Monday, March 16, 2015

Road Trip to Chef & The Farmer and Boiler Room Oyster Bar

Planned for months, and talked about for over a year, we were FINALLY on our way to experience what is the Chef & The Farmer and Boiler Room Oyster Bar, both the brainchild of Chef Vivian Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, from the popular PBS series A Chef's Life. This road trip was a "bucket list" must do adventure, and I couldn't wait to experience it.

I first became a fan and follower of Vivian several years ago when I read about a chef in North Carolina doing more than just sourcing from local farms, she was actually gearing her entire menu around what was local or seasonal in her region, shopping at local farms for products to use in her restaurant, and using all of what she purchased to turn out these amazing delicacies.

As a supporter of local farms myself, and eating seasonally, I was impressed with what she was accomplishing in small, rural Lenoir County and the town of Kinston, North Carolina.

Over the years I have watched every episode of the show, A Chef's Life, from "Season One" where there was a fire in the restaurant and they heart-breakingly had to rebuild everything, to "Season Two" and the opening of the Boiler Room Oyster Bar, to "Season Three" where she went hunting for "ramps" to use in her restaurant.

See a clip here from the show:  A Chef's Life

Her mother, Scarlett, is often on the show as well, and it's always fun to watch the mother-daughter exchange when it comes to preparing food. Vivian uses many of her mom's "tried and true" recipes, she just puts her "twist" on them, ramping them up a few hundred levels!

So, on this dreary, rainy day in March, we were off for the drive from South Carolina to Kinston, North Carolina, where we would also be meeting up with some old friends who live in the area.

My husband and I arrived just after 11:30 a.m. and met up with our friends who had traveled up the night before. First stop, the Boiler Room Oyster Bar. Since it was raining lightly we stood under the awning to the restaurant waiting for them to open at noon. They do not accept reservations here, so I was very glad we arranged to go when they open, as the "wait area"  outside was quickly filling up with other people waiting to go inside.

Right at the stroke of noon, the doors opened and we were met by the hostess and seated. We were waiting for another friend of mine to join us who lives locally, so we perused the menu and ordered our drinks and placed an order of the "house saltines" with a ranch dipping sauce to share.

Soon my friend, Tammy, arrived and we all ordered our lunch. I had the Oyster Po Boy, another had the Oyster Pie, a few had the #4 burger, one had the shrimp and another the Southern Poutine.

1/2 lb. peel and eat NC shrimp with lemon aioli
Oyster Pie with Homemade Saltines
#4 Burger (lettuce, tomato, onion, dukes, ketchup, mustard)
Southern Poutine (crispy house fries, smothered in gravy and topped with cheese curds)

What a great place and we all enjoyed our time, talking, catching up with my friend, Tammy, and devouring some delicious food!

Our next stop was at Mother Earth Brewing, a great local brew pub in the heart of downtown Kinston, and they're "green" as "green as can be!"  As their web site says:

"A six-kilowatt solar array stands on the roof as a tribute to the authority of that great star we orbit, known as the sun. Blue jean insulation, a 100% recyclable product, was used to insulate the walls. In addition to being a recyclable product, it also has outstanding sound barrier qualities. Soy-based spray foam insulation protects the second story ceiling. Low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint covers the walls. The flooring wasn't ignored, either. Mother Earth Brewing's corporate offices will sport eco carpet partially made from renewable resources. Eco flush valves on toilets know just the right amount of water needed for "the job" and reduce water needed for flushing by 30%. Eco faucets in both bathrooms offer an unimaginable savings in water compared to conventional faucets. A state-of the-art tankless water heater heats water on demand, instead of using needless energy to keep hundreds of gallons of water heated at all times."

Naturally some of us had to try a local brew before heading out!

Shan and Liz enjoying a brew
Next we were off to the hotel and a little down time while we got ready for our "dining extravaganza" at Chef and The Farmer.

A bit before 5 p.m. we were all ready to go, so we headed out and drove to our destination, a short 3 miles away, arriving long before our 5:30 p.m. reservations. Can you tell we were excited? 

It's just as well we got there early, as the parking lot was quickly filling up, and many others were milling about waiting for the doors to open. Luckily we had made reservations a few months ahead of time, so our party of 10 was guaranteed a seat! And I do recommend you make reservations well in advance of the date you want to go! Due to the overwhelming popularity of the series, A Chef's Life, people are traveling hundreds of miles to see and enjoy this restaurant.

Finally the doors opened and we were off!  First stop the hostess station where we were greeted and promptly seated in the wine room, which is an area reserved for large parties of up to 16 people. We were greeted immediately by our server for the evening, Maria, who is a trained sommelier and extremely well-versed in all the menu items offered.

Maria handed us an extensive wine and spirits menu while she explained some of the beverage choices available. After placing drink orders we began to pour over the menu. So many choices! Where to even begin? And so the buzz began with a lot of banter among all of us as to what to try first. Enter Maria again with some amazing suggestions. She told us one of the most popular appetizer dishes is the Pork Belly Skewers with Curried Citrus Marmalade, Pickled Jalapenos and Cilantro so you know we just had to try those!

Pork Belly Skewers
Oh my goodness, they were amazing! We also tried Flash Fried Collards (don't knock it until you try it) and they too were a surprise. Not at all what you'd expect, but crisp and light. There were none left, that's how good they were.

Now I had NO expectation AT ALL we would even see Vivian knowing how busy she is, or that she would even be at the restaurant that evening, so imagine my surprise when she came in to meet us and chat for a bit! I was beyond thrilled, trying to contain my excitement. She knew I was a food blogger so she asked where we were all from, spent time talking and even paused for a picture. YEP!

And that was the highlight of my whole evening. Promising my husband I would not embarrass him, I did contain myself, but just barely. I thanked her profusely for coming to meet us and also told her how much I admired her and what she was accomplishing there with her restaurant.

So after a short pause to regain my composure, it was on to the next course where Maria suggested the Marinated Beets with Blue Cheese Coulis, Orange and Pecan Gremolata and Miner's Lettuce, which was also delicious according to my friends who ordered it.

Marinated Beets
Next we would be ordering our entrees, which was probably the hardest choices of all to make since there were so many delicious sounding options.

Once again Maria stepped in and artfully offered suggestions, or explained the depth of flavor of some of the dishes. She succeeded in convincing many to try the 16 oz. Bone-In Pork Chop with Sweet Potato Butter, Peanut and Celery Relish, Mustard and Pork Belly.

This is the dish my husband ordered and thoroughly enjoyed, and although he is not "overly adventurous" with his food choices, he is very open-minded and willing to try most anything once. Thanks Maria, he loved it!

16 oz. Bone-In Pork Chop
Maria talked a little bit abut the farms they source from, and I had seen the episode showing this particular poultry farm, so I ordered the Garlic and Herb Stuffed Guinea Hen with Pecan Romesco, Brussels Sprouts, Carrots and Rutabega which was absolutely delicious!

Garlic and Herb Stuffed Guinea Hen
All the while we were enjoying these courses, Maria was unobtrusively scurrying away any dishes and cutlery used, replacing them with clean ones. We even saw Vivian again as she brought in some of the dishes herself to serve us.

Finally it was time for dessert! Oh my goodness, we were all so full, but we sure made room for dessert. I mean who can resist a 10-layer chocolate cake with old fashioned Caramel and Toffee Crunch? Not me! The lightest, fluffiest cake I have ever eaten, it was superb!

10-Layer Chocolate Cake
This evening was not just a "nice dinner out," it was a true dining experience, with time to sit, relax and enjoy every single course served. From start to finish it took 3 hours and was the BEST 3 hours I've spent in a long time. As we were finishing up, Vivian's parents were seated at the table next to us, so on our way out, we passed by their table where we all exchanged "hello's" and "good evening's" as we made our way to the door.

What a night! Great food and good friends PLUS meeting Vivian Howard made this a night I'll always remember.

Many thanks again to everyone at Chef & The Farmer who made us feel special and right at home!

From left to right: Andy, Caroline, Shan, Curt, ME, Liz, Scott, Sandi, Cheryl and Tim

Until our next adventure,