CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Many argue the Southern culinary renaissance originated at Crook’s Corner restaurant in this North Carolina town, and the movement was forged by one chef, Bill Neal. I’m not sure if I would disagree with them.
Fellow Mississippian and longtime food editor of the “New York Times,” Craig Claiborne put the small café at the end of West Franklin Street on the map when he wrote about Neal’s shrimp and grits in the mid-1980s. Another fellow Mississippian, Chef John Currence, worked there, first as a dishwasher, then as a line cook, and brought shrimp and grits back to the Deep South.
Bill Smith took over the reins from Neal and still works the restaurant today.
Travel assignments for Extra Table landed me in Chapel Hill this week. It was a quick fly-in-late-one-day-and-fly-out-early-the-next-day sort of trip. I had one meal to plan. It might have been the easiest travel-dining strategy I have ever created – Crook’s Corner.
I was traveling with two companions – one who knows how I eat when dining out while doing research and development, and another who learned pretty quickly the table tends to get crowded with plates on these expeditions.
The meal kicked off with a green peach salad lightly dressed with black pepper and mint, followed by a tomato tart and a plate full of perfectly spiced jalepeno-cheddar hushpuppies and a West Indies Salad. As I was eating the West Indies Salad, Smith walked out of the kitchen and we struck up a conversation. As it happens, the last time I visited with him I was lecturing on West Indies Salad at the Southern Foodways Symposium. He nailed it.
As an entrée I chose the Carolina Sampler which was a plate piled high with Hoppin’ John, collard greens, a wedge of back-pepper cornbread, and some of the finest Carolina vinegar-sauced barbecue I have ever tasted. The North Carolinians get it right when they don’t douse smoked meats with gobs of tomato-based sauce.
The neophyte to the St. John travel-dining scene ordered the same as me and our other companion ordered shrimp and grits – when in Rome.
Sometimes when I can’t make up my mind between two entrees, I order a second “for the middle of the table,” so everyone can share. The gesture seems generous in theory, but actually it’s a selfish move on my part and a way to eat like a pig without having to appear as one.
For dessert I ordered a fried peach pie. We also ordered lemon pie, a chocolate soufflé cake, and a mayhaw snow cone that was more inspired in concept than in application. I then ate the most brilliantly prepared banana pudding I have ever eaten. One might think banana pudding is banana pudding. At Crook’s Corner, one would be wrong.
The banana pudding wasn’t even the best dessert on the table. That lofty distinction is reserved for Smith’s honeysuckle sorbet.
I am obviously one of the last food lovers on the planet to learn about honeysuckle sorbet, as a quick Google search provided several dozen articles, interviews, recipes and videos featuring Smith’s signature dessert.
When I saw it on the menu I was skeptical. I assumed it would be some type of sweet ice with a hint of honeysuckle flavor derived from something else, but I was wrong. It tasted exactly like honeysuckle tasted when I was a kid and would spend 45 minutes on a fence row picking honeysuckle flowers and savoring the solitary drop of sweetness from the stamen.
The South has many chefs carrying the torch. Many have been in the forefront of the movement since the 1970s. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, Bill Smith will be considered one of the finest.
Robert St.John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.