'Will you be celebrating a special occasion?" If you've ever called Fearrington House to book a reservation, you know that this is one of the questions you will be asked. And if you've ever dined there, you know why.
Fearrington House is the quintessential celebration restaurant, starting with the fact that it's housed in a two-story, columned country mansion surrounded by lavishly landscaped grounds. Service has long been among the most polished in the Triangle, and the wine cellar among the best. Choosing from a wine list that runs more than 30 pages, you can toast your milestone event with anything from a $12 glass of Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs to a $1,700 bottle of Chateau Margaux '05. And with the supremely knowledgeable and personable sommelier Maximilian Kast at your side, you need never feel intimidated.
The restaurant boasts a stellar culinary pedigree, too, dating back to its opening in 1980 - before that, even, if you count its previous incarnation as the original location of La Résidence. Among the chefs who have worked in its kitchen are Ben and Karen Barker, who went on to open the James Beard award-winning Magnolia Grill; and culinary legends Bill Neal and Edna Lewis. If the chefs who passed through the kitchen in subsequent years didn't always live up to that level of talent, their offerings were generally competent.
A deserved excitement
A little over a year ago, I began hearing a buzz about a new chef who was restoring the kitchen to its former glory. Colin Bedford, word had it, was turning out food that rivaled the best in the area, weaving the flavors of his native England and the American South throughout his monthly changing menu. When a couple of my most persnickety foodie friends began swooning over Bedford's creations, I could resist the temptation no longer. I called for a reservation. And no, I said, I would not be celebrating a special occasion.
It was late February, and my wife and I arrived early so we could have cocktails by the fireplace in the cozy sitting room by the bar. Longtime maître d' Joris Haarhuis brought us a small plate of nuts and olives to nibble on with our drinks, signaling a level of service that would remain flawless throughout the evening.
The food was indeed sublime, from the amuse-bouche of seared bison, pineapple jam and watercress that the chef sent out soon after we adjourned to the dining room to the complimentary tray of house-made sweets that concluded the meal. In between, highlights of our prix fixe feast included an irreproachably fresh, beautifully seared piece of monkfish over a skein of lemon linguine and a scattering of dill pickled clams (there's that English touch); red wine-braised beef short rib with country ham pan bread and bourbon-laced kale (a soul-satisfying nod to the South); and lemon posset, an airy dessert with roots in medieval England, updated with garnishes of Earl Grey foam and lavender chantilly cream.
Maximilian Kast was, well, Maximilian Kast.
Visit No. 2
It took a lot of will power, but I managed to wait until August (when I knew the chef would show what he could do with the summer harvest) to reserve a table for a follow-up visit. This time, I told the reservationist that we were celebrating an anniversary.
Again, the food was exquisite from start to finish. A first course presentation featuring a molded cylinder of buttery, diced, cold-smoked North Carolina red trout, topped with overlapping slices of petal-thin golden beet, was visually evocative of a stained-glass window at Chartres. Its effect on the palate was every bit as memorable. Seared foie gras, nestled atop a rustic English ginger cake and flanked by a cloud of local peach puree, was - like so many of the chef's creations - at once cleverly original and intelligently conceived with a nod to tradition.
Same goes for roasted beef tenderloin with port- and thyme-poached figs. And for rabbit loin, wrapped in bacon and stuffed with truffled tarragon mousse, served alongside an earthy tangle of porcini linguine and rabbit confit.
It's hard to think of a more celebratory dessert than hot chocolate soufflé, a Fearrington House tradition dating back to the early days when Edna Lewis made it. But it's just as hard to resist Chef Bedford's recent contributions to the repertoire: North Carolina blueberry cheesecake, for instance, with lemon verbena-infused buttermilk sorbet.
The sommelier's suggested wine pairings were once again on the money and included a couple of surprising matches that wouldn't have occurred to me.
Which brings me to the evening's not-so-pleasant surprise: service. When I ordered the three-course wine pairing rather than the four-course pairing that includes a dessert wine, our young waiter said, "Good idea, it'll save you 10 bucks." It was an attempt to be friendly, no doubt, but not the sort of response you expect in a restaurant whose website advises, "we recommend a coat and tie for gentlemen." Service got off to a good start otherwise, though as the evening wore on our waiter appeared to forget about us, leaving us to languish for 20 minutes with empty water glasses.
The experience was most decidedly an aberration, based on numerous previous visits over the years. I chalk it up partly to inexperience and partly to the fact that we were seated in a small back room that's easily overlooked. My guess, based on the fact that every table in the room was given the same parting box of chocolates as an anniversary gift, is that the back room is deemed suitably secluded for celebration dinners.
Even so, as long as Colin Bedford is in the kitchen, I heartily recommend Fearrington House - even for a celebration dinner. I'm just not sure I'd let the reservationist know.