Dear Teddy Klopf,
Let me guess: The first thing you looked at, before reading these words, was the star rating. No doubt you’re disappointed.
That’s understandable, especially for a chef with your culinary chops: Culinary Institute of America graduate, and a combined four years of experience at two of the South’s most acclaimed restaurants – McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C., and Herons in the Umstead Hotel in Cary.
Let me hasten to reassure you, after sampling widely from your hyperlocal take on what you accurately describe as “refined new Southern cuisine,” that in my opinion your talent lives up to the lofty promise of your resume. With few exceptions – impressively few, given that Provenance is your first restaurant, and it opened just over three months ago – dishes are thoughtfully conceived and skillfully executed.
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My compliments, too, on the format of your dinner menu. With just a handful of items in each category (Starts, Share, Mains and Sweets), the list offers variety and flexibility to diners while keeping the number of dishes manageable for a streamlined kitchen staff tasked with executing some pretty complex presentations. The decision shows a wisdom and restraint not often seen in a chef in his early 30s.
Youthful exuberance is abundantly evident on the plate, though, as I experienced in dish after dish over the course of two recent dinners. I witnessed it in a recent presentation of colossal head-on shrimp, exquisite against a backdrop worthy of an abstract painting: baby carrots (orange, yellow and red, whole and coins), fennel fronds, and a playful “peas porridge” of petit rouge peas and squid ink-dyed green peas.
Likewise memorable was an extravagant platter of local cheeses (Boxcarr that night) and house-made charcuterie (bresaola, country paté riddled with ramps, and lardo-smeared Boulted Bread toast) garnished with pickled unripe strawberries (who knew they could taste this good?) and green tomatoes.
And embered oysters! Fat and flawless, their briny liquor laced with herb-tinted “hammed whey” (made by enriching the whey left over from house-made fresh cheeses with rendered ham fat), they arrived in a cast iron cocotte lined with oyster shells and smoldering embers, which gently warm the oysters and imbue them with their smoky essence. A garnishing shower of herbs and flower petals (many picked in your own garden) put the finishing touch on a truly unforgettable experience for all the senses.
An entree presentation of line-caught tilefish, draped over a dune of cannellini beans and chive puree, was understated by comparison. But the fish was irreproachably fresh and expertly cooked, and the well-matched accompaniments confirmed my opinion that you, sir, have a knack for seafood. (The fact that fish and shellfish typically account for about half of your menu is another clue.)
You clearly know your way around the barnyard, too. A boneless breast of chicken, buttermilk-brined and pan-roasted to a juicy, mahogany-skinned turn, passed the test that all too many restaurants fail, with flying colors. And it earned extra credit for its plate companions: wilted tender young leaves of scarlet kale; a savory medley of cereal grains (mostly wheat berries and faro); and locally foraged tendrils of green briar. Thanks for the tasty education about that last one, by the way. I’ve seen green briar growing in the wild before, but never realized you could eat it.
Beef from two farms – braised chuck and grilled tenderloin, per the menu, with broccolini and brown rice – scored on all counts, too, though I’d be inclined to put quotation marks around “grilled.” The “makeshift Weber” that you’ve described using in the kitchen leaves the steak a uniform brown with absolutely no grill marks, though I can’t fault the tender juiciness of the meat.
I only encountered two outright disappointments from the kitchen, in fact, and both were desserts. The grainy blueberry sherbet that accompanied an otherwise fine olive oil cake was a minor letdown. But the bitter, crumbly black pepper biscuits in a strawberry shortcake were a major violation. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how important biscuits are in a restaurant that claims any degree of Southernness. I’d be inclined to chalk the missteps up to an off night, but for the fact that those two desserts came on different evenings.
Given your background and the overall level of execution of the Provenance kitchen, I suspect it won’t be long before those wrinkles will be ironed out. Just between you and me, if food were the only thing I took into consideration, Provenance would rate a solid four stars. Higher, if desserts were on a par with the rest of the meal.
Nor is it the decor that holds you back. True, the dining room’s high ceilings and hard surfaces can make for a noisy setting, but the casual, contemporary vibe is well-suited to your menu. And, weather permitting, diners have the option of a semi-enclosed patio.
That leaves – you can probably guess – service. The Provenance wait staff are well-intentioned, by and large, but in terms of knowledge and attentiveness fall short of expectations set by the menu’s prices (which are reasonable for what you get, topping out at $30 for the beef entree) and the kitchen’s level of execution.
I realize that finding and keeping experienced wait staff is a challenge for a new restaurant in this area, where demographics and a burgeoning culinary scene have exerted a strong gravitational pull on a constellation of talented chefs from all over the country. You may be one of the newest rising stars in that constellation, but you are clearly one of the brightest. And in the end, that’s the star that matters most.
Best wishes for a long and brilliant career,
P.S. Those embered oysters were so beautiful I snuck a photo. They’re the wallpaper on my phone.
120 E. Martin St., Raleigh; 984-269-5211
Cuisine: contemporary Southern
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: casual, contemporary
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: well-intentioned, variably experienced
Recommended: desserts are iffy, seafood a sure bet; otherwise follow you whim
Open: lunch Wednesday-Friday, dinner Wednesday-Sunday, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in nearby decks (Moore Square, Wilmington Street).
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆ Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.