Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sandwich Heaven – Jer’s Kitchen – Franklin, North Carolina

For a period of some twenty years – from the early 1970s until the early 1990s – one of America’s great restaurants was located on an isolated backroad in the mountains of western North Carolina. The Frog & Owl was beautifully situated beside a little stream by a watermill along what was, when it opened, a gravel road. The Chef Jerri Broyles (now Jerri Fifer) turned out food that could turn heads in Berkeley or Manhattan. Along with Alice Waters and Anne Rosenzweig, she was in the triumvirate of great female chefs of the 1970s (today there are so many women in toques that the category “female chef” seems a dusty relic). Perhaps being situated on a dusty road made her celebrity less glossy, but those who dined at the Frog and Owl realized that here was a restaurant that deserved a place on any “ten best list,” and perhaps not at the bottom. Her cooking was pure, it was clean, it was precise, but it was subtle as well. Her use of fruit was ahead of her time; her use of local ingredients was not as showy as Ms. Waters, but her farms were closer to her table and not run by Ph.D. wannabees. Each year I made a pilgrimage to the F&O, watching as Chef Fifer became more accomplished.

And then a thunderbolt. Because of family issues (coupled with a persnickety septic tank – as important as a stove), Chef Fifer chose to shut her rural Chartres, and move to Franklin, the county seat of Macon County, where she opened the less ambitious Frog & Owl Bistro. She eventually sold her share in the Bistro, and the restaurant, which had become a shadow of itself, is now shuttered. Every so often there were Fifer-sightings. She cooked at a small bistro in Highlands, North Carolina for awhile, but she also nursed an aging mother, as well as raised her son.

Last year I heard that she had opened a sandwich/salad stand – Jer’s Kitchen (her logo incorporates a frog) in a large antique mall in Franklin (just north of the Georgia town of Dillard on Highway 23), run with her confederate Nancy. Now a sandwich stand is not a four star restaurant and who knows how long antique malls will survive in the age of eBay? The “restaurant” is basically a dozen tables in an open area in the mall. However, despite its location (it is open approximately 11-2, Monday-Saturday), it deserves your attention. It is very, very good. (Chef Fifer also sells boxed suppers and does private catering and teaches the occasional class at the John Campbell Folk School). While the menu might seem fairly standard – although never too standard – the food is made with great care. I was particularly impressed by the toasted torta bread. Whether one wants Pimento Cheese (from Wisconsin white cheddar) or made-from-scratch hummus, homemade basil mustard, or two freshly made soups, they are here. One shouldn’t oversell the achievement, but as sandwiches go, they are first rate.

Jerri (Chef Fifer) and Nancy at Jer's Kitchen - Franklin, North Carolina

I ordered Chef Fifer’s “Black Mountain” – a lamb burger served on homemade torta with herb aioli, lettuce and tomato. It was totally satisfying. I believe that the technical term among food journalists is “nummy.” A juicy, well-cooked, straight-forward sandwich with enough interest for a gourmetish lunch.

Jer's Kitchen - Franklin, North Carolina - Lamb Burger on Homemade Torta Bread

Sandwiches are served with a side order, but I ordered three: Citrus Coleslaw, Fruit and Nut Orzo (not photo), and Corn Bread Salad (?!). Both of the first two were creative twists on standards: the citrus coleslaw was particularly good, and the orzo was a high-end pasta salad with almonds and cranberries (Chef Fifer still relies on the power of fruit). The corn bread salad, a recipe from the chef’s mother (an homage) is an acquired taste: mashed up cornbread with something like a cole slaw dressing. It is fair to say that one will not find a similar dish in Berkeley.

Jer's Kitchen - Franklin, North Carolina - Corn Bread Salad and Citrus Cole Slaw

I am delighted to find Chef Fifer behind the stove, seemingly happy to be there. With her son to be launched in two years, she is thinking about the next step in her culinary journey and ours. For twenty years she was an American chef with vision and élan. Today with top-notch restaurants appearing in Chilhowie, Virginia, Frederick, Maryland, Peoria Heights, Illinois, and Findlay, Ohio, could the rebirth of Franklin, North Carolina be next? But even now, Jer’s Kitchen is worth a whistle stop.

Jer’s Kitchen
Whistle Stop Mall
1281 Georgia Road
Franklin, NC 28734

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