Flavor: Upscale Appalachian
Ambiance: Rustic warmth in unlikely strip mall location
I am not the target audience for Blackwater Grille in Laurel Park. Most folks in this upscale speck of a town, which bumps up against the western edge of Hendersonville, are retirees – according to the most-recent census data, the median age here is 58.6.
So when I set out for dinner at Blackwater, I invited my visiting parents to join me. What better way to celebrate their reaching the 58.8-year-old mark this month?
As it turned out, they were the perfect dining companions. I’d thought they’d help tune my reviewing radar to the baby-boomer channel, harping about petty offenses that I might otherwise have excused. And just as I’d hoped, they fretted about the tricky paper-towel dispensers in the bathrooms and stopped just short of drawing up wanted posters for our waitress when a complimentary basket of bread failed to materialize immediately. But, more importantly, they showed me how to appreciate the restaurant in the way only parents could: as a loveable underachiever with potential that outpaces its performance.
Blackwater Grille is the brainchild of Scott Douglass Adams, an alumnus of Appalachian State University and Johnson & Wales University’s culinary program. He opened the restaurant two years ago in the strip-mall slot vacated by local institution Hubert’s, a popular eatery for nearly two decades. Adams has managed to retain many of the earlier incarnation’s regulars by appealing to their savvy palates with a staunchly regional menu.
According to Adams, the well-traveled, mostly white couples of a certain age who call Laurel Park home are enchanted by the concept of Appalachian-inspired cuisine. He should know: While Blackwater’s warm, wooden-floored interior is gussied up with a stone fireplace and a working waterfall, Adams himself is the room’s most riveting fixture. He circulates from table to table, greeting diners and retelling his story of being a ninth-generation mountaineer with all the enthusiasm of someone who just filled in the final blank on his family tree.
Adams named his restaurant after Mathew and Andrew Douglass, his Scottish forefathers who resettled in the West Virginia hills. According to the chef’s statement that heralds the menu, Blackwater is a translation of their Gaelic surname. The ancestral Douglasses probably didn’t feast on baked baby brie or pesto-chicken linguine, but many items in the Blackwater pantry could have been kept in an 18th century Highlands larder. Adams has assembled a star-studded cast of locally available ingredients including mountain trout, apples and muscadines. Many items – such as the New Zealand venison flank steak and the entirety of the wine list – hail from other regions populated by footloose Celts.
Like a talented kid with more dreams than determination, Adams thinks big. You can’t help rooting for this guy. But too often he squanders his smarts on mischief-making, gratuitously saturating his creations with alcohol. His is a party menu, with no fewer than two-thirds of the meat entrees finished with booze. If the Culinary Institute of America had a Greek system, the boys of Kappa Epsilon Chi would probably use the frat kitchen to churn out concoctions like Adams’ ale-battered mushrooms and moonshine duck topped with drunken cherries. Hard stuff – from Southern Comfort to Scots-whiskey cream – is the proudly advertised not-so-secret ingredient in so many dishes that it’s hard not to wonder what else has been unwisely spiked. Surely those are chopped chives in the butter, but is that a hint of vodka in the aftertaste? Were the salad’s baby-spinach leaves washed in rum?
When the kitchen buckles down and gets serious, it does a lovely job with the standards. A spinach-artichoke spread, while not winning any points for innovation, is the perfect shareable appetizer. Unlike some renditions of the dish, the dip isn’t pureed into submission. The salads are equally promising, although the whiskey-smoked trout shredded atop the Caesar salad doesn’t fully meld with the other flavors sharing the plate.
The entrees are served with two sides, selected from a list of five. Cheddar grits, garlic mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, collard greens and sweet potatoes vied for our attention. None of the sides threatened to overshadow the main dishes, although all are well-executed enough to precisely counterbalance the entrees’ taste profiles.
The quality of the entrees varied widely. It was sad to think the venison traveled halfway around the globe to make such a schlumpy debut: It was so tough that hacking away at it could constitute a workout for some middle-aged diners (fortunately, my mother has been toning her upper arms in anticipation of a Christmas break escape to Aruba). But the whiskey-smoked ribs, bathed in a blackberry-barbecue sauce, were delectably tender. The beef tenderloin was also cooked nicely, and could easily comfort a meat-and-potatoes Hubert’s veteran asea in Adams’ hopped-up mountain-noveau cuisine.
The moonshine duck was a true novelty dish, with the Georgia-stilled corn liquor brine adding no perceptible flavor to the unsauced meat. The fruit juice and herbs touted by the menu were similarly hushed, taking a backseat to the salt that overpowered the dish.
Adams obviously wants his customers to like his food as much as he does. He brightly offers smaller “try it, you’ll like it” portions of most dishes from appetizers to desserts, a strategy that more restaurants could learn from. Even if the small portions of pumpkin-bread pudding, a pie-like pastry that reeks of autumn, and the gooey chocolate brownie are as hefty as regular portions elsewhere, associating the word “small” with dessert is a sure way to persuade even the most-dedicated Weight Watchers member to go for just one more course.
Adams and his well-informed servers especially like the sweet-potato halibut. Between the menu’s adulatory verbiage and our server’s hearty endorsement, placing an order for the crusted fish became inevitable. But it seemed the folks in the back of the house didn’t share the front’s reverence for the dish: The fish emerged from the kitchen so overcooked that every trace of its innate halibutness was obliterated. Even my father – who famously pays no heed to food-expiration dates – couldn’t finish it.
Our server didn’t flinch when we sent the dish back. The complaint was handled in a highly professional manner, with a pair of desserts removed from our check in apology. But more importantly, the second halibut – which was obviously prepared with tremendous care – was every bit as good as promised.
Blackwater Grille has all the tools it needs to succeed. It’s a smart, friendly place with creativity to spare. If its work ethic catches up with its talent, it could be first in its class.