, and kale. I don’t go out of my way to seek out pasta but my love for butternut squash and kale made the dish enjoyable. However, I do feel like butternut squash (and wild mushroom risotto) are the archetypal vegetarian entrees and so I think they’d do well to leave the butternut squash ravioli to the less ambitious restaurants. One of the issues that invariably faces a restaurant (particularly an ambitious one) is that while they can rework convention, they can’t veer too close to reproducing it, and this wasn’t quite revisionist enough for me.
The main course was Almond and Leek Pave with Acorn Squash , Crispy Egg Yolk and Brown Butter Spinach, Parsnip, Maple, Autumn Baby Vegetables. There was also an unidentified acidic foam, whose importance apparently didn’t merit inclusion within the list of ingredients. As in the other dishes, the long list of ingredients made it difficult to achieve balance, but the dish was exquisite and packed plenty of flavor and savory heft without being burdensome. My question, though, is exactly what inspires Chef Bedford to include so many ingredients; how does he get the idea to incorporate, for example, parsnip and acorn squash and baby vegetables—components that other chefs would consider mutually exclusive?
Course five was a composed cheese course; the menu listed a traditional cheese course for the vegetarian menu, but I wanted a composed offering so I could see how many ingredients Chef Bedford could include in what is generally one of the more conventional courses of a tasting progression. What I received was an interesting offering, although virtually the same as the composed cheese course on the regular tasting. The only difference was that the regular one (which brother received) had a slice of mangalitsa prosciutto. The featured cheese was Hickory Grove, which had been melted into a rarebit and served with frisee lettuce, ale chutney, pretzel, rose apple, and date. I enjoyed the fun preparation, which anticipated the pomp and play of the dessert course that culminated the meal.
The palate cleanser was lemon meringue custard with crushed bread crumbs—basically, a deconstructed lemon meringue pie.
My dessert was: “Mulled Wine Poached Pears with Caramelized Milk Ice Cream & Nitro Chocolate.” In the spirit of the rest of the meal, there were even more ingredients, including brandy, cream cheese, hazelnut, and nutmeg. This was another composition overrun with abstraction, although the flavors were complementary. The different textures of the pears, ice cream, and chocolate liquid nitrogen all worked well together as well. It’s a testament to Chef Bedford’s skill that the components interacted synthetically, with no jarring contrasts.
Meanwhile, my brother’s dessert (Lemon Panna Cotta with Langues de Chat Biscuits, Hazelnut Sorbet Milk Jam, Muscat, Orage, and Green Olive) arrived with an olfactory component, as our server made a tableside lemon verbena tea, whose smell was intended to enhance his dessert. With the panna cotta, biscuits, and tea, the dessert was a study in lemon across multiple modalities.
The mignardise service was another instance where Fearrington House’s ‘way of doing things reared its head. Our server brought five lone mignardises, and when I questioned her about why they didn’t offer mignardises for each person, she replied that it was standard protocol for them. To her credit, she did bring an extra tray after I requested it, but the procedure still seems tacky to me. Generally, I try to at least arrive at an intellectual understanding of why a certain procedure is followed, but I can’t find any reasonable justification behind forcing two people to share five different candies. I feel almost as though they have no reference for standard restaurant procedure. Perhaps the ‘isolated from the world’ Relais and Chateaux sensibility limits their understanding of certain fine dining conventions.
The meal had a number of interesting tensions, including the relationship between the restaurant’s façade and its interior design, and how to balance the genteel personality of this particular Relais and Chateaux property with that of Chef Bedford, whose abstract style seems at best asymptotic to that of the rest of the operation. In retrospect, I am glad that I waited to go to Fearrington until after having dined at McCrady’s, since the restaurant is in many ways the antithesis of Sean Brock’s Southern fine dining venture. Fearrington House is the centerpiece of a Relais and Chateaux resort, while McCrady’s is located in a cobblestoned alleyway in a city. The comparison elucidates the extent to which a restaurant’s setting reflects its personality.
This was the most challenging meal that I have had since Arrows and it was refreshing to leave a restaurant feeling as though I had experienced a singular meal. Overall, my impressions on Fearrington are mixed, but the same could be said for virtually every meal. One of the main challenges that face any restaurant is the balance between constructing an experience that is distinct from any other while at the same time managing not to alienate the clientele or break entirely from convention. There were moments of this meal where I felt confounded (the cocktail procedure, the mignardise service, some of the hyperbolically abstract platings) but the restaurant still managed to achieve a strong level of coherence. Fearrington’s exterior does create an expectation for luxurious comfort that the experience does not quite support, and this is perhaps my biggest critique. However, the restaurant’s strong ambition was refreshing and made this one of the most interesting meals I’ve had all year.