I have eaten well each time I’ve visited North Carolina. However, as the ingredient spectrum for barbeque is generally quite limited, I was eager to explore whether there was any other regional cuisine available. Obviously, South Carolina is famous for lowcountry cuisine, with a wide array of shellfish and Creole-inspired dishes, and North Carolina seems to have little identity other than its brand of highly acidic barbeque. Unfortunately, the restaurants in Wilmington (where I’ve stayed on each visit) are not regionally focused (with the exception of Rx, which was opened by a Husk alumnus and serves South Carolinian cuisine) and offer more generic fare. It has been argued that farm-to-table is a clichéd term; however, regional specificity seems to be as significant as ever in fine dining and if a restaurant is serving ingredients that cannot be grown elsewhere, this only makes the restaurant more unique. When exploring dining options for a day outing to the Raleigh-Durham area, I was excited to learn of Oakleaf Restaurant, a relatively new, regionally-focused restaurant in Pittsboro.
The website for Oakleaf features a Thoreau quote gesturing toward the restaurant’s focus on the twin pillars of regionality and simplicity:
“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each. Let them be your only diet drink and botanical medicine.”
Obviously, this quote is quite precious and invoking mystical transcendence is a bit overwrought. To their credit, though, the restaurant’s setting comes close to supporting such a declaration. The dining room exudes rustic elegance, with a great deal of exposed wood. When I arrived for a Saturday brunch, there was a farmer’s market on the lawn, and the ambience makes expressive use of vegetation. Most notably, I appreciated the work station (shown below.) Typically, work stations are unremarkable, but adorning this one with spring flowers transformed a utilitarian item into the centerpiece of the dining room.
As I was going for brunch, the menu was relatively limited and perhaps didn’t give me optimal exposure to the restaurant’s style. Still, the menu featured lots of fresh local produce, including ramps, chives, and smoked and cured fish and meats. My gregarious Texan server noted that he had never worked in a restaurant whose cuisine was so dependent on seasonality. There were 11 substantial plate options as well as several sides. While there were many options, the menu was at the same time relatively narrow in scope, with multiple variations of the same theme. For example, three variations of biscuits and gravy were on offer. I chose two main plates: biscuits with North Carolina crab and local ham, and smoked trout frittata with norland potatoes and harissa crème fraiche.
The bread service was a beignet. This was airy and excellent, and I appreciated that they put a great deal of effort into a complimentary breakfast item.
Biscuits and gravy aren’t usually an item I ever order—they are exactly the sort of flagrantly unhealthy fare that typically drives me away from going out to brunch. What made this version different was the incorporation of excellent North Carolina proteins. I love North Carolina ham—Oakleaf sources theirs from a purveyor in Asheboro, and it was very luxurious. North Carolina crab has a more intense flavor than the subtler Jonah crab I’m used to from Maine, and it managed to stand up to the boldness of the ham. The composition was messy, but this is what one would expect from biscuits and gravy, and the chives added a small dose of color.
I was surprised when my server recommended coursing the frittata second, and in retrospect the light dish probably would have been more appropriate as my appetizer. The frittata looked a lot like a quiche but was much airier—in this regard, it was more like a tortilla Espanola. I enjoyed the house-smoked trout, but the frittata would have benefitted with some vegetables. Meanwhile, the butter lettuce was nothing more than an oversized garnish. With side items, I always like to ask myself whether they are serving any productive purpose or simply taking up plate space, and the lettuce was a case of the latter.
As tasty as the main dishes were, I was most looking forward to seeing what the pastry program had to offer. 2013 has been a weak year for desserts for me, and I could see from the online menu that the desserts balanced regional ingredients with modernist ingenuity and textural experimentation. My server recommended two offerings: the oat crusted brown sugar torte with braised blueberries and vanilla gelato, and the souffled lemon buttermilk pudding with champagne macerated blackberries. I probably should have ordered both, but I limited myself to the pudding after my server framed it as their signature dessert. After trying it, I can certainly see why; admittedly, my judgment is colored by the fact that it’s been a long time since I had a memorable dessert, but at the time of this writing I would rate this as my favorite dessert I’ve had all year. The lemon wasn’t overbearing and provided the ideal base for the locally-sourced blackberries, while the champagne tied everything together. The most remarkable aspect, though, was the texture, combining the silkiness of a panna cotta with the airy qualities of a souffle. I wouldn’t be surprised if this will turn out to be my favorite dessert of 2013 at the end of the year.
This brunch was obviously more limited than the dinner service would have been, but it still clarified central culinary differences between the two Carolinas. Where South Carolinian cuisine uses a great deal of spice and shows a Creole emphasis, the indigenous flavors of North Carolina are gamier and more rustic, as evidenced by the trout, crab, ham, and chives, as well as the ramps that were also featured on the menu. With the emergence of Sean Brock and Charleston as a culinary destination, South Carolina has really stolen North Carolina’s thunder, and for the most part this is probably deserved. Even so, having since moved out of North Carolina this may well be the final meal I ever experience in the state and I’m glad to have been exposed to the native flavors of North Carolina, particularly when prepared by such an adroit kitchen.