Flavor: Upscale modern-American comfort food
Ambiance: Warm and welcoming; open kitchen and artwork add urban flair
Of Note: Award-winning, extensive selection of wines from all over the globe
At first glance, the Chef’s Table in downtown Waynesville is an unassuming little spot. While it is charming in its scale and interior warmth, the eatery is a bit inconspicuous from the sidewalk on Church Street, and there is a good chance that we might never have discovered it, had our evening gone as planned.
When we arrived in Waynesville on a recent Saturday night, we found its streets clogged with nighttime revelers dancing to oldies cover bands – this was not the sleepy mountain town we had expected. In fact, Waynesville was in the midst of a full-blown Labor Day celebration. It would prove a busy time for one restaurant in particular.
We had made our reservations for the evening at a restaurant only a hop, skip and jump away from the Chef’s Table. The popular grill that we had originally selected has received rave reviews for its food and commitment to excellence, as was made evident by the various awards, magazine mentions and newspaper articles hung about the walls near the entrance. It was apparent from the line snaking away from the hostess stand that this restaurant was a hit with the locals.
We arrived 15 minutes earlier than our reservation time, and we asked the hostess if we could sit at the bar to wait. She consented, and wait we did – surrounded by dirty glasses. We sat at the bar, which was conspicuously missing a tender, for 40 minutes without being offered a drink of water or glass of wine to placate our very real thirst, or an apology for the wait. Waitresses would appear from time to time to pour drinks for their own tables, but there appeared to be no time for much else.
The restaurant was clearly busy and understaffed, so the delay was understandable, even though we were the only people seated at the bar. However, 35 minutes past our reservation time, a group of people who appeared to know the owner sat beside us. Suddenly, the dirty glasses were noticed and whisked away, and – just as suddenly – the bar was open for business. Then, quite incredibly, the new party was immediately offered service, though they had clearly not made reservations. In a state of agitation partially inspired by watching so much wine having been poured and tasting none, we informed the hostess that we were no longer in need of a table and promptly exited the building.
Cranky with hunger, I just about sped home. But suddenly I spied a bit of warm light spilling out onto the sidewalk, bathing a laughing couple clutching a doggie bag as they emerged from the interior of a brick-facade building: food! Occupied by the crazy notion that we could wine and dine on this particular holiday weekend, we prepared to beg, plead and otherwise fully ingratiate ourselves with the host for a chance to sit at a table. It was, after all, perilously near to closing time. Wheedling, it turned out, was completely unnecessary, and we were seated relatively quickly.
The Chef’s Table is a cozy place with an open kitchen lined by a low counter, which was packed full with people sipping wine and taking in the cuisine of chefs Tracie Horner and Josh Monroe. The lighting was tolerably low, as was the noise level. We were immediately put at ease; we were greeted graciously by the host and other members of the staff, even though we had walked in reservation-less on a holiday weekend less than a half hour before the kitchen usually closes.
Our waiter arrived posthaste, wine list in tow. In all actuality, the list would be better described as a tome, and I found myself wishing that he had dropped it on the table with a dramatic thud, perhaps in a puff of dust. The Chef’s Table is the gustatory outlet of the Classic Winesellar, a market next door with more than 400 wines in stock. Even with business hours over, the wait staff from the Chef’s Table is permitted to enter the darkened wine market through a door in the shared wall and search for whatever bottle has been selected by the customer. According to our server, looking for some of the more obscure bottles can be quite a daunting task.
Somewhat budget-minded, we selected the Argentinean Broquel Malbec, a bottle that carried a price tag of $27. We were not disappointed. I mentioned to our waiter, who was doing a fabulous job of soothing whatever ruffled feathers remained, that I had very low blood sugar, and he brought out a basket of bread immediately. Now that’s the kind of attention you deserve when you plan to spend a chunk of hard-earned money at an eating establishment.
The menu at the Chef’s Table concentrates mainly on what could be considered upscale, modern-American comfort food. The signature dish, for example, is the quintessential Lowcountry comfort item – shrimp and grits. This particular version, however, incorporates an extra element of luxuriousness with a lobster velouté.
For an appetizer, we selected one of the specials, another study in the realm of upscale comfort cuisine – this one a riff on the classic cassoulet, a dish with French-peasant roots. This particular stewy treat contained chicken as well as lamb sausage, and was served with a grit cake in a manner we dubbed the “cassoulet toad-in-a-hole.” The dish, quite frankly, wasn’t very attractive – not even the geometric lines of the grit cake could render it beautiful – but, like the Chef’s Table itself, it had plenty of inner beauty. It lacked a certain richness, but it was nonetheless hearty and satisfying.
We sampled an item erroneously dubbed “bruschetta tapenade,” which actually turned out to be crisp tortilla points topped with a three-olive tapenade and grated ricotta salata. Misnomers aside, it was a pleasant little dish, and well worth the $6 we paid for it. The tapenade was classic in flavor, and it, too, had an element of hominess to it, at least for two cooks who regularly prepare this sort of thing to munch on in front of a ball game.
Our main courses did not fail to satisfy either, and went especially well with the wine we had selected. The theme continued to follow along the lines of what a chef might make at home for the family. A tender and juicy duck breast with a spicy-sweet plum sauce and wild rice was quite good, though not a dish that challenged the eater. The same could be said of a great little char-grilled New York strip with a portobello and balsamic glaze served with hearty cheddar mashed potatoes.
Challenges don’t appear to be the point of the Chef’s Table. The dishes served are familiar – which isn’t to say they’re pedestrian. Rather, the folks at the restaurant appear to concern themselves mostly with keeping customers comfortable, with service that is attentive yet personable, a menu that does not somersault for attention and a warm, welcoming atmosphere. For a couple of hungry souls who stumbled in off the street on one of the busiest restaurant nights of the year, the atmosphere in and of itself was a blessing.