Reviews

Dining reviews: Locavore restaurants Boiler Room and The Eddy both worth a road trip

CorrespondentApril 24, 2014 

“Worth a drive” simply doesn’t do justice to these two restaurants, one located an hour and a half east of Raleigh, the other an hour to the west. Both are special enough to warrant multiple visits. In fact, you might just find yourself checking the local real estate listings and contemplating a longer commute to work.

Boiler Room

Many foodies in the Triangle are already familiar with the name of Vivian Howard. Those who haven’t yet had the good fortune to dine at Chef and the Farmer, Howard’s widely acclaimed restaurant in Kinston, may know of her through the award-winning PBS series, “A Chef’s Life.”

That series documents her story: Girl grows up in eastern North Carolina farm country, then embarks on a culinary career in New York, where she cooks in some of the city’s top restaurants and meets her husband and partner, Ben Knight. Lured back home by her parents’ offer to set her up with her own restaurant in 2006, Howard quickly dazzles the food world with her distinctive blend of refined culinary skills and Southern agricultural roots.

Naturally, when Howard and Knight announce that they’re teaming up with Mother Earth Brewery co-founder Stephen Hill to open a second restaurant, expectations are very high. Never mind that this will be a more casual venture, part oyster bar and part burger joint.

Boiler Room, which opened last August in an alley across the street from Chef and the Farmer, delivers on both counts. Big time.

Burgers are made with local beef, ground on the premises using selected cuts that deliver fat and lean in just the right proportion for optimal juiciness and beefy flavor. Hand-formed into 5-ounce patties (3 1/2 ounces for doubles), the burgers are then grilled to order.

I usually favor the minimalist approach when it comes to toppings for burgers this good, but I wouldn’t say no to the Boiler Room’s chili, slaw and pimento cheese topping combo. Or even the Bensanity burger, an over-the-top combination named for Ben Knight, who came into the kitchen one day shortly before the restaurant opened and declared, “We need something big and crazy!” Chef Adam Atkinson and his crew responded by piling braised pork, fries and gravy (a combination offered separately as an appetizer called “Southern poutine”) onto a double burger with double white American cheese, lettuce and tomato. Yes, you’ll need extra napkins.

If red meat isn’t your thing, the shrimp burger ought to satisfy. Or the butter bean burger, a distinctive Southern take on a veggie burger topped with smoked gouda, tobacco onions and caramelized onion mayo.

Good as they are, for my money the Boiler Room’s burgers merely set the stage for the star of the show: oysters, done every way you can imagine. Fried? Check. Steamed? Check, served with house-made saltine crackers, no less.

Raw? Check. Even in the warm season traditionally considered less than ideal for raw oysters, you’ll usually find at least three varieties. Chef Atkinson solves the “R month” problem by turning to colder waters – anywhere from New England to the Pacific Coast – for his supply.

There’s also an oyster burger, baked oyster of the day (recently, a variation on the Rockefeller theme) and oyster pie, a thoroughly delightful riff on scalloped oysters that serves up the briny bivalves in a leek- and tomato-spiked béchamel sauce, sandwiched between saltine crusts.

Service is small-town friendly and copes reasonably well with large crowds – which can, it must be said, transform the high-ceilinged, brick-walled dining room into a boisterous setting.

Of course you can always soothe your nerves with refreshments from a bar that offers a dozen beers on tap (including, naturally, several Mother Earth brews), a small but well-chosen wine selection, and a truly interesting cocktail list. How about an Oyster Alley punch, made with fresh pineapple, bourbon, sweet vermouth, hazelnut liqueur and lemon? Or – it doesn’t get any more Old South than this – “Old Crow and a pickle back?”

Just be sure you’ve got a designated driver. It’s a long drive home.

The Eddy

The Eddy begins to work its charms on you before you even get there, as you drive along increasingly rural stretches of road and rolling landscape, finally rounding the bend to look up at a large brick building on the banks of the Haw River. In bygone days a textile mill, the refurbished building is now the hub of a thriving community.

At one end of the restored mill, a sprawling two-level balcony has been added to the original structure. That’s The Eddy’s patio, and – weather permitting – it’s where you want to be. Seated there on a fine spring evening, you’ll be treated to what is surely one of the most scenic views afforded by any restaurant in the state: sunset over the Haw River.

Order a sangria or a beer from the rotating selection of exclusively North Carolina brews, and take your time looking over chef Isaiah Allen’s menu. His offering is driven by what’s produced on nearby farms and evolves with the seasons. Regardless of the time of year, Allen is skilled at making the most of it.

You could play it safe and start with a selection of local cheeses or the pimento cheese fries that have become something of a menu staple. For a shareable vegetarian start, a trio of dips – green lentil hummus, olive tapenade, and a snappy feta-spinach-black radish dip, served with house-baked baguette – ought to do nicely.

Or throw caution to the wind and go for the fried frog legs. Or maybe a salad that serves up diced pork belly like meaty croutons of toothsome crackle over a pile of spring greens in a house-made Ranch dressing. Pillowy empanadas stuffed with sausage, potatoes and cheese, and served with pineapple chutney and herbed crème fraîche, are another tempting option.

It doesn’t get any easier when it comes to choosing an entree. You may need another glass of sangria as you mull over more than a dozen options ranging from house-cured tasso ham and T5 Farms chicken étouffée to house-made Weisswurst with beer-braised local greens, pickled rutabaga and whole grain mustard puree.

You won’t go wrong with Allen’s take on North Carolina trout, even if late winter’s sweet potato crust has made way for spring’s light pan-sear. Or with a fat, juicy Cane Creek Farm pork chop, recently featured with a fried yellow grit cake, capers, lemon, arugula and a sunny-side-up egg. Or, it’s safe to say based on my experience, anything else on the menu.

That includes the dessert list, which seduces you with anything from local blueberry pie to a wicked baklava sundae with spiced honey ice cream and pistachio syrup.

The Eddy’s owners, Claire Haslam and Doug Williams, were initially partners with Jeff Barney and Cameron Ratliff in both this restaurant and Saxapahaw General Store, a rustic little convenience store/counter service eatery a few doors down. The couples have since amicably divided ownership, with each taking over one restaurant.

As a result, the tiny town of Saxapahaw is now home to two destination-worthy restaurants. The focus is on honest food rooted in the local soil at both, though The Eddy unquestionably offers the more appealing setting.

And, in case I haven’t made it clear, Isaiah Allen’s food could more than hold its own at the best locavore restaurants in the Triangle. But none of them have that stunning sunset view. Or, for that matter, the enchanting drive through the countryside that turns out to be not a minus at all, but a plus.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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