Peruse the pictures accompanying this and you’ll know what I find most refreshing about The Fearrington House Restaurant. (Well, beside the standard of service, about which more later.)
Deep and dark, pale and delicate, loud and bright: They’re all there, as varied as Lupita Nyong’o’s award show wardrobe, each made exuberant on the plate by careful positioning of every bit of every thing.
And there’s a lot of bits of everything on every plate.
What chef Colin Bedford is doing at this place – roughly halfway between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro, long revered as a destination spot, as are the Inn, spa and village with which it’s connected – is winning back a reputation forged by culinary superstars Edna Lewis and Ben and Karen Barker over its nearly quarter-century.
In the process, he’s become one of the luxury hotel group Relais & Chateaux’s grand chefs (25 of them in this country, about 180 worldwide), helped the restaurant match the inn’s five Forbes Travel stars and shown up in lists from Condé Nast Traveler to the eco-friendly Green Restaurant Association. The restaurant was just named one of the James Beard Foundation’s 20 national semifinalists for Outstanding Restaurant of the Year.
What he produces shows commitment to the South, to the seasons and to just a bit of England. Maple-cured duck breast with house-made blackberry jam, carrots, red cabbage and parsley root. Seared wreckfish with rice and curry, okra and butternut squash. Veal with fennel and cornmeal blini, green olive and lemon. Lobster, poached in butter,with edamame and coconut. Parsnip bavarois (nearly a mousse) with caramelized white chocolate, apple, milk jam and burnt butter. And yeah, a chocolate (Valrhona) soufflé.
The English-born, hotel-restaurant-educated Bedford shows what happens when a technical whiz kid likes to play with his crayons, too. And because the staff can describe and encourage, explain and recommend, the setting is relaxed enough for even unjaded palates accustomed to big hunks of protein to get comfortable. (“I’m not sure everyone would appreciate what are basically monkfish nuggets,” said someone close to me – but staffers can sell it.) I had no dish whose flavor stunned me the way its colors and precision did, but all were clean and well-executed.
Four courses are delineated on the menu, with roughly half a dozen choices in each category. You get three for $89, four for $99, and add wine pairings for $75 (three) or $85 (four). Or, if all at the table are into it, you do a tasting menu for $125 each, with wines for an additional $105. Much-decorated wine director Max Kast runs a 1,000-label-plus cellar chockablock with choice.
Which leads to the service, which is nuanced yet warm, smart yet effusive where appropriate. I watched head waiter Carl Wentzel match the tone of each table in the place, switching from wry to frostily efficient to as near to down-home as his South African accent would permit, impeccably.
The kitchen sends out amuse-bouches and palate cleansers and after-dinner tidbits, each is described in detail as it’s offered to you. Everything on our visit served the high purpose etiquette does, making diners as seamlessly, invisibly comfortable as possible.
My sole wince comes at decor – not because it’s unpleasant in any way, but because it has so little character at all. Still, the inn has plenty (diners are encouraged to show up early, so you can tour the gardens), and if the goal is to ensure all attention goes to the plate, mission accomplished.
The restaurant is in Fearrington Village (my GPS tried to take me onto some twisty back road; don’t let it happen to you); www.fearrington.com/fearrington-house-restaurant; 919-542-2121.
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