Ensconced in a miniature forest of hardwood trees and mature bamboo between Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard and New Hope Commons, the Straw Valley complex of eating and drinking destinations has aptly been described as an oasis. But it’s much more than that. The lovingly restored buildings that for decades were the homes and studio space of artists Robert Black and Ormond Sanderson are prime examples of mid-century modern design. Their contents are a de facto museum of contemporary art and Danish modern furniture, and the landscaped grounds a veritable botanic garden.
The diverse collection of dining and drinking venues scattered about the grounds were phased in, starting with the opening late last year of a casual cafe and wine bar and culminating with the September debut of a beer garden. The Black House, fine dining crown jewel of the complex, opened in March. Given that its appeal goes beyond that of an ordinary restaurant to encompass many of the charms of a tourist destination, the following tour guide might come in handy.Get reservations.
The self-guided tour becomes a guided one when you step inside the restaurant. As the hostess escorts you through the labyrinth of rooms to your table, she’ll tell you a little about the history of the place. She’ll point out the stone floor salvaged from the old State Capitol building in Raleigh, and she’ll inform you that every painting you see is a Robert Black original. She may even add the tidbit that the octogenarian artist insisted on hanging the paintings himself.When ordering, let your sense of adventure be your guide.
Rose’s commitment to local farms is trumped only by his insistence on premium quality and suitability for the dish he’s preparing. On a recent menu, amberjack and sunburst trout both were taken from North Carolina waters. But the chef is just as proud to say of the plump scallops that he was serving over a grilled corn succotash, “I got those from up north.”
He doesn’t have a single meat supplier, either, preferring to match the source to the dish – pasture-raised, dry-aged beef from Firsthand Foods, say, for naturally lean cuts such as tenderloin.
The menu evolves with the seasons, and no doubt many of the dishes I enjoyed in midsummer and early fall will no longer be available in precisely the same presentation.
But this sampling ought to give a good idea of what’s in store:
Amuse-bouche: A rich cream of heirloom tomato soup, served in a modernist shot glass; a few weeks later, eggplant caponata with black olive on a toast round, topped with a crispy sprig of fried parsley.
Appetizer: Gossamer-crusted batons of octopus, their buttery texture echoed by disks of confit red potato; roast pork belly, atavistically crunchy and chewy, paired with peach BBQ sauce and Benton ham-flecked mac and cheese; beef tartare, topped with a quail egg and garnished with a dab of black truffle pesto.
Entree: Alaskan wild halibut, expertly seared and served over a warm panzanella of heirloom tomatoes and croutons; half a Poulet Rouge chicken, roasted to a succulent turn, then lavished with an extravagantly rich mushroom sauce and a shaving of black truffle.
Sides: Baby bok choy, field peas and bacon, truffled mashed potatoes – all first rate. And hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, an absolute must. You’ll want to order one or two sides (they’re served in shareable portions), as most entrees are served à la carte.
Dessert: A fig tart with a dense, too-thick crust was the only time the kitchen let us down. Apple zeppole and a sour cherry-orange-olive oil cake, on the other hand, were both exemplary.Or go with your sense of romance.
Don’t forget to bring the engagement ring.
• Be prepared for possible turbulence. Given the limited pool of top-tier professional wait staff in the Triangle, it comes as no surprise that The Black House has had a difficult time staffing the dining room at a level to match the kitchen. The restaurant has managed to attract a few of these polished pros, and if one of them is assigned to your table you’re in for the smoothest of sailing. Otherwise, brace yourself for a ride that’s bumpier than you should expect in a restaurant of this caliber.
The dining room staffing challenge got more complicated in September, when Rose’s partner, certified master sommelier Fred Dexheimer, left the restaurant. Replacing someone with that level of expertise (there are only 140 people in North America with those credentials) is, needless to say, a long-term project.
In the meantime, the program is in the abundantly qualified hands of Rose’s wife, Hailey, a seasoned professional with a resume that includes three years as a captain at Gramercy Tavern in New York and another three as beverage director at Il Palio.
• Don’t leave home without plenty of traveler’s checks. Or whatever method of payment you prefer. That romantic dinner for two will set you back $179, not counting beverage, tax or tip.
It’s worth every penny.