When I called Marco Shaw, executive chef at Piedmont, to tell him that I was reviewing the restaurant, he had just gotten back from the Durham Farmers' Market. The excitement in his voice was unmistakable, and it was clear that it was not so much over the pending review as it was the local produce he had scored: "I got red and gold beets, for the first time in a long time. Some beautiful asparagus, a ton of spring onions ..."
The peak of the summer harvest was still weeks away, but Shaw's fervor wasn't surprising. Fife, his restaurant in Portland, Ore., was named one of America's best farm-to-table restaurants by Gourmet magazine in 2008.
The next year, the chef was lured to Durham to join Eno Hospitality Group in opening a farm-to-fork showcase called Eno Restaurant & Market. When that project fell through, the partners - who include the owners of Coon Rock Farm, a sustainable farm in Orange County, and Zely & Ritz restaurant in Raleigh - bought Piedmont.
They left the dining room, an urban-chic space with high ceilings and a balcony, largely untouched. The dramatic change is in the kitchen, which Shaw took over in August. He has been dialing up the locavore focus of an evolving menu ever since.
It doesn't hurt that the chef has at his disposal the pork, produce and other provender raised at Coon Rock Farm. Or that the Durham Farmers' Market is down the street from the restaurant. The chef is working to build relationships with other sustainable and organic farmers, with the goal of offering a menu whose ingredients are as close as possible to being entirely local. Or, as he puts it, "everything but spices and chocolate."
Some hits, some misses
That goal is a special challenge in winter, but the chef rose to meet it with an herb puree that played bright counterpoint to the unctuous hash of lamb leg crépinette I savored in January. Likewise rewarding were the turnip-collard-white cheddar gratin and caramelized onion sauce that were plate companions to the grass-fed flat iron steak that followed. Ditto the petal-thin slices of radish and celery, lightly pickled in cider vinegar, that added sparkle to my dining companion's pan-seared North Carolina flounder.
Her shrimp-cornmeal fritters, which contained no hint of shrimp that either of us could detect, were disappointing. So was an undistinguished dessert presentation of apple crumble. But a miniature trifle of spice cake, orange cream and orange preserves served in a wine goblet, was stellar. Not a flawless meal, certainly, but one that showed considerable promise.
A return visit four months later makes it clear that that promise is getting closer to being realized. The chef's loose interpretation of a charcuterie board - silky chicken liver mousse, herb-spangled smoked fish spread, ribbons of lardo and pickled chard stems - is inspired. A salad of smoked tuna belly, arugula, shaved carrots and herbed sour cream garnished with house-made potato chips could be faulted only for the paucity of the featured fish. (My expectations on this count were raised by the fact that tuna belly is the first listed ingredient in the menu description.)
January's radishes make a return visit in May, when they join garlic chives to add a much-needed peppery note to an otherwise neutral-tasting presentation of house-made tagliatelle and smoked guanciale. The grass-fed beef is spice-rubbed sirloin this time around, and again it's as chewy as you'd expect it to be. Its rich rewards are in its deeply beefy flavor, which holds up beautifully to the accompaniments: roasted potatoes, foraged ramps (grilled to a sweet, lightly caramelized turn) and a crowning dollop of bacon aioli.
Strawberry shortcake, a towering stack of split biscuit, whipped crème fraîche and ripe berries, does justice to the local fruit of the season. Coconut bread pudding strays from the locavore goal but is nonetheless delicious.
Shaw estimates that he gets about 80 percent of his ingredients from local sources. But in terms of composition and consistency of the food on the plate, he says, "I'm only 50 percent of the way to where I want to be."
If he's right, then Piedmont - as good as it is already - has some serious upside potential.