The owners of the Blackbird Cafe in Black Mountain have a definite concept: new American tavern. The establishment, which serves a very local menu of Carolina fare (from the mountains to the low-country) leans heavily on this central theme.
The problem with that, says Roz Taubman, who owns the restaurant with partner Bobby Buggia, is that “new American tavern” is not exactly a common term. As Taubman explains, the concept shares similarities with the increasingly popular gastro-pub — only less European, more modern-American. Given that the term shares as much space in the restaurant logo as the name of the restaurant itself, Taubman has a vested interest in pressing the issue.
"People, I think, aren't quite aware of what it means," says Taubman as soon as she utters the phrase. "For us, it's a culinary term, 'new American tavern.' What it means to us is building a community through your restaurant and giving truly upscale food in a chef-driven restaurant."
Does that come through in those three little words, 'new American tavern’? Taubman thinks not. "People don't really get that. They think of a tavern as a dark, beer-drinking place," she says.
Dark, beer-drinking place the Blackbird is not. In the daytime, the large floor-to-ceiling windows that span the restaurant afford views of the surrounding courtyard and mountains while letting light pour in. During the night, the restaurant is brightly lit, inviting and warm. Yes, there's beer. There's even a rather nice bar.
But community-building through a restaurant is a vague explanation for a menu concept. It's meant as a nod to the farm-to-table approach employed by the restaurant owners. Even that term, “farm-to-table,” is becoming a form of green-washing. It's easy to dismiss. It sometimes means little beyond the fact that the people responsible for marketing the restaurant know that being a "locavore" is in-style these days.
But the Blackbird is really walking the walk, says Taubman. This is reflected in the menu with its regional meat, fish and fowl. It's reflected in the farm dinners that the restaurant hosts every Wednesday. On those days, the restaurant showcases a menu highlighting one particular farmer or food-producer — then invites the artisan to dinner. “We're real old-school in a kind of way that's just now becoming more hip and chic," she says.
Old-school, indeed. Taubman's been in the food business for some time. She owned a restaurant in South Carolina for 20 years, then moved to the birthplace of farm-to-table restaurants, Napa Valley, to “start an olive oil and private wine project for a kazillionaire.”
I knew this indirectly before I even met her. Molly Irani, who owns Chai Pani with her husband Meherwan, grew up watching her parents practically tear their hair out running restaurants. It made Molly reluctant to enter the business herself, she said.
“Molly grew up in the restaurant business and swore to me that she would never open a restaurant because it's such a miserable lifestyle,” says Taubman.
Though Chai Pani and the Blackbird opened within a month of each other, they're very different — Chai Pani's Indian street food versus the Blackbird's new American fare. But they're “both experiencing a lot of success right now, and there's really a story there," says Taubman. "Both of us are doing something that we really believe in.”
Despite talk of the potentially miserable lifestyle of the restaurant business, both Irani and Taubman seem to defy the odds. Taubman, also a pastry chef, sounds somewhat giddy when she talks about sliding into the tiny Blackbird kitchen to make her comfortable American desserts. Out of that miniscule kitchen, she turns out a Southern-custard coconut cake and a fluffy triple chocolate-mousse torte that's earned some devotees.
“I'm doing this because I love it — it's the only part of the restaurant business that I really love,” she says, laughing.
Did I mention the kitchen is tiny? Not so much for a sandwich joint, but considering the restaurant is running on rather traditional methods (baking pastries is just a start), it sounds oppressively small at under 200 square feet.
In the small space, chef-owner Buggia, who opened the well-known Peninsula Grill in Charleston with chef Bob Carter, makes sausage, grinds beef and butchers all of his meats and fish. He makes his demi-glace the right way, I'm told. No shortcuts.
The old-school methods pair well with a menu that features comfortably familiar (even to the point of being old-fashioned) fare. It's one way to go about the revival of local food. Updating the traditional foodstuffs of the Appalachians and low-country is becoming a culinary anachronism, yet thoroughly modern thing to do.
Take the sorghum-glazed chicken with buttermilk mash and benne beans. Even though the chicken in the dish is Poulet rouge, a rich-fleshed French heritage breed of chicken with a quail-like flavor, the dish itself is pure Appalachia. It’s new old-fashioned.
Short ribs come from cows raised in Pisgah Forest. Beef is driven over from a tiny farm in Greensboro. Shrimp is served over Peaceful Valley stone-ground grits. It's a locavore haunt, to be sure.
"We have a very local, solid customer base very interested in where we're getting our food," Taubman says. "A lot of people do the kitschy farm-to table-thing, and they're not really doing it.”
And Taubman, who lives on a ridge right above the restaurant, may have found her home.
“It's a sweet life. I feel so happy to be here — the people and the community are very supportive of what we're doing," she says. "I also find that this area is very sophisticated in its alternative food distribution, which I only thought was available in Napa. We've got farmers delivering food to our back door every day, and that's really what a restaurant needs to make this farm to table thing work.”
“I never knew that North Carolina was that sophisticated on the sustainable agriculture scene until I got here and realized that, yeah, this is as good as Napa.”
— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at email@example.com.