A long weekend approaching with visitors expected – but they canceled 3 days ahead, so a weekend free! An opportunity to travel unexpectedly – and Greensboro NC, was offered as a weekend getaway from Toronto – so another opportunity to further our BBQ quest.
Admittedly, North Carolina wasn’t top of our list because of a disappointing experience at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor (great deli – less exciting restaurant) which has several NC and SC dishes (who knew?).
But, cheap flights (and hotels) are rare these days so we were on our way within 72 hours of the visitors’ cancellation. This meant limited time to plan the food, but enough time to scan for potential highlights in the area.
All being well we would arrive in Greensboro around 8:30 Friday evening (via Detroit), and be able to grab some BBQ before 10:00 (when most places close). However, the cancellation of the Detroit flight meant a quick re-routing via Memphis – but arriving too late for dining. But we did have time in Memphis airport for some BBQ – unfortunately reminding us why Memphis-style was not one of our favorites (especially in airports).
Up early on Saturday and left Greensboro too early for BBQ (Stamey’s doesn’t open until 10:00). However, Hursey’s BBQ in Graham wasn’t too far off our route, so we headed there for breakfast (they open at 7:00). Unfortunately no BBQ (the breakfast is a different menu – BBQ starts at 10:30) so we ordered the ‘famous’ tenderloin biscuit. OK it’s not BBQ, but how could anyone not like deep-fried pork. It was excellent, although the sides were less impressive. But VERY cheap.
Although the main dining destination was planned for the evening, we couldn’t resist a detour to Mount Airy to sample some Sweet Potato Sonker. After all, where else would one find a Sonker festival? But almost everything there closes at 1:15pm (except for the tourist shops) so our lunch plans were derailed. Not a Sonker in sight (the festival is in early October) and no pork chop sandwich either. Guess I don’t operate on mountain time.
So on to Chilhowie – it’s been on the radar for a few months now, although still very few reviews. A great blog and excellent pedigree – but could the Town House Grill deliver? And Mapquest doesn’t seem to know where it is either, although it’s easily visible, so easy to find. Certainly an obscure location, but that makes it possible for us to reserve for a Saturday night with only a couple of days notice.
So, let’s start with the bottom line. This is a serious restaurant which fully deserves the reputation it is building. In my view it most closely resembles the ‘old’ Trio when Grant Achatz was there. In terms of current restaurants, I think it resembles a cross between
wd-50 (currently my favourite restaurant in North America) and Manresa. Certainly ‘modern’ techniques are being used in the kitchen, but only to prepare foods that respond to the treatment. There are no gimmicks such as trapezes, pillows, or smoking plates to be seen in the dining room, although you will find freeze-dried ingredients and slow cooked low temperature dishes. And most dishes don’t require ‘instructions’ on how to eat them (one dish we were advised to ensure that all ingredients were included in each bite). The easiest way to see the results is on their own blog:
(no you’re not going to get all those dishes – but can expect some).
The menu is relatively short – a choice of a few tasting menus with 3-7 courses, but realistically anyone making a ‘pilgrimage’ is going to choose the 7-course (for $75). We asked if the chef(s) would consider giving each of us different dishes, where feasible, and received a counter-offer of a special10-course menu for $100 – and they would try and serve a few still experimental dishes. We ended up with 11 courses (as we reached the end of the savoury courses we were asked if we were full yet – and we said we could manage an additional course). We also asked for the optional wine accompaniments – and the pours were sufficiently generous that we started skipping some wines part way through. Incidentally, the wine list is extremely reasonable for a restaurant of this quality. Out of 150-200 wines about 25% were under $50 and 80% were under $100. And their reserve list (about 60 wines - more expensive) still had about 25% under $100.
The overriding impression was of the almost-perfect balance of textures within each dish (flavours were pretty good too). If I have a criticism, it was that the aromatics didn’t seem to reach the heights that the appearance and textures certainly reached. But overall this was an exemplary meal – probably in my top 5 meals in North America and second best this year (after wd-50). With about 15 different dishes (and several amuses) I’m not planning to write a book about this meal. And as dishes are seasonal (ingredients sourced from the owners’ garden, local suppliers and foraging, plus the technical ingredients via FedEx), a detailed description may not be particularly helpful. Let’s just say, in Michelin terms, “Worth a special trip”.
The next day was improvised somewhat as the rain was approaching from the east – so we turned west and headed towards Asheville NC (in which we had no pre-planned food destinations). Hoping for some BBQ (finally) we stumbled over McDonald’s McRib – which I haven’t seen for years – so that became brunch. The closest thing to BBQ so far!
Then on to Asheville – like stepping back into the 60’s (with much older people). The food seemed mainly ‘improvised’ (anyone for ‘Australian/Thai’? Or a ‘Magic Pizza’?). But we didn’t exactly have the munchies so decided to head back towards Greensboro to have some ‘real NC BBQ’ (whatever that may be – and yes, I’m familiar with the several styles). My list of the 25 best BBQ places in NC showed that Hickory NC was a good destination. Shell’s BBQ came highly recommended and the huge sign proclaiming ‘Voted Best BBQ in Hickory’ was a promising indicator. But the lack of cars in the parking lot was not. Sure enough CLOSED!
So now a decision – drive like heck back to Greensboro – or risk getting lost finding alternatives in Hickory. So we headed back (a 2-hour drive) knowing that it would be after 8 by the time we reached Greensboro – and it certainly was, as the arriving rain slowed traffic. But we had the directions to Country BBQ and had checked the website – it was open until 9:00 on Sundays – so still plenty of time. Just take exit 214B (according to Mapquest) – umm – but no such exit! The highway has been redesigned. So we lost more time, but eventually found the correct street and drew up to Country BBQ a little before 9:00. It was CLOSED! (and its website still says open Sunday). But we did have an escape – our fallback for Friday (with an original scheduled arrival time of 8:30pm) had been Bistro Sofia “serving dinner Tuesday thru Sunday from 5-10pm” per their website. Still achievable as long as no reservation required. But again, those redesigned roads led us astray, so we got there about 9:40. And, you’ve guessed it – CLOSED!
So we grabbed some fast food from the only place seemingly still open in North Carolina (who also didn’t serve BBQ). And drove to our hotel through the rain.
One last chance remained. Country BBQ purportedly opened at 6:00am – so there was still time to detour on the way to the airport. But this time we called first. And indeed they were open (on a Monday morning at 7:00am). So we did make it – except they didn’t serve BBQ until 10:00 – only breakfast. So another pork ‘tenderloin biscuit’. Again a huge value, although the pork itself wasn’t as good as the previous version (at Hursey’s). My guess is that the Hursey’s was cooked to order, but the Country was on an assembly line and was pre-prepared. Hence it was soggier instead of the crisp version we had a couple of days earlier. BUT, finally, I was able to try the BBQ sauce at Country – I have to admit some trepidation as the description was typically ‘vinegar laced with ketchup’, especially as I hate ketchup. However, it was a pleasant surprise. Excellent balance of sweetness, acidity and chili heat. For sure I’d try it again (if I ever found some BBQ).
And back to the airport for a 12:10 boarding time (no delays this time) and yes – there was a BBQ outlet at the airport. Completely dark, but someone moving in the back. He said they opened at 11:45, but agreed to try and get ready for 11:30 so we could (finally) get some NC BBQ. And true to his word, he had a couple of sandwiches ready for us at about 11:35 so we could grab it and run for the plane. I rarely say this – but most airline food (when they offered it) was even better than this. Just awful.
So, in summary, if you find yourself anywhere near Chilhowie VA – make a detour to the Town House Grill – and if you find yourself in an airport anywhere, avoid the BBQ!