James Beard award-winning chef and restaurantrepreneur Ashley Christensen is on a roll in downtown Raleigh. After winning Best Chef: Southeast this year, her flagship restaurant Poole’s Downtown Diner is humming, as are her four other places: Beasley’s Chicken + Honey (specializing in fried chicken), Chuck’s (specializing in burgers), Fox Liquor Bar (specializing in being a great bar), and Joule Coffee (a farm-y breakfast spot). Christensen has three new projects in he works a few blocks away: Death and Taxes, a wood-fired-inspired restaurant, Bridge Club, an event space and cooking classroom, and Aux, a commissary kitchen that will serve all of Christensen’s venues.
This week I had a couple of book events in Raleigh, so dropped by Poole’s for dinner, Joule for breakfast the next morning, then walked through her other downtown properties. When I walked into Poole’s, I couldn’t help but think back to sitting at the bar with law school friends a decade ago at Enoteca Vin, the downtown Raleigh spot where Christensen got her start with Chapel Hill chef Andrea Reusing (of Lantern Restaurant, also a Beard award winner). We’d hang out with Christensen for hours and talk food as guests dropped in and out at a leisurely pace. These days Christensen is harder to pin down, bouncing between projects.
Service at Poole’s is swift, even at 6:15 pm on a Thursday as the crowds mount, and you sense the hip awareness of Christensen’s rising notoriety in the air. Chalkboards display the menu, a concise list of simple dishes, calling out the farms and farmers supplying their ingredients.
I started with an heirloom tomato salad with burrata, and white balsamic-thyme vinaigrette. It was scattered wtih fresh parsley and dill, and mounted atop a thick, tender slice of grilled cornbread. Then I had the seared North Carolina yellowfin tuna with poached shrimp, neon eggplant, pickled ramps, mushrooms, marcona almonds, and shoyu-sorghum vinaigrette. Both dishes were beautifully done (though the tuna was seared a little hot, so the outside a touch tough), with complex, balanced tastes and flavors and inspired international influences. But the highlight was the simplest dish: roasted carrots with benne seed tahini and fresh mint. The carrots were perfectly cooked and slightly crunchy, and the earthiness of the tahini was an ideal, Middle-East inspired complement.
Next morning before my book signing, I had breakfast at Joule, which was really good, too: top-notch coffee, cold-smoked salmon with with creme fraiche, vinaigrette, chives, and toasted rye, more sliced heirloom tomatoes, and a side of chesire pig bacon. Solid start to the day. Now I can’t wait to check out Christensen’s new spots. Here’s hoping she’ll keep all of those balls in the air; there’s no reason to think she won’t.
Charleston, a town with many a restaurant opening these days, has picked up a doozie this summer. Leon’s Oyster Shop, on upper King Street, is raising the bar for casual (but impeccable) new Southern food in Charleston.
It’s all about simplicity, and the details. Brooks Reitz and Tim Mink have put their stamp on everything, from the seamless, warm design, to the way in which the three different fresh herbs in the Siam Salad are sliced.
Leon’s menu is thoughtfully curated and original: perfectly done fried chicken, straight up or on a sandwich, is both moist and crisp (and not greasy); the oysters, cooked or raw, are delicious; the sides are fresh, light and balanced, giving great contrast and dynamism to the menu — a bite of decadent fried chicken makes you crave a bite of a bright, vinegar-y side, and vice versa, and on and on.
Even though Leon’s is more casual than fine dining, think it’s as good as any restaurant in town by way of atmosphere and cooking skill. It does what it does very, very well.
I went back for the third time yesterday, and here are a few shots of the meal. Up top is the fried chicken sandwich (it comes grilled, too), with Duke’s mayo, a solid bun, and bread and butter pickles. Below is the oysters rockefeller, a classic done well. And below that is the black eye pea salad, with pickles, peppers, olive oil, and chives.
Black Eye Pea Salad
I’ve been coming to the same house down here on the Panhandle (affectionately otherwise know as L.A., or Lower Alabama), since I was born. It has changed a lot (it’s no secret anymore), but I always love being back here for a feeling of nostalgia I get nowhere else.
Several of the recipes in The New Southern Table are inspired by summers here, like these Shrimp and Corn Fritters. They’re like hushpuppies laced with little bites of shrimp and vegetables, and take me back (in an updated way) to the dive seafood spots we relied on before the throngs of vacationers arrived.
Whether you have access to the stunningly clear, lobster-like Apalachicola shrimp we get down here (pictured above, bought straight off the boat), or whatever your favorite variety, these fritters are an irresistible Southern snack to throw together for a hungry crowd as the holiday meals and gatherings are coming together. It’s a unique shrimp dish for your repertoire.
Click read more below, for the recipe.
Filed Under: recipes
From time to time throughout the summer, I’ll be posting recipes from the book, accompanied by images that aren’t in the book itself (as well as other outtakes), as a thanks for your ongoing interest in The New Southern Table.
This one is a Southern take on spanakopita, a Greek spinach and feta pie that I associate with Christmas day at my grandparents’ house. Birmingham has a vibrant Greek community, and many of the city’s Greek families started catering companies and would help us with get-togethers during the holidays, serving Southern-inspired Greek food. The collards are a natural substitute for spinach in this dish, their hearty texture standing up to the rich buttery flavor and crispy texture of the pie. It’s a hearty dish, but great served room temperature in warmer months.
I’m back in Charleston after trips to Asheville, NC, where I signed books and served my butterbean hummus (which was consistently met with wows and moans, if I may say so), at the Mother Earth News Fair , and Atlanta, Ga, where I signed books and gave a brief talk at The Atlanta History Center, an amazing organization in Buckhead. This week I’m back in Charleston, and next Thursday, May 1 I’ll be talking about the book, and showing a slide show of food and travel shots at The Charleston Library Society’s Wide Angle Lunch Series. Get tickets here if you’re in the area. The talk is titled “Southern Staples in a Global Kitchen,” there willl be boxed lunches inspired by my book from Butcher and Bee, and I’ll be signing and selling books there, too. Stay tuned for more events!