(Herons Dining Room)
My brother and I enjoyed our lunch at Herons back in November, although the meal left me feeling as though I still hadn’t gotten a complete reading of the restaurant’s talents. While our lunch was well-prepared, the selections were relatively standard and the plating arrangements slightly awkward. One of my favorite topics concerns those restaurants that serve lunch and dinner, and how different the two services often are; lunch poses a challenge because the typical clientele come from diametrically opposed factions: either those with lots of time on their hands, or those on a more condensed, business-oriented schedule. Where a restaurant can usually know what to expect from its dinnertime customers, lunch poses this challenge and the net result is menus that are conservative while offering ‘just enough ambition.’ In any event, we were anxious to experience Herons at night and dined there on a recent February evening with the intent of ordering the tasting menu.
In my last write-up, I noted that the dining room looked a bit dated and that the open kitchen (a visual attraction in most restaurants) was banal to the point of detracting from the ambience. For the most part, this was still the case; our table was at a nice corner banquette that offered a prime view of the kitchen, but the kitchen was too segregated to get a good sense of the intricacies of their craft. In the end, the chefs looked like laborers rather than entertainers, and watching how hard they worked actually made me feel sorry for them as the meal went along. The kitchen was also so large that it felt analogous to a giant movie screen, distracting attention away from my table and toward the empty “spectacle” of the chefs.
Another issue with the dining room is that it clashes with the website description, which states that it is “an intimate 98-seat dining room.” This portrayal simply doesn’t make sense—how can you have a dining room large enough for 98 seats that still manages to be intimate? Obviously, it would be naïve to put any sort of truth value into a website description, but I still feel like most websites are a bit more accurate. Even so, we occupied what I considered to be the nicest table in the room—just secluded enough without being relegated to an afterthought. As a side note, I always find it interesting to glance around the room and envision how different my meal would be were I to sit at another table, as it would organize my attention in an entirely different way and have a crucial impact on the perception of both cuisine and setting.
We had already determined that we’d order the tasting as it featured personal favorites like guinea hen and tuna. I was also interested in the beef belly dish, which Executive Chef Scott Crawford had recently prepared at a James Beard event. We also supplemented the five-course tasting with the foie gras off the a la carte menu, and asked for the chef to send out an additional dessert. Our requests were approved without hesitation.
Our amuse bouche was a cracker topped with beet and duck prosciutto; it was delicious, but I was surprised to receive it since the resort setting didn’t seem like they would be able to cure the meat on the premises. Sure enough, they source their cured meats from a local supplier.
We enjoyed the bread at our lunch and so it came as no disappointment to see the same selections once again; the offerings included raisin, wheat, and small scones.
The tasting kicked off with an enormous tuna dish, which was at least three times the size I’d been expecting. It was caramelized and served with daikon radish puree, pineapple, and tortilla chip. This was a difficult dish on many levels, beginning with the presentation. In particular, the composition exhibited an unusual degree of redundancy—one could cut the plate in half and be left with two identical plates. If this were a main course, the design wouldn’t have bothered me as much; however, I think it reflects negatively on a kitchen to basically waste good ingredients on such a repetitive design, and it was a poor use of plate space. Making matters worse, the daikon radish (the large white droplets) had been applied with a heavy hand and completely ruined the dish—it had a horrific taste and I couldn’t take more than a couple bites. This was a real shame since I actually enjoy daikon radish, so long as it is used in more of an accenting role. I’ve never had such an offensive dish this early in the meal, raising the issue of whether the impact of a terrible dish is more severe if it occurs earlier or later in the meal. I think either position has merit, but I can certainly say that receiving such an awful preparation this early created a less than enthusiastic outlook toward the rest of the meal.
The next dish was our foie gras supplement, which was presented compliments of the kitchen as an apology for the tuna. I was curious to see where they would place the foie in the progression and while one could argue that it would have been more appropriately served third, it worked nicely here. As one can see below, there was a hot and a cold preparation—the former was seared and accompanied by muscadine grape gelee, toasted milk bread, and salted peanuts. The cold preparation was served torchon-style with a cookie crust, almost in the manner of a pirouline cookie. Chef Crawford is fond of serving two-way preparations and presenting them in a split-screen manner—this was a salient example of the style and a terrific dish.
Our next offering was celery root soup, served with char roe, green apple, almond, and mustard crisp. Herons always serves a soup course in their tasting, and their prix fixe menu has a designated soup course as well. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to meet Chef Crawford as he was not in that evening—this was a shame, since I really wanted to ask him about why there was a soup dish on the menu. I feel like it has become anachronistic to include soup in tasting menus, and I would have loved to ask Crawford whether it was actually his idea to include soup. As such, this dish provided a useful look at the structural constraints imposed by a hotel/resort operation. On its own merits, the soup tasted fine, although it still didn’t have the ambition of the other courses.
I was really looking forward to the next dish: milk-poached guinea hen with juniper and lingonberry. Unfortunately, this was terrible; poaching the hen in milk must have robbed it of its taste, as the meat tasted like dry chicken. I love guinea hen, and this had none of the faint gaminess that I usually enjoy. Though not as offensive as the tuna, this was still pretty awful and we barely touched it.
As an apology for the guinea hen, we were brought tasting portions of the spice-rubbed venison from the a la carte menu. It was served with chestnut barbeque and served with black trumpet mushrooms, date pudding, and parsnip puree. This preparation was wonderful; the date pudding worked particularly well as a creative accompaniment to the gamey meat and the chestnut sauce gestured toward the region’s affinity for barbeque.
The last savory dish was smoked beef belly, served with hen of the woods mushrooms, cashew, and vanilla-infused sweet potato. A sauce of birch beer was poured tableside. I’d been looking forward to this dish for weeks, and it was quite stunning—every bit as tasty and interesting as the cuisine I enjoyed at McCrady’s earlier this year. Smoking the beef belly was an amazing decision and another interpretation of southern barbeque. I also enjoyed the composition, as the segregation between the potato and beef reproduced the split-screen aesthetic of the foie gras. The only aspect that disappointed was the sweet potato, specifically the amount that was served—just as the portion of tuna had been way too large, there was an excessive amount of potato.
The pre-dessert was cranberry panna cotta with pecan and orange—it was great and served its purpose nicely.
Our first dessert was sourdough pudding, supplemented by milk chocolate custard and blood orange sorbet. We had loved the desserts on our first visit and this was every bit as impressive. Herons’s pastry chef, Daniel Benjamin, does an excellent job with balancing flavors and textures and the large portion size was necessary in allowing us to explore the different ingredient combinations.
Lastly, we were served “Turkish Coffee”: coffee ice cream, cardamom “grounds,” rose cream, and milk chocolate. The monochromatic presentation didn’t look like much; I think most chefs would have incorporated a brightly-colored ingredient to balance out the dark tones, and this was a situation where the aesthetic demands were not met. Luckily, the flavors went together quite well and were especially appropriate for a final course.
I forgot to take a picture of the mignardises; the offerings were standard but tasty and included canele, strawberry macaron, passion fruit gelee, and a mint chocolate truffle. Similar to the Fearrington House Restaurant, they only brought out one of each for us to share. They were happy to bring out another after I inquired, but it still baffles me why a restaurant would do this—perhaps it’s specific to Southern fine dining, or maybe the two restaurants simply aren’t familiar with standard protocol.
In most any tasting menu, there are bound to be a couple dishes that disappoint. That said, this meal felt more bipolar than most, with my enjoyment disproportionately tied to the venison, beef belly, and desserts. For better or worse, reflecting on this meal I am just as likely to remember the tuna as the beef belly, which I suppose makes this the epitome of a “mixed experience.” I do think Chef Crawford offers exciting interpretations of barbeque, I enjoy his plating technique, and the pastry program is one of my favorites. At the same time, the ratio of ingredients was polarizing, most notably the use of daikon in the tuna preparation and the sweet potato in the beef dish. In this regard, this meal really amplified the effect that ingredient scale can have in disrupting the harmony of a dish. I do wonder whether we simply caught the kitchen on a night where they overdid it with certain ingredients—for all I know, they might typically be more balanced. Ultimately, I don’t quite understand how Herons was awarded with the Forbes 5-Star and AAA 5-Diamond designations, but I am grateful that the second half of the meal went a long way towards redeeming a brutal opening half.