Shortly after we’re seated at a table draped in crisp, freshly pressed white linen at Herons, a jacketed waiter wheels a cart up to our table. A glass-and-metal contraption is perched atop a Bunsen burner; it looks like it was taken straight from a chemistry lab.
Our server explains that this is a German vacuum tea brewer, and she proceeds to brew an herb tea that, as it rises from the bottom chamber to the top, turns an intense violet color.
This is just the beginning of an exquisite night at the posh Umstead Hotel, where we’re feasting on an eight-course tasting menu called “The Art Tour.”
Executive chef Steven Devereaux Greene, a two-time James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef in the Southeast, introduced the special menu last month as a tribute to the Umstead’s motto, “where nature and art collide.”
Over multiple courses, we’re treated to an epicurean flight of fancy, where each course is inspired by a work of art in the hotel and draws heavily on produce harvested from the Umstead’s own dedicated farm.
Naturally, a meal this lavish doesn’t come cheap. “The Art Tour” will set you back $150 a head, but as all great journeys are, this one is worth it.
Let’s return to the meal, one whose lavishness leaves us slack-jawed, even before the first course.
“That’s butterfly pea blossom that gives the tea its color,” our server explains about the tea as she pours it into celadon green cups made by the internationally renowned Ben Owen Pottery in Seagrove.
As we’re sipping the last drops of the tea, a tray trailing a cloud of dry ice vapor is brought to the table. Rising from the cloud are two small ceramic dishes made to look like oyster shells. In each, our server tells us, is an oyster harvested this morning from Harkers Island, garnished with Ossetra caviar.
We’re still basking in the briny afterglow of this presentation when the next arrives: an emerald green leaf-shaped platter bearing two perfect cherries on a bed of moss. At least that’s what it looks like. Turns out the “cherries” are spheres of semi-frozen gazpacho encased, through some feat of culinary wizardry, in a vermilion glaze. The “cherry leaves” are actually tiny shiso leaves, and the “moss” is shiso-tinged tempura crunch.
Next, we’re each served a pickled quail egg, dyed Easter egg purple (thanks again to butterfly pea blossoms), in a nest of crisp bacon threads — which, in turn, nestle in a wooden bowl lined with conifer twigs. The bowls, we’re told, are fashioned from fallen trees on the hotel grounds.
We wrap up this series of amuses-bouches — an overture, if you will, to the main event — with miniature pheasant sausage corndogs on silvery skewers, each garnished with tiny dabs of ketchup and relish.
The following eight courses are filtered through the lens of Greene’s considerable talent and a resume that spans the globe from his native South Carolina to deluxe resort hotels and restaurants in Asia.
The resulting meal is an adventure that lives up to its “tour” billing on many levels.
Or, as the chef himself aptly put it when I spoke with him on the phone later: “I want to take you on a journey to the places I’ve been, the sights I’ve seen and the tastes I’ve enjoyed. But I’ll always bring you back home to the South.”
A companion booklet, presented at the beginning of the meal, serves as an illustrated guide to the works of art that inspired each dish, along with a description of the artist. There you’ll see, for instance, a full-color photo of a work by glass artist Flo Perkins titled “Nest with Three Eggs” that hangs in the hotel’s spa and is the inspiration for the quail egg presentation at the beginning of the meal.
You’ll instantly see the connection between the second course in the tasting menu — a precise rectangle of kombu-cured tuna against a study-in-green backdrop of cucumber, green tomato, fresh herbs, wasabi and a sprig of fern frond — and a painting called “Simplistic Garden.”
You’ll learn that the fifth course, a rarefied riff on shrimp and grits embellished with a 62-degree egg and gold leaf (which, as your server will inform you, is the chef’s signature dish) is served in wood bowls inspired by the ones made by artisanal woodworker Jason van Duyn in the hotel’s collection.
The sixth course is actually three separate dishes in one: a Chinese dumpling filled with duck sausage and foie gras; a still-life-on-a-plate composition of seared duck breast, pickled red plum and baby bok choy; and a cloud of delicately sweet foam (that’s espuma to all you to devotees of Ferran Adrià, the world-renowned chef credited with first creating it) floating on a velvety puddle of N.C. sweet corn pudding. You’ll be delighted to discover that the culinary trio is inspired by a three-panel work titled “Converse, Console, Contemplate” by abstract painter Linda Ruth Dickinson.
The final dessert course serves up a miniature Japanese garden on a plate: two chocolate shell “stones,” one filled with subtly Szechwan-spiced milk chocolate, the other with a vibrant frozen cherry filling, resting on a mound of tempura crunch moss, garnished with tiny Japanese maple leaves that appear to have naturally drifted onto the plate.
By now you’re not surprised to learn that the presentation bears an uncanny resemblance to “Zen Garden” (artist unknown), the painting that inspired it.
The exuberant generosity that marked the beginning of the meal is sustained all the way to the very end, with a few bite-size nibbles of confection and a chocolate-dipped madeleine to take home.
I highly recommend the optional wine pairings for an additional $90, if you can resist the temptation to make your own selections from one of the area’s best wine cellars.
For a little less, Herons’ regular three- and four-course prix fixe menus ($95 and $105, respectively) offer the chance to order your way to an abridged version of the tour.
Either way, the experience will be marked by service that lives up to the food and the elegant contemporary setting. And while the waitstaff are thoroughly trained and polished to the point of simultaneous serving of plates and removing crumbs from the table between courses, they’re warmly welcoming and adept at attuning their demeanor to the mood of the table.
Spring for “The Art Tour,” though, and you’ll get a most enjoyable lesson in the fine arts, including that most ephemeral art — culinary. You’ll also take home, along with that madeleine, the booklet that was (with additional guidance from your helpful server) your tour guide for the evening.
You’ll also take home a copy of the menu, presented in a wax-sealed envelope and signed that night by Greene, pastry chef Jonathan Fisher and sommelier Robert Basantsov, whose guidance is as entertaining and unintimidating as it is deeply well-informed.
Think of these little take-home gifts as souvenirs of what will surely be one of the most memorable meals of your life.
100 Woodland Pond Drive, in the Umstead Hotel and Spa, Cary
Rating: 5 stars
Atmosphere: elegant, contemporary
Noise level: low to moderate
Recommended: everything, especially “The Art Tour”
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Reservations: strongly recommended
Other: full bar (outstanding wine list); get a sitter; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot (valet parking available)
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.