Flavor: Southern seasonal
Ambiance: Cookout at a wealthy relative's summer place
Where: Lonesome Valley, Cashiers
Contact: (828) 743-7696, ext. 222
Hours: Friday and Saturday evenings, Sunday midday meal
Xpress food writer Hanna Rachel Raskin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lonesome Valley, a planned community plopped into a Cashiers valley with a singularly gorgeous view, hadn't banked on opening a restaurant. Initial blueprints called for a newly built barn on the former trout farm to house ping-pong tables and a small basketball court.
“It was supposed to be a sports barn for rainy days,” food-and-beverage manager Sallie Peterkin recalls.
But as the building became ever sleeker and the 800-acre development's first residents became hungrier, the rec room model was scrapped in favor of an upscale eatery. In much the same way that 19th century saloons sprung up around oil wells and silver mines, Canyon Kitchen — a temporary, weekends-only, open-air restaurant — hastily opened for business on Memorial Day.
“We didn't want to go over the top,” Peterkin says. “It's just a tiny little restaurant.”
Tiny in size, sure. The restaurant's purposefully rustic dining room houses just a dozen or so tables, all oriented so guests can gape at the picayune vegetable garden out back and the ridiculously picturesque cliff towering above it. But Canyon Kitchen's opening is significant to foodies throughout the South because it marks chef John Fleer's return to cooking. Fleer, who permanently hoisted the profile of Appalachian foothills farm-to-table cuisine during his decade-long tenure at Walland, Tenn.'s Inn at Blackberry Farm, has spent the last few years picking up various consulting projects.
Sunburst Trout Company's Sally Eason, whose family is behind the Lonesome Valley development, recruited Fleer for the job. She'd gotten to know him in the early 1990s, when the Inn at Blackberry Farm was seeking a new trout vendor.
“This was an opportunity to get back in the kitchen for a limited time window,” Fleer says.
A two-time nominee for the prestigious James Beard award, Fleer has been featured in Bon Appetit, Gourmet and on the Food Network. That makes Fleer perhaps the most nationally renowned chef now working in Western North Carolina. And while the region already has plenty of homegrown talent, his arrival signals the seriousness high-stature chefs are attributing to Asheville area eaters, a development that bodes well for the future of the local food scene.
But it's silly to waste time thinking about what might be when Canyon Kitchen keeps such an insistent focus on right now. Fleer has long emphasized place — “For me, being a chef is about expressing a place. If nothing else, cuisine has to have heart, and the Southeast is where my heart is,” he told a James Beard Foundation writer back in 2006 — and season. At Canyon Kitchen, which is scheduled to wilt like last week's lettuce come Labor Day, seasonality doesn't just mean asparagus in spring and tomatoes in the summer. The restaurant's entire menu is rewritten every day according to what partner farmers (and the backyard garden) have to offer.
“One of the challenges is putting 48 menus together over the course of the summer,” Fleer says. “Last Friday, I had written the menu the week before and 50 percent of it changed based on farms and our garden.”
For what it's worth, here's how the menu read one recent Friday: Starters, served family-style, included crisp Carolina shrimp pancakes, pounded flat and prepared with a bow toward Asian cooking traditions. The table was also graced with a bowl of barely-adorned roasted cauliflower, fat florets seasoned with salty capers and warm garlic. Sunburst trout showed up in a refreshing couscous salad of chickpeas and cucumbers.
But the most memorable dish was the one that was the most classically Fleer: A savory salad of kale, grown in retrofitted trout tubs; spinach; richly flavorful hard-boiled eggs from Jackson County hens and soft hunks of potato, all bathed in a warm bacon dressing.
Appetizers are plated individually on Saturday nights, but the casual ambiance that prevails on Fridays seems to suit the place. With its aura of freshly assembled sophistication, Canyon Kitchen often feels more like a wedding reception than a restaurant. Guests are urged to linger by an outdoor stand-up bar when they first arrive, a configuration that allows prospective property buyers to admire an oversized map of the development, but also gives diners an opportunity to tromp through the yard the way partygoers invariably do.
Starters are followed by the entrée — there are no choices on Canyon Kitchen's menu — which, the night I dined, was a lovely osso bucco, featuring a swarthy heritage pork. It was paired with a tangy onion jam and grits so redolent of corn that eaters might reasonably check their teeth for stray kernels.
Dessert was equally winning: A rice pudding that served mostly as a foundation for a handful of spiced blueberries.
The only thing missing from the menu is a price, so I was stunned when the bill arrived. For all three courses, Canyon Kitchen is charging a measly $35 a person. That's a deal no matter who's cooking.
Of course, Lonesome Valley has every incentive to keep the price low. Just like family fun days and golf outings, the restaurant is a tool to sell the development's 150 vacant lots. “We have had some people wanting to look at property,” confirms Peterkin, who reports “we've got reservations coming our of our ears.”
Lonesome Valley may very well be the first planned community using a superstar chef to lure prospective buyers to its property. For the sake of western North Carolina eaters, let's hope it's not the last.