This wasn't supposed to be a full-blown review. Originally, I intended to include Chef & the Farmer in a roundup of restaurants where you could grab a bite on the way to the beach.
That was before I ate there. Now that I have, I realize there's no way a mere paragraph or two can do the restaurant justice. Chef & the Farmer is much more than just a stopover. It's a worthy destination in its own right, well worth the hour and a half drive from the Triangle.
The restaurant's namesake "Chef" is Vivian Howard, a native of eastern North Carolina who earned her culinary chops in New York, working under such luminaries as Wylie Dufresne and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. "The Farmer" would be Howard's hog farmer father, who lured his daughter back home in 2006 with the offer of setting her up in her own restaurant. By extension, the restaurant's name is also a nod to the strong relationships that Howard has established with local farmers. As a result of those relationships, her weekly changing menu boasts ingredients -- many of them organic and/or sustainably raised -- whose variety and quality would be the envy of most Triangle chefs.
The crawfish are still feisty, for instance, when they're delivered to Howard's kitchen. Within hours, she has transformed them into a colorful garnish for green garlic soup. That's "green" as in "immature" garlic, whose flavor is more delicate than that of the familiar mature bulbs, and a superb foil for the sweetness of the caramelized crawfish.
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On another occasion, a flawless sunny-side-up egg, perfumed with the earthy essence of truffle and nesting on a thick slice of house-baked toast, is flanked by pan-seared scallops and tender grilled spears of the season's first asparagus. Served on a narrow rectangular platter, it makes for a memorable dish.
In another striking first-course presentation, a fondue of smoked mozzarella and pesto is poured tableside around a cluster of fried oysters. The oysters are impeccably fresh, and the velvety texture of the fondue is an inspired backdrop for their crunchy breading. It almost feels like nitpicking to say that the oysters are on the small side.
On the other hand, there's absolutely nothing to fault with an entree presentation of pan-seared vermilion snapper filet served over a salad of spring peas, asparagus and barley. Nor with a braised beef cheek lasagna, with fresh and smoked mozzarella oozing from between broad sheets of pasta that are lightly toasted at the edges. Nor with a sage-brined bone-in Berkshire pork chop: supremely succulent with an irresistibly crisped ribbon of fat around its edge, served over wilted spinach and bacon-wrapped new potatoes. Scattered over the top like so many rubies are diced beets, glistening in a sweet and sour glaze perfumed with local wildflower honey.
I could go on, but you get the idea. And, given the seasonal nature of the menu, odds are none of the dishes I've described will be on the menu by the time you get there anyway. Rest assured that, whatever you order, you won't be disappointed. That goes for the dessert offering, too, which probably won't include the local strawberry-rhubarb cobbler that still makes my mouth water when I think of it.
Benjamin Knight, Howard's husband and partner (the two met while working in a restaurant in New York), has put together an extensive, thoughtfully chosen wine list with especially reasonable by-the-bottle prices. Knight is also responsible for the training of the wait staff, who are as polished and proficient as any in the Triangle.
The ambience is surprisingly urbane, too, given the restaurant's location in a converted 100-year-old mule stable in downtown Kinston. Exposed brick walls, vivid abstract paintings, contemporary tableware and counter seats with a view of the open kitchen make a warmly inviting setting, whether you're wearing a jacket and tie or khakis and a golf shirt. I even saw a couple of guys in shorts and sandals, evidently on their way home from the beach.
There's nothing preventing you from doing the same thing, of course. Just don't be surprised if Chef & the Farmer turns out to be the highlight of your beach trip.