Monday, September 04, 2006

Will the Frog & Owl Be Reborn? Oak Street Grill, Highlands, NC

About thirty years a young chef - along with her husband - opened a restaurant on the back road between Highlands and Franklin, North Carolina. The restaurant, the Frog and Owl Café, owed a lot to Alice Waters and her revolutionary tradition. The young chef, Jerri Broyles, was clearly learning from Ms. Waters. The F&O was Chez Panisse without the heavy weight of Alice's ideological baggage. And I preferred the Frog and Owl to its Berkeley progenitor. Jerri cooked simply and elegantly, a minimalist cuisine. Each dish had a few herbs or spices to show the master's hand, but it was a pure as a western Carolina spring. My in-laws own a home in the region, and my wife and I made the pilgrimage to the F&O each year. The dozen or so meals that I ate persuaded me that the Frog and Owl Café was among the ten best restaurants in the United States. I have never eaten a better meal in the former Confederacy. (Macon County had designs on seceding from the Confederacy. These mountain communities had little sympathy for the plantation economy of the rest of the south). Her lamb rack and her trout in a court bouillon were definitive. The fact that the restaurant was located in a former grist mill along a serene stream certainly contributed, but I would have appreciated her cuisine if it had been located in an old paint factory along Greenpoint's Newtown Creek.

I imagined that a meal with Chef Broyles would be a part of my life for eternity. However, in the early 1990s, the Frog and Owl was shuttered, and I shattered. Whether because of a busted septic tank or the challenges of raising a family, Chef Broyles opened a lunch place - the Frog and Owl Bistro in Franklin, the local county seat, about dozen miles from nirvana. The food, lunches only most years, reflected a cuisine than most chefs could prepare. Salads and simple preparations. It was as if Heifetz decided to play bar mitzvahs. Yes, the Bistro was the best restaurant in Franklin, but that is rather like saying that Applebee's is the finest restaurant on the way to the airport. Every time I ate there, I cried.

However, Jerri is back, at least part way. As of last year, she is no longer involved in the Bistro, and is now cooking at the Oak Street Café in Highlands (although she is not the proprietor). The OSC is a nice, casual restaurant with touches of inspiration. One can see Chef Broyles' hand, even if the restaurant is not yet sufficiently serious as to deserve a long detour. Some friends and I ate brunch there. I was particularly impressed by a friend's trout in court bouillon served over curls of carrots. It was perfectly cooked and the carrots spoke of a sense of balance. My low-country shrimp, served over creamy cheese grits, was an excellent dish - moist and buttery, and prettily presented with a richly flavored seafood sauce. I have been eating at the OSC grill for some years, and the step up is welcome. The restaurant is too casual for fine dining and the prices too modest (and I imagine the kitchen staff too small).

When I returned for dinner, I was less impressed. The appetizer was first rate, Fried Green Tomatoes with Goat Cheese slices, Shoestring Beets and a lively horseradish tomato sauce. It was a nice and attractive twist on a southern classic, a plate most often found in Fannie Flagg's roadside cafes.

The main courses were less successful, and both deviated from the purity of the preparations at the Frog and Owl. A rack of lamb in a minted demi-glaze ($29) sounded fine, until the dish appeared. The lamb, somewhat overcooked, was sitting in an overly sweet minty gravy-soup, served with some colorful but uninspiring broccoli florets and overcooked squash. The garlic mashed potatoes were fresh and pungent.

The main course special was pan-seared scallops with a prima vera angel hair pasta, mushrooms, tomatoes, spinach and squash ($22). Too much, too much. The dish consisted of some sweet (but still rather gritty) scallops atop what can only be described as a mash of pasta and vegetables. As at many middle-brow outposts, quantity overwhelmed quality.

If brunch is an indication, Oak Street Café will be a nice local addition; if dinner is the model, Chef Broyles has not yet regained her touch. However, the Frog and Owl Café was so splendid that one can only hope that next year will increase the care and vision revealed in the evening entrees.

Currently the high-end restaurant in Highlands, a resort community in the southern Appalachians, is a hotel restaurant named Madison's (part of the renovated Old Edwards Inn), a restaurant with New York pretensions and New York prices. This is a restaurant that serves, as appetizer, "Peanut Dusted Breast of Quail with Seared Foie Gras, Vanilla Braised Cabbage, and Blueberry Scented Duck Essence ($19.00, mains run to twice that). Had I not eaten there (last year), I might have assumed that this was a parody. But it is real, and as misguided as might be imagined. You can't construct a menu by placing gourmet magazine in a blender.

Oak Street Café
322 Main Street
Highlands, North Carolina

Old Edwards Inn
445 Main Street
Highlands, North Carolina