Amy Tornquist studied cooking at the internationally renowned La Varenne École de Cuisine in Paris. She honed her skills at the elbow of the late Bill Neal, founder of Crook's Corner and an icon of contemporary Southern cuisine. She has been cooking professionally in the Triangle for more than 20 years, but there's a good chance you've never eaten her food. Unless, that is, you've had the good fortune to attend an event catered by Sage & Swift, Tornquist's catering company. My own samplings of the chef's culinary skills were limited to a couple of lunches at the Nasher Museum Cafe, which Sage & Swift operated for the first year and a half after the museum's opening.
When I learned that Tornquist was opening her own restaurant, I was champing at the bit. I bent my self-imposed rule allowing new restaurants 30 days to iron out the wrinkles before paying my first visit. The day after Watts Grocery opened in late September, I found myself sitting at the zinc bar that flanks the restaurant's casual-chic dining room, perusing the lunch menu.
I ordered the grilled yellowfin tuna sandwich, telling myself that if either food or service was not up to snuff, I'd give them a mulligan. No need. The sandwich was first-rate, starring buttery seared rare tuna with a backup chorus of crunchy thick-sliced bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado and homemade basil mayonnaise on sourdough bread.
And the affable young bartender was not only well-versed in Watts' liquid assets (which include an Old World-leaning wine list and an all-local draft beer selection) but was knowledgeable about the food as well. He was even able to tell me that the bread comes from The Bakery at Rue Cler and that the bacon -- some of the best I've had -- is one of several menu items smoked or cured by Magnolia Grill chef emeritus Glenn "Zuke" Lozuke.
The grilled tuna sandwich is representative of Tornquist's passion for locally grown produce and artisanal foods, which she translates into a seasonally changing menu that marries the rustic Southern flavors of the Durham native's childhood with her classic French training. But sandwiches are just a teaser for Tornquist's full range of talents, as subsequent dinner visits would prove.
Grilled sea scallops, served over a citrus-dressed cloud of pea shoots and shaved fennel, were flawless. Deviled ham, its subtle clove perfume evoking memories of my own childhood, was as unctuous and earthy as the scallops were ethereal, and every bit as satisfying. Red wine-braised oxtails were tender and beefy, and their accompaniments -- bright green individual petals of Brussels sprouts and wicked-creamy grits -- were a savory distillation of Tornquist's culinary history.
North Carolina guinea fowl, its succulent flesh a cross between chicken and duck under a bronze skin, was paired with a pear and parsnip puree, an inspired marriage of earthy and sweet. Desserts -- bourbon milk rice pudding, and a Meyer lemon mousse whose airy texture belied its tart, intensely perfumed flavor -- maintained the high standards to the very end.
If the next visit fell short of those standards, it was only by a whisker. Hushpuppies, crunchy on the outside and steamy-creamy on the inside, proved delightful companions for the crisp Verdicchio recommended by our waiter. Fried oysters were excellent, and sautéed chicken livers were cooked to pink-centered turn, though they were less than ideally hot by the time they reached the table.
Chicken and dumplings proved to be more like a biscuit-topped soup than a stew, though the menu's "rich chicken broth" description gave fair warning. At any rate, the dish couldn't have been more flavorful. Barbecued pork ribs were meaty and smoky and a bit chewy, but not so chewy that I didn't gnaw them to the bone. Meyer lemon mousse (I couldn't resist an encore) was as good as the first time. And Tornquist's rendition of the Southern classic red velvet cake was (forgive me, Granny) even better than my grandmother made.
And this was the menu for winter, the most challenging season for a chef so dedicated to fresh local produce. I can't wait to see what Tornquist can do with the spring menu. Meanwhile, a house-smoked pastrami sandwich has my name on it.