Venue Review: Piedmont
The menu description at Piedmont was enticing: "Chapel Hill Creamery 'Calvander' risotto, stinging nettle pistou, NC wild ramps, green garlic, Woodfruit mushrooms, Root Down Farm's chard, lemon." You might even say it read like a list of ingredients for a magic spell.
It must have been some pretty powerful voodoo, because it charmed this carnivore into passing up the likes of braised lamb neck, crispy duck leg confit and house-smoked pork chop, and instead ordering a vegetarian dish on a Saturday night a few weeks ago. And indeed, the dish proved to be enchanting on many levels.
To the eye, the broad white rim of a pasta bowl framed an edible kaleidoscope in shades of jade and emerald, showered with topaz shards of lemon zest.
To the palate, the combination of creamy risotto, ephemeral spring greens and earthy fungus was at once vibrant and deeply satisfying. The textbook risotto served up voluptuous evidence of chef/partner Ben Adams' skills. The citing of multiple local producers for their contributions to the dish - a pattern repeated throughout the menu - gave testimony to his commitment to local farms.
A name that crops up frequently on the menu is Coon Rock Farm, whose owners, Jamie DeMent and Richard Holcomb, are also partners in Piedmont. Last year, DeMent and Holcomb lured Adams up from Charleston, where he had worked at nationally acclaimed restaurants McCrady's and Hominy Grill, to take over the Piedmont kitchen.
The risotto wasn't the only dish to cast a spell that Saturday night. Our appetizers - chilled cucumber vichyssoise with pickled littleneck clams and shaved radishes from Coon Rock Farm, and a flawless fried soft-shell crab with green tomato remoulade - had already set very high expectations.
Living up to those expectations every bit as convincingly as my risotto was my wife's pan-seared, line-caught striped bass. Irreproachably fresh and expertly seared, the fish arrived on a pontoon of carrot batons, flanked by an island of impossibly buttery Robuchon potato puree in an intensely orange, sweet-savory lake of carrot butter.
If the spell was broken briefly during dessert by a crust that had gone soft on a rhubarb tart, the magic was restored by a sticky date cake with dulce de leche and salted caramel ice cream.
The noise level in the main dining room - a refurbished 1930s Nash dealership (where Piedmont opened in 2006) with brick walls and high exposed wood ceilings - may break the spell for some. The owners marked Adams' arrival last summer by redecorating the space with a wall-spanning display of boards salvaged from North Carolina buildings. The rustic installation is a fitting echo of the chef's locavore ethic, and it certainly adds visual drama to the space. But it does little to dampen the noise level.
Opting for a table in the smaller mezzanine dining area alleviates the problem somewhat, though the level of attentiveness on the part of an otherwise well-trained wait staff isn't always as high there as it is downstairs.
Then again, you may not even notice the lags as you're whiling away the time exploring Piedmont's well-curated collection of some 300 wines (including 18 or so typically offered by the glass). Or sipping on a specialty cocktail from general manager Crawford Leavoy's list of magic potions. A transplant from New Orleans, Leavoy is justifiably proud of his Sazerac.
Adding to the magic that night was the knowledge that the meal was a reward for my patience. Back in February, my palate had been whetted by a dinner at Piedmont whose highlights included smoked Carolina trout spread with housemade lavash crackers, pecan-smoked squab breast, and the tenderest grass-fed strip steak I'd ever sunk a tooth into. If this is what Adams is capable of in the dead of winter, I thought, imagine what he can do with the local harvests come spring and summer.
I resisted the siren call of Adams' online menu as it evolved with the seasons, keeping an eye out for signs of spring. The wait wasn't easy, but it was well worth it.
Now if I can just hold out until tomato season.