At The Asbury, executive chef Chris Coleman waits for this all year, scribbling ideas in his notebook for what he wants to do when the tomatoes arrive.
“Tomatoes are my absolutely favorite ingredient of the year,” he admits. “In the dead time, I dream about tomatoes.”
For the chefs who walk the talk on cooking with local ingredients, this one brief window of time, from early July until late September, is it: The magic hour, the crunch time, the flood, when the best local produce all comes at once.
There are lots of get-it-now ingredients, from corn to cantaloupes. But nothing is as perfect and as desirable as late-summer tomatoes.
At Heirloom Restaurant, Clark Barlowe says he has a whole table in the back covered with them, from Green Zebras to rare Arab Travelers. At the Block & Grinder, Ben Philpott is smoking tomatoes for aioli at lunch and putting a tomato beurre blanc on N.C. trout at dinner.
One night last week, we took a spin through the menus of three locally focused Charlotte restaurants to see how chefs are making the best of tomato time:
Executive chef Nicholas Daniels’ expansive small-plates menu offers several choices, including Bloody Mary gazpacho topped with pork belly and a version of the classic Caprese salad, with a tomato butterflied and rolled around chopped tomato and house-smoked mozzarella.
We went with the burrata, $11: A pile of orange and red diced tomatoes, red onion, cucumber and toasted bread cubes with buttermilk-feta dressing, topped with a fist-size lump of Uno Alla Volta’s saffron burrata.
Burrata is mozzarella wrapped around a creamy interior. This rendition, made by local cheesemaker Zack Gadberry, has a center that’s the pale yellow of cooked yolk and so soft, it collapses with the touch of a fork, mingling with the intense sweetness of tomatoes from Greeneman Farms.
A couple of those menu ideas from chef Chris Coleman’s notebook: tomato foam on red snapper ceviche, and a chilled tomato soup.
The winner, though, is the heirloom tomato “sandwich,” $9: A smear of fresh ricotta (Uno Alla Volta again) topped with griddled sourdough toast from Local Loaf, diced and salted red tomato (German Johnsons from Barbee Farms) and a scoop of pale green basil ice cream.
The combination is magical, an orchestra of contrasts – salty tomatoes and sweet ice cream, warm toast and cold topping, crisp bread and soft ricotta. It makes you slow down and eat slowly, to commune with it a little longer.
How can you beat tomatoes grown by the chef himself? Trey Wilson, who’s also the owner, says this has been the perfect tomato summer, with regular rain, warm days and cooler nights.
And he makes the best of it with his heirloom tomato plate, $8: several kinds of tomatoes, cut in big wedges and sprinkled with sea salt, on a pool of pistou, a pesto made here from pistachios, basil, chives and olive oil.
It’s a reminder of the beauty of the basics – tomato, crisp salt and basil.
What more do you need? Just a little more time, please, to appreciate it all.