When I heard the words “chocolate gravy” while in Honest Biscuits, I knew a die-hard southerner had to be nearby. Chocolate gravy – a lightly sweet combination of cocoa, flour, sugar and milk – on a hot biscuit is a lesser-known southern and Appalachian delicacy.
Then I saw a North Carolina flag hanging behind the counter.
Sweeping the last biscuit crumbs and chocolate from my lips, I asked Honest Biscuits owner Art Stone what a guy from Raleigh was doing making biscuits in the land of Starbucks and the Space Needle.
Turns out that Stone’s enterprise at Pike Place Market is just the fluffy tip of the buttery iceberg.
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Biscuits are the new doughnuts. You heard it here first.
Besides Honest Biscuits, which got a coveted spot in the popular market in 2015, there are at least two biscuit trucks in Seattle and a biscuit restaurant which my editor’s discretion prevents me from naming (the second word of its title rhymes with “rich”). High-profile chef-restaurateur Tom Douglas opened Serious Pie and Biscuit about seven years ago.
In nearby Portland, three North Carolina transplants opened Pine State Biscuits in 2006 and now have four locations.
In the Triangle, the popularity of Durham-based Rise isn’t as surprising – we’ve known biscuits are good things for generations (Rise also offers doughnuts). But what did people in the Pacific Northwest know about biscuits?
“When I moved, you could get biscuits and gravy here but people seemed more interested in the gravy than the biscuits,” Stone says. “And people thought they were just a breakfast food.”
Stone visited Seattle about six years ago and decided to move to the city from Raleigh because he was looking for a change from his work as an administrative law judge. He had worked in restaurants and co-owned a deli, but had never run a restaurant before.
However, he realized that the happiest times in his life involved working with food, starting with helping his grandmother make biscuits in her Sampson County farmhouse. “I’d make little animals out of the leftover dough,” Stone says.
Stone tweaked his grandmother’s biscuit recipe and began selling at farmers markets in 2011. He uses local cheeses, buttermilk and other ingredients for the five-to-six flavors of biscuits, besides biscuit sandwiches and a gluten-free biscuit, on the menu daily. Yes, he uses soft white winter wheat, which is the best for biscuits (proving he knows what he’s talking about). One thing that’s not local: country ham, which Stone orders from Johnston County Hams.
He makes his own butter from local cream and uses organic palm shortening instead of lard. Stone has come up with a vegan lentil-based gravy in addition to classic sausage gravy. Side dishes include three-cheese grits and homemade pimento cheese.
The MacGregor, a biscuit including local bacon, local cheese and caramelized onions, is a hit, but he says that the most popular order is a biscuit with sausage gravy.
“I think people love them because they’re a simple thing done well and done fresh,” Stone says.
Biscuits are as variable as the people who make them. Stone’s have a tight texture and are almost scone-like. They’re moist but don’t ooze butter.
Douglas’ biscuits are more like ones from the yellow box commonly seen at North Carolina tailgates. They crumble readily and leave a little sheen on the fingers and lips when you eat them. His biscuits are huge – you need a knife and fork for the fried green tomato and egg biscuit or the fried chicken biscuit with Tabasco-black pepper gravy. There are no flavored biscuits but more sandwich combinations, including peanut butter, banana and honey.
Douglas says he was serving biscuits at his restaurants before opening Serious Pie and Biscuit.
“Biscuits are approachable,” Douglas says. “You slip a warm biscuit into someone’s hand, it elevates something like soup. It’s different from a croissant. With a croissant you make a commitment to a particular kind of cooking. Biscuits can be anytime.”
And, apparently, anywhere.
Moose is a Raleigh cookbook author and former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at debbiemoose.com.