Six Surprising Tastes of Summer
By David C. Bailey
1) Crispy Duck To Die For
140 East New Hampshire Avenue, Southern Pines
Soon after he arrived as Ashten’s chef de cuisine in 2010, Matt Hannon tried taking crispy duck off the menu. It was a big mistake: “The reaction was not good,” he recalls, understating the resulting uproar. In fact, the popular item quickly became an off-menu must-have: “People would come in and if we didn’t have it, they’d leave. So since I had to prepare it anyway, I figured I’d just keep it on the menu. Which is a good thing.”
Preparing it is certainly a labor of love. The duck is split in two, then the skin is gently pulled away from the meat. “That creates little air pockets so the fat can render out,” the jovial, boyish-looking Hannon says. After salting and peppering the duck’s exterior, “we slow roast them for a few hours until the skin gets nice and thin and crispy,” creating the restaurant’s signature dish. “I’ve come to love it,” says Hannon, as do many of his customers.
Since Ashley Van Camp came to town in 1997, the veteran New York chef has been putting an innovative Southern spin on farm-fresh ingredients in a setting that offers both fine dining and pub fare. Similar to Thomas Keller at the renowned French Laundry, Van Camp and Hannon play with their food, transforming dishes that are often taken for granted into haute cuisine. Consider the spring-pea risotto that’s paired with the duck: tender, sweet peas are pureed and folded into the risotto with Parmesan and sweet carrots. “It’s kind of a play on peas and carrots,” says Hannon, who cooked for years at Elliott’s on Linden and also worked at the prestigious Fearrington House in Pittsboro.
It’s almost ironic that the signature dish is such a classic, straight-forward preparation. Not to worry, though. Hannon frequently offers his own take on duck — a medium-rare, roasted breast of duck served alongside a leg of duck confit, cooked and preserved in its own fat. “I like serving different preparations of the same animal on one plate,” he says. Another perennial favorite is the Reuben egg roll — house-made corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese stuffed into an egg roll and fried. Says Hannon, “That’s something that can never go away. It’s always going to be here.”
2) Pecan Pie That Rocks
Chef Warren’s: A Southern Pines Bistro
215 Northeast Broad Street, Southern Pines
A self-described Yankee raised in Nassau County, New York, and a graduate of the esteemed Culinary Institute of America, Chef Warren Lewis doesn’t worry that Sandhills residents regard his pecan pie as the
pinnacle of his culinary accomplishments. “It’s flattering,” says the bearded Lewis. “What better way to be
accepted in the South than to have a pecan pie that rocks?”
The secret? “It’s the ratio of nuts to goo,” he says in a tone of voice that’s completely deadpan. “I also use organic pecans, ones that haven’t been processed with things I don’t know what they are.” There is, of course, a back story: “My wife and her family had lived in N’awlins, so it’s a variation of my mother-in-law’s recipe, which gets me great points as a son-in-law.” The pie crust is, of course, made in-house — with butter rather than lard because butter goes better with pecans. “The eggs are from our chickens,” he says. “We make our own vanilla extract, so there’s a little of that in there. Also part of it is we make our own ice cream, and I think that’s a big help.”
Not what you’d necessarily predict from someone who attended the University of Miami in Florida in micro-electronics and computer engineering. “I realized that there is a certain amount of artist to me,” Lewis tells
people. His journey as a culinary artist began with peeling vegetables in the basement of the Doral Tuscany Hotel in Manhattan. After earning his CIA degree, he headed off to Southeast Asia with his wife-to-be, Marianne. After restaurant gigs in Australia, Boston, Florida and the Four Seasons in D.C., he ended up, first, at the Country Club of North Carolina in Pinehurst, and then at the Jefferson Inn, where he was executive chef.
In 1998, he and Marianne opened up their own place in downtown Southern Pines in what had been Ed’s Gun Shop, with a bullet hole in the glass out front to prove it. The ambience is comfortable, but with class, “somewhat upscale” is the way Chef Warren describes it. Just the sort of place local residents come in the evening for a cup of Jeremiah’s Pick Private Reserve coffee and a slice of pecan pie baked by a transplanted New Yorker: “It makes me smile to be accepted in the South,” says Lewis.
3) Blessed Chicken Curry
195 American Fusion Cuisine
195 Bell Avenue, Southern Pines
When a dish is as wonderfully comforting and, at the same time, as savory as Chef Prem Nath’s Indian Chicken Tikka Masala Curry, there’s got to be a secret to it.
It certainly helps that the chef is from New Delhi, where oven-roasted chicken sauced with pungent masala curry is ubiquitous. But key to 195’s food is Chef Prem’s total involvement in each and every dish, says Milton Pilson, who owns 195 American Fusion Cuisine with his wife, Karen. “He’s the man doing the cooking,” Pilson says. “Every dish that comes out of his kitchen is made to order. There are no precooked items ever, and there are no microwaves in Chef Prem’s kitchen.”
The Pilsons opened 195 in 1994. Chef Prem, Pilson recalls, arrived from New York the Friday before the restaurant opened on Monday, “and he’s been cooking ever since. He’s only ever missed two shifts,” Pilson says.
How he got here is quite a story, which Ashley Van Camp from Ashten’s picks up: “Prem and I worked at a quirky little vegan/macrobiotic restaurant in Manhattan called The Health Pub,” she recalls. When the Pilsons decided to open a restaurant featuring fresh and healthy fare, they contacted Van Camp, whom they knew through her parents. “Because my parents lived here I asked Prem to come down and do a tasting for the Pilsons of some of our dishes. The rest is Southern Pines culinary history,” she says. Chef Prem also worked at Miracle Grill in the Big Apple under the tutelage of celebrity chef Bobby Flay, who later went on to found the iconic Mesa Grill.
Pilson says another secret is the use of fresh, high quality spices from the Pilsons’ Nature’s Own emporium right next door. He also says Chef Prem “strives to use as much organic, locally grown, fresh natural ingredients as possible.” But one little known secret may trump all the others. Each morning as soon as the doors are unlocked, Chef Prem conducts a formal ritual, blessing his kitchen and his stove before the first chickpea hits the grill. Sandhills chefs! Are you listening?
4) The Best Exotic Shrimp Cocktail
4505 U.S. Highway 501, Carthage
Ask Matt Hannon where he eats on his day off and the answer is unequivocal: “Casa Garcia in Carthage.” Ask him what he eats, and he’s a bit ambivalent: “Either the pork carnitas taco or the shrimp cocktail,” he says. Well, why not both?
Given the utilitarian brick facade and the standard Mexican menu, you wouldn’t think Casa Garcia would earn a second glance from Ashten’s chef de cuisine. But behind Casa Garcia’s somewhat drab exterior lies a cheerful and tasteful dining room. Yes, there are a couple of seemingly obligatory sombreros on its ochre stucco walls. But handsomely carved ornate café chairs, brightly colored ceramic iguanas, paintings of rural village scenes and pierced-tin lampshades make for a setting that’s somewhat restrained as far as Mexican restaurants go, and definitely fun-loving.
And once you sit down in one of Casa Garcia’s tiled-roof, hacienda-style booths on a hot summer day, pour a Dos Equis XX Amber Cerveza into an icy mug and dip into the coctel de camarones, you’ll see why Chef Hannon might be sitting in the next booth.
With one bite hot, another not depending on the strength of the jalapeños, a Mexican shrimp cocktail, properly prepared with fresh ingredients, is simply one of the best appetizers on the planet. Casa Garcia’s take on this classic features two dozen of the sweetest shrimp imaginable swimming in a mélange of diced fresh tomatoes, lemon juice, savory cilantro leaves, creamy avocado chunks, sassy jalapeño bits and ice cubes. It’s perfect for a hot summer day.
Now it’s taco time. Casa Garcia’s owner, Victor Aguirre, grew up near Leon, Guanajuato, just north of Michoacan, renowned for its pork carnitas. Traditionally, Michoacan-style pork carnitas is slow cooked in a copper kettle with salt, citrus, bay leaves, marjoram and thyme until it becomes golden brown, fork tender and infused with layers upon layers of flavor. Casa Garcia’s pork tacos, accented simply with fresh cilantro, are so good they don’t need salsa. The pork literally melts in your mouth.
So which one is Casa Garcia’s signature dish? The classic coctel de camarones or the tacos de carnitas de cerdo? “You must have them both,” says our brown-eyed waiter with a smile. And why not?
5) Nonna’s Italian Goulash
515 Southeast Broad Street, Southern Pines
We all know goulash is a Hungarian dish, so why on Earth is Chef Curt Shelvey plating Nonna’s Italian Goulash as his signature dish, especially when the recipe came from his French-Canadian grandmother? If you want to understand, you’d better be sitting down.
“My mother’s mother, who was not Italian, lived in an area of Rutland, Vermont, which was full of Italian immigrants.” Influenced by her
neighbors, Nonna whipped up a goulash with macaroni, ground beef, tomatoes and scads of the Italian Parmigiano that was so readily available. “As a kid I would eat my weight in that,” he says. Though his biological father was Italian, the dad who raised him, says the tattooed, goateed Shelvey, was of Irish descent. “I call myself a mutt, basically. I’ve got Italian background, and French, and American-Indian,
actually, from my mother’s grandparents.” So if Shelvey ethnically fuses a little of Hungarian this with Italian that, it’s
natural. “I’m the only chef I know who can serve Italian succotash and get away with it,” he says.
Shelvey came to Pinehurst Country Club from The Cloisters in Sea Island, Georgia. But where he really made his mark was with his rib-sticking Italian dishes at the Coach Light Trattoria. “My wife looked at me one day and said, ‘What are you doing? You’ve made every other restaurant you’ve ever been with successful. Why don’t you do it for you?’ So here I am.”
Formerly Capri’s, a Greek pizza and sub shop, Curt’s Cucina — pronounced koo-cheena — has been
transformed into a warmly casual sit-down, the sort of place where diners cutting a meatball in two don’t worry if one half goes skittering across the black oilcloth that tops the 14 tables. Besides the meatballs, guests rave about Curt’s “tomato gravy,” stewed all day and spiked with chunks of prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s a key ingredient in the goulash, each plate of which is cooked to order. “I sauté white onions and garlic with fresh ground beef, deglaze it with red wine, add tomato gravy and a little bit of herb butter,” says Shelvey. He then ladles it onto a bed of fusilli — a long, thick, corkscrew-shaped pasta that becomes engorged with the sauce. “My mom was one of 15 kids, and all my aunts all had their own variations on the dish they learned from their grandmother. So there are 15 variations of Nonna’s goulash. Mine is the 16th.”
But before you label his dish fusion cuisine, consider this, from Michele Scicolone, co-author of The Sopranos Family Cookbook: “The northern part of Trentino-Alto Adige was once part of Austria,” as in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. “As a result,” she says introducing her recipe for Gulasch di Manzo, “the food is Austrian, but with an Italian accent.”
6) Pulled Pork Yo’ Momma Would Love
194 Gilliam McConnell Road, Carthage
We all know that pigs can’t fly. But at Carthage’s tiny Gilliam-McConnell Airfield, hundreds of pounds of The Pik-N-Pig’s pulled pork and ribs take to the air every weekend. The flying-pig take-out orders are ferried by private pilots who’ve followed their noses to the restaurant’s two humongous cue cookers.
The come-hither aroma is produced by Pit Master Phillip Marion. “Hardwood charcoal and hickory wood is what gives it the good flavor,” says Marion, who got his start at the former John’s Barbecue in Southern Pines, where members of the Sheppard family have been cooking cue for decades. Raising the hood from a mini-van-sized cooker, Marion points through billowing smoke to racks of ribs taking a ride on a sort of Ferris wheel. As the wheel reaches its lowest point, fat from the meat drips through a metal grid and hisses like a snake. Vaporized fat and smoldering hickory in a firebox infuse the ribs and pulled pork with a deep, smoky character that can only come from hours of cooking. “A gas cooker is quicker and more consistent, but this makes it taste a whole lot better,” Marion says.
Janie Sheppard remembers the day six years ago her son, Ashley, stood looking at a ramshackle building on the edge of the airfield and said, “Doesn’t this look like an old barbecue house, Momma?” A few years earlier, Airfield owner Roland Gilliam had constructed the building out of salvaged shacks and structures (including the interior of a post office), hoping to lure a restaurant to his private airfield. Today it’s not uncommon for as many as 20 planes to fly in to eat lunch on weekends, when Marion smokes up to 40 butts a day.
The Pik-N-Pig looks a lot like the rustic Happy Bottom Riding Club in The Right Stuff, where X-1 test pilot Chuck Yeager would drink a tall, cool one when he took a break from trying to break the sound barrier. Don’t be misled, though, The Pik-N-Pig is a restaurant, not a bar, specializing in big hunks of meat: smoked pork chops, beef brisket, turkey, chicken, ribs and pork. Some of the country-style desserts are noteworthy, as well. Just watch out for the “better-than-sex cake,” which may lead to controversy with your tablemate.