Venue Review: Crook's Corner Cafe & Bar
Crook's Corner has been a fixture in the Chapel Hill landscape for so long that the statue of a pig mounted atop the building at the west end of Franklin Street seems as familiar a landmark as the Old Well or Morehead Planetarium.
And not just a landmark for locals. In the 22 years since Bill Neal and Gene Hamer converted a barbecue joint to a sit-down restaurant showcasing Neal's then-cutting-edge blend of French technique and traditional Southern cuisine, its reputation has spread far and wide. Luminaries from Jimmy Carter to Lauren Bacall have dined at Crook's tables. The New York Times has dubbed the restaurant "sacred ground for Southern foodies."
In that context, you might say that Neal's nationally acclaimed cookbooks are the bible for this particular denomination. "Bill Neal's Southern Cooking," in particular, is largely credited with elevating shrimp and grits from humble shrimper's breakfast to flagship dish of new Southern cuisine.
Neal died in 1991, but his legacy lives on at Crook's. For the last decade, Hamer has entrusted the preservation of that legacy to Bill Smith, who had worked with Neal at La Residence in the pre-Crook's days. Smith faithfully continues to render many of his mentor's recipes on the menu, from the distinctive orange zest- and tomato-brightened house salad dressing to the rich-as-fudge Mount Airy chocolate souffle cake.
No doubt Neal would be proud of Smith's spot-on rendering of jalapeno-cheddar hush puppies, too, the creamy texture of their pale, chile-flecked interior starkly contrasted against a satisfyingly crackly crust that's so dark you wonder if it's burned (it isn't). And shrimp and grits continue to set the standard with a dozen or so plump and peppery shellfish sauteed with mushrooms and crunchy bits of bacon, served on a scallion-embroidered pillow of cheese grits that could convert the most avid hash browns devotee.
As true as Smith is to the faith, he's not a tradition-bound zealot. Or as he puts it, "Crook's is not a museum." Noting that the range of locally available ingredients -- particularly fresh produce -- has grown dramatically in the past decade, he adds that taking advantage of those ingredients is precisely what Neal would have done.
And that's just what Smith has done. Over the years, the soft-spoken chef has developed a repertoire of his own, a sort of culinary new testament that meshes almost indistinguishably with the old testament of Neal's recipes.
Smith's repertoire evolves with the market: One day's first course options may include a ginger-tinged sweet potato soup and a salad of winter greens, roasted peppers, boiled eggs and pumpkin seeds in a sherry-shallot dressing. A few days later, the choices have become an ethereally light cream of butterbean soup and a wilted salad with salt-cured duck and pecans in a warm apple cider vinaigrette. Fried oysters are offered both days, and it's anybody's guess who wrote the recipe for their impeccably delicate crust. But then, these oysters are so righteously good, who cares?
It's clear, in fact, that the chef has an instinct for seafood, evident in everything from catfish fingers with fried dill pickles to an authentically complex gumbo that's chockablock with oysters, shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage, country ham and okra.
Then again, Savannah-style sweetbreads sauteed with mushrooms in a sauce that's spiked with a whiff of Wild Turkey show that he knows his way around dry land, too.
Inevitably, Smith has come to be known for a few signature dishes of his own. Green Tabasco chicken is one notable example. Another is banana pudding that's as good as -- OK, better than -- my mama made. Honeysuckle sorbet, which is only available for three weeks each summer, has earned a cultlike following.
A few imperfections keep Crook's Corner on this side of the pearly gates. The narrow '50s-retro dining room can get noisy. Service is usually -- but not always -- knowledgeable, welcoming and smooth. French fries are sometimes crisp, sometimes flaccid.
But up on the roof, Crook's trademark pig remains a constant, maintaining his perch as he has for decades now. It's tempting to say that he's the steeple on this temple of Southern cuisine, but the truth is he looks more like a giant jaunty weathervane. Come to think of it, that's a fitting analogy. As it happens, this weathervane is always pointing to the South.