Fearrington House — Best Restaurant in the Triangle???

Yeah, you read that headline right, and before you get too excited about this possible claim, realize that I’m not saying The Fearrington House is definitely the best restaurant in the Triangle, but it is certainly a contender.  It’s that good.  But first, a little story of my relationship with this great Chatham County place.

As I’ve written here before, I was a manager of the UNC basketball team, and in the fall of 1984, before basketball practice started, Coach Dean Smith took the team to dinner at the Fearrington House (and no, it wasn’t an NCAA violation).   I believe Edna Lewis was in the kitchen at the time, but the dinner was put together not to please our palates, but to teach us HOW to eat.  The meal was a multi-course lesson on manners, and the owner of the Fearrington House, Ms. Jenny Fitch, instructed us what to do with each course.

She taught us about finger bowls, eating artichokes, and lobster, I believe.  She told us about which fork to use, how to eat your soup, and what to do with your napkin when you went to the restroom.  She was the personification of Southern grace and gentility, and I’ll always treasure that evening.  Moreover, this evening demonstrated to me one of those traits  that made Coach Smith the great person he is.  He wanted to make sure the hicks from the sticks like me and the kids from Queens knew what to do when in an unfamiliar dinner environment.  Sure, he wanted to be sure HIS team looked good and didn’t embarrass him, but he also knew that these were lessons not learned in a classroom, and all too often, not learned at home.  He constantly challenged the team in this manner, such as when he took us to an ultra formal traditional Japanese restaurant — in Japan, at that — as he wanted us to learn how to handle yourself in unfamiliar settings.  Ms. Fitch and Coach Smith taught us well, and I have always held the Fearrington House in high regard.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t eaten there in over 20 years, and my memories of the place were of Edna Lewis’ dark chocolate soufflé with whipped cream and of a dining room that reminded my of a grandmother’s den.  I didn’t know how much the place had changed until my wife and oldest son joined me for dinner there in late June, with the restaurant paying for two of the three meals.  How much had the place changed in 20 years?  Not much, when it came to the ambiance.  But when it came to the food, well, this isn’t your grandmother’s Fearrington House.  This place may very well have the most ambitious cuisine in the state.

Traditional Southern fare is long gone, replaced by the ultra-creative, but well-grounded cuisine of chef Colin Bedford.  Bedford is not a Southerner — he’s from England, as is his sous chef.  But both of them understand the cuisine of the “new South,” which has a distinct sense of place with an emphasis on efficient use of local ingredients.  However, Bedford is not a slave to the “farm to fork” movement, as he’ll get halibut from the Pacific Northwest when in season.  Bedford is also not afraid to use contemporary molecular gastronomy techniques, either, but only when they complement a dish.

But the one word that  sums up Bedford’s cooking to me is this: “Surprising.”  And my use of that word should not be viewed in any half-pejorative sense, such as “His cooking was surprisingly good,” but rather, the food caught me off guard at times.  The flavor combinations were often surprising, combinations that I would never have even thought to put together.  And his presentations surprised me as well, sometimes whimsically composed, but inevitably pleasant to view.  I found myself telling my wife and son, “Wow, that’s a surprising combination, but it really, truly works.”  There were sweet elements in savory dishes and savory components in the desserts.  The food challenged my traditional concepts of food, but not so much that I felt that Bedford was thinking, “Let’s see how many people get this dish.”  I just think Chef Bedford knows the human palate and knows how to combine traditional foods in untraditional ways.  Fortunately, he doesn’t push it too far, like Wylie Dufresne of New York’s WD-50 might.  This isn’t wacked out food.  It’s damn good, damn interesting food.

I’m not going to do a dish-by-dish description of  what we ate, but there are a couple of items that I can’t get out of my head.  Bedford does his variation of shrimp and grits which is unlike anything you’ve ever had.  First, the shrimp was in the form of shrimp sausage, and the dish had an undertone of vanilla throughout.  You’d think it’s a crazy combination, but it’s not (and yes, I know vanilla and lobster has become a very trendy combination, but this was different).  The sweetness of the shrimp, the richness of the grits (and shellfish sauce), and the spiciness of the andouille all worked well with the vanilla flavor.  It’s a great dish, one that both embraces and challenges the tradition of the overdone shrimp and grits, but it was a surprising one.

I ordered a seemingly simple dessert described as “Orange Cream with Burnt Butter Sorbet” — that’s all I read about it, and I wanted something light.  As I tasted it, there was an herbal element to the dish, which was clearly thyme.  I love thyme, but I never thought of using it in a dessert.  Until now.  Once again, I was surprised.

What’s not surprising about The Fearrington House is that the service has not changed, as impeccable as ever.  Starting with the Maitre D’ Joris Haarhuis, the waitstaff, and sommelier Max Kast, you’re very well pampered here.  But not in an overly formal sense.  Let me put it this way, we had a lot of great soccer discussions with the Dutch Haarhuis and the English Bedford (sorry about that final, Joris).  If you want to have a discussion with the staff, they’ll politely do so.  If you want a quiet, romantic dinner, they’ll take care of all your needs in a very non-intrusive manner.  And ask Kast to “surprise” you with some unusual wines — he’ll likely pull out something that you’ve never had before, something that

My only issue with The Fearrington House is one that will not be a problem with 90% of my readers.  The decor is just not my style, and the chairs got to be a bit uncomfortable after an hour or so.  It’s a beautiful old home, but because it is an old home, the air conditioning can get a bit challenged on hot summer days.

So is The Fearrington House the best restaurant in the Triangle?  I don’t know, but it is undoubtedly one of the very best in our area.  I had pretty much dismissed this restaurant, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.  I had allowed my sentimental memories of Jenny Fitch and the great high-end Southern cuisine of 26 years ago cloud any objectivity over what the place might have become.  Memories like that get fixed in your brain, and they don’t change.  But the restaurants themselves often do, and today, The Fearrington House represents the best of the old and new, the traditional and the cutting edge.  But throughout it all, it hasn’t lost its sense of place and purpose: it’s still a country inn with amazing food, most of it coming from its own back yard.  Thank god some things never change.

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10 Responses to Fearrington House — Best Restaurant in the Triangle???

  1. MikeB says:

    We had dinner with two other couples there just last week (part of the 3-for$45/4-for-$55 summer special) and I was pretty disappointed with the service. We’ve had nothing but stellar experiences at FH in the past so hopefully this was just a Wednesday night lull…

    1) Wife had sparkling, everyone else had tap water. Twice I had to put my hand over her glass to stop a server from topping her glass with tap water. The waiter eventually put her water in a wine glass, problem solved. The water pitchers routinely dribble water when poured and I saw three in-progress plates get a good tablespoon or two of water on the food (a shame considering how wonderful the sauces are).
    2) I ordered duck confit with green peppercorn risotto but was served the smoked duck breast. The dishes were served in two shifts without the usual confirmation of the dish. Mine was the last set, and the server quickly left before I recognized the mistake. I was content eating the dish because it was still duck, and I’m easily pleased. I was going to let the waiter know of the gaff when he came to do the customary “How is everything?” but that never happened. We didn’t see the waiter until the next course arrived.
    3) A couple of us had glasses of wine and sat empty way, way too long before we could order another.
    4) A long while after entrees were cleared, desserts (almost exclusively the souffles) arrived without warning or a word about drinks. Which is a shame because nothing goes better with chocolate than port or coffee.
    5) 6 people were sat at 7:00 and left at 10:15. That is just too long, especially in those uncomfortable chairs and stuffy room.

    Our friends thought everything was wonderful (and the food was dynamite), but I know that was not normal FH service. It seemed most of the problems were related to an inexperienced and/or overwhelmed staff combined with being in the most remote room. Also wonder if recent experiences, like Alinea in Chicago, had unreasonably raised expectations, and I was just being overly critical. Who knows. I still think FH is the gold standard of restaurants for the Triangle.

  2. Dave says:

    This is not meant as a slam or anything, but while I do appreciate that you were upfront in saying that the restaurant paid for 2 of the 3 meals you ate there, I think it really diminishes the credibility of the statement “best restaurant in the triangle” knowing that you were served free food at that restaurant.

  3. Varmint says:

    That’s fine, Dave, and I have no problem with anyone feeling that way. I also know that I would not have gone to the Fearrington House if I didn’t get that invitation from their publicist, who is a friend. I’ve accepted this type of comp only once before, even though — and you may find this hard to believe — I’ve received dozens of offers to eat at restaurants for free. That other comped meal came from Herons after they brought on their third and current chef. I really didn’t care for the place and had no interest in going back. They “bought” me by agreeing to pay for my meal to try the cuisine of Chef Crawford. I was dazzled.

    I don’t do a lot of restaurant “reviews,” and quite honestly, my objectivity is tainted far more by something much more powerful than free meals: friendship. I like to write about my friends’ restaurants, and I will probably never write anything bad about them.

    But, assuming that a free meal fatally taints my critique of the restaurant, why do the same standards not apply to other types of criticism? Do movie reviewers have to pay for a ticket? Nope, they get to view the movies in advance, without paying. Same goes for theater reviewers in many instances.

    Quite honestly, I don’t give a damn about my credibility as a restaurant reviewer. That’s not why I write. For the most part, I write about things I like. And this is a restaurant that I truly loved. I would have loved it just as much as if this were a business dinner where my firm picked up the tab, or if I were splurging on my wife and me. This is a restaurant that I wanted to visit, but I just wasn’t going to do so any time soon. Their offer made it happen sooner. And I will say that if the food weren’t that good, I probably wouldn’t have written anything at all.

  4. MikeB says:

    The litany of accolades alone can carry the “Best Restaurant in the Triangle” banner for FH. It would be one thing to be heaping this praise on a newer restaurant with inconsistent reviews or non-traditional experiences (like Poole’s).

    Reviews are a dime a dozen, I can get “objective reviews” (a totally BS concept to begin with) anywhere on the ‘net. I come here to get personal experiences. I would fully expect “Varmint’ to have an higher than normal opinion of Herons because of the unique experience he was granted. However, I learned more about Herons/Crawford from that behind the scenes glimpse than I could from any review.

  5. burgeoningfoodie says:

    Reviews are just a personal opinion and you know what they say opinions are like. I’d been debating about a special romantic dinner between Fearrington, 2nd Empire, Herons (now out due to being closed) and maybe Bonne Soiree. Having never been to FH I think that is where I’ll be going.

  6. Dean has written consistently and well about food and restaurants for years, and even when I disagree with his assessment I can see where it comes from. It makes the hair on my neck bristle when someone says the words “diminishes the credibility” in reference to something he writes.

    He has always been upfront about where he comes from and what his perspective on writing is, and I appreciate his integrity.

    Furthermore, people who say “I don’t want to intrude but” mostly mean to intrude. People who say, “I wouldn’t want to criticize, but” typically go right ahead and criticize. People who say, “This is not meant as a slam or anything, but” come off the same way, even if you don’t mean it that way.

    Of course, sometimes Dean is crazy. Anyone who doesn’t go to Fearrington for 20 years is certifiable. It always has been and likely will remain my “go-to” restaurant in the Triangle when I have money and want a memorable dinner. But then I like the decor and the chairs…

  7. Durhamfoodie says:

    I have yet to try the Fearrington House but it’s been on my go-to list ever since tasting Chef Bedford’s many wonderful hor d’oeuvres at the last Triangle Foodie Tweet-up.

    Whether you paid for your meal or not shouldn’t be an issue. Who cares! It’s about a love of food; the creativity, the flavors, trying something new and the conversation it brings to the table.

    Credibility? I don’t think this is an issue. I agree with FoodGardenKitchen, “He has always been upfront about where he comes from and what his perspective on writing is, and I appreciate his integrity.”

    Glad you had a memorable meal and I enjoyed hearing about your history with the place, that was a great story.

    Cheers!

  8. Jeff says:

    I think the point of VarmintBites has always been the sharing of ideas. Vanilla with shrimp and grits? Never heard of the lobster/vanilla trend either, but the idea of sea insects and vanilla has my mind racing…

  9. burgeoningfoodie says:

    Vanilla Poached lobster has been around for what seems like a decade or so, but my memory and sense of time is odd sometimes (seem like only yesterday type of things)>

  10. Emanuel says:

    MchekuThe names only are enough to scare one off! How does sonomee enter a cannibalistic restaurant? How do you enter a modern toilet restaurant? Exactly what kind of menus do passers by expect when they see these names?

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