Flavor: Classic WNC field-to-table
Ambiance: Subdued stylish
Where: 61 Locust, Spruce Pine
Contact: (828) 765-1511
Hours: Tue-Fri, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5:30-9 p.m.; Sat, 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sun, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
The hardest part of being an artist — other than the measly paychecks and constant parental griping — is surrendering control of your work once you release it to the world.
Unless they're blessed with an especially savvy lawyer, artists can't stop buyers from using their sculptures as umbrella racks or hanging their pen-and-ink meditations on environmental degradation alongside family vacation photos. If the artist is done a disservice, that's just bad luck.
As farmstead cheese and heirloom vegetables have acquired the cache once assigned to hand-blown glass and craft metalwork, farmers are increasingly facing the very same problem. Clumsy chefs, eager to demonstrate their thorough commitment to local food, collect the names of local food producers the way schoolboys once hoarded baseball cards. They link every menu item to an area farm, trying to cheat mastery by appealing to eaters' near-unconditional love for homegrown food. Sadly, when the dishes fall flat, the farmers are forced to shoulder some of the blame.
That's happily not the case at Knife & Fork, Spruce Pine's inspiring field-to-table eatery that in two short months has established itself as one of western North Carolina's best restaurants. Here, local products aren't just adulated: They're elevated. According to owner Nate Allen, nobody's as pleased as the farmers stocking his pantry.
"They're like, 'I love what you do for my food,'" says Allen, 32, who — with his wife, Wendy Gardner, 34 — fled L.A.'s high-end dining scene to open Knife & Fork, a move that confounded their friends and Mitchell County residents alike.
"The biggest question I constantly get is why the hell we're here," admits Allen, motioning across Locust Street at the century-old railroad tracks that shoot through the town of 2,000. "It's because it was needed. If you love the choo choo, then there are a lot of hungry people here."
Allen and Gardner had long considered opening a place in Los Angeles, but their plans were jilted by the faltering economy. Although Spruce Pine made a certain amount of sense — Gardner grew up in Burnsville, where her mother briefly ran a bakery — their arrival still aroused a flicker of suspicion from locals, who gossiped (wrongly) that Allen had served as Toby Keith's personal chef.
"We spent a week unpacking and we opened," Allen recalls. "That's unheard of. All the people in L.A. are like 'holy crap'.
"It's so refreshing living here," he continues. "It makes me very happy to be so close to the earth. And I still feel cool. Maybe cooler."
The couple's SoCal cool has jived remarkably well with Spruce Pine, where they've become so popular that the restaurant's ten tables are taken by 7 p.m. most weekday evenings. Waits are not unusual.
The reason is immediately apparent to anyone who steps inside the wooden-floored restaurant, decorated according to a tastefully minimalist scheme ripped from the headlines of Martha Stewart Living and soundscaped with Norah Jones, Billie Holliday and Madeline Peyroux. Every diner is greeted with a menu so current that it's run off on a home printer and a marvelously well-chosen list of wines by the glass, including a Miner Family viognier and a Genuine Risk cab from the owners' friends' winery (the name suggests Allen and Gardner aren't the only ones in their social circle embarking on seemingly foolhardy culinary adventures.)
From the start, it's clear that shovels and hoes are as important tools as peppermills and sauté pans in assembling the menu at Knife & Fork: The requisite complimentary nosh is a colorful still-life of zingy house-pickled onions, celery and squash, arranged in a glass tumbler.
Those same vegetables reappear in different guises throughout the meal, since Allen wisely avoids waste by sticking to a lean list of ingredients. The two salads served the night I ate there featured many of the same elements, but that's where the commonalities ended.
The fried-green-tomato salad, which seemed to always be balanced on the arm of the restaurant's only (and very chipper) server, was an excellent rendition of the genre, showcasing a crisp fried green tomato and silky crottin alongside a sprightly anthology of fresh tomatoes in a prism of hues, dabbed with a satisfying balsamic. But the tomatoes and arugula were trotted out to far greater effect in an unusually challenging roasted beet salad, a breathtaking mash-up of bitter greens and bright orange acid.
"There's a fine line between what's still my touch and what people will buy," Allen says, explaining the contrasting salads. The salad made with Camp Celo beets is, he concedes, "really weird. But I hate clichés."
So there's no goat cheese on the beets, or any starters besides a skilled rabbit rillette, made according to techniques Allen learned from a third-generation Lyonnaise charcuterier.
"It's the hind and forequarters of the beast," he explains. "It's roasted, pulled from the bone, shredded and put back in a terrine mold. To break it down to brass tacks, it's meat spread."
The judiciously seasoned rilette, perhaps the purest possible distillation of meatiness, wasn't just a show of bravado, as so many attempts at house curing tend to be. It was gleefully delicious, as was the savory rabbit saddle, served over terrifically succulent red quinoa.
Befitting a restaurant trafficking in local foods, Allen offers a riff on Sunburst Farm trout, in which the fish is bathed in local honey and laid atop squirmy du puy lentils criss-crossed with spindly green beans.
"I started out thinking I was going to serve it with tomatoes and sumac berries," Allen says. "Then I tried shitakes. But it just wasn't good. It wasn't. My own mother told me so."
Allen finally hit on honey, and reports local eaters have lapped up the sheer sauce — although he estimates only about five percent of them have "the cojones to eat the skin," wherein the best flavors reside.
"I have people come in and ask for extra honey," he says. "That's fine. They ask for cocktail sauce and tartar, that's where it ends. I make my own ketchup, I'm not putting it in cocktail sauce."
The debt local farmers owe Allen is perhaps best summarized by his treatment of a Hickory Nut Gap Farm pork chop, a cut that's routinely massacred by chefs elsewhere. Allen's chop is fabulously juicy and — just for fun — served with a corn pone that would probably score highly with frontiersmen who wore coonskin caps.
"I fell in love with that a long time ago," Allen says of pone. "I was calling people 'corn pone' before I knew what it was. Cooked just right, it becomes like corn stuffing."
I wasn't crazy about the corn pone, but — brace yourself, vegetarians — would award top honors to the only meatless dish on the menu. The only thing wrong with the pasta was its description, which I fear wasn't sufficiently sexy to distract customers from the grass-fed beef and fried chicken salad. "Hand-cut pasta with tomato, fennel and fiore sardo," hardly seems revolutionary. Yet the dish vibrated with love and talent, the two things no kitchen can fake.
Admittedly, "made with love" sounds like one of those wishy-washy taglines that get slapped across cookbooks written by not-quite-Paula Deens. But the taste of love is so distinct on a plate that I wasn't entirely surprised to discover the pasta was actually a romantic gesture that Allen and Gardner generously shared with their guests.
"It was my day to do the farm run, and I got my payback," Gardner says of the earthy, rough-hewn ribbons of pasta her husband prepared for her.
"It is a serious labor of love," Allen says. "I'll take like two pounds of seminola and turn it into dough. Pasta means I really love that she went to the farms today."
Pasta probably won't be a regular feature on the menu anytime soon, since its preparation would eat up most of Allen's day. "I love it, but I've got one line cook in the day and one guy at night," he says. "I finally just hired a pastry chef."
"It's a whole lot of work," Gardner agrees. "You always think you're ready to take the leap, and then you're like 'Can I do this?' 'Do I want to do this?',"
"Fulfillment will make up for lack of sleep," Allen counsels. "An artist is someone who creates what's not there because he wants it to exist."
Hanna Rachel Raskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.