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.