Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The resurrection of Piedmont: How a restaurant reclaimed its status in the Durham dining scene

Justin Cook photo for INDY Week
This post first appeared in INDY Week.

One of the first restaurants Jamie and Vance Kite visited in Durham was Piedmont. At one point they considered never going back.

"We had been there several times and liked it, but then they seemed to go downhill," Jamie Kite says. "I ordered gnocchi with green sauce one night, I guess it was about a year-and-a-half ago. I sent it back because it tasted like grass."

Piedmont's decline occurred around the same time that several hot restaurants opened nearby, making it easy for diners to go elsewhere. But over the past year, and especially in recent months, a buzz has been growing about Chef Ben Adams' creative use of local ingredients. Customers have been impressed by the hospitality of General Manager Crawford Leavoy, who also runs the beverage program. They also like the look of the place, where funky art made from reclaimed floorboards hangs on the tall gray walls.

The Kites came back on a whim. They're now regulars who encourage friends to give Piedmont another chance.

"The food is exceptional, and it's the sort of place where they remember not just your name but things you really like," she says. "It's just so warm and welcoming."

"That's exactly what we've been aiming for," says Leavoy. A Louisiana native, he was a manager at Restaurant August, the flagship of Chef John Besh's culinary group in New Orleans. There, he also directed wine and spirits selection. "Each month we're seeing steady growth from the previous year. If something breaks, we no longer panic."

Leavoy and Adams agree that the challenge of reinventing Piedmont was bigger than they originally bargained for, but it has been worth it. "It's been a year of throwing a lot of our lives and energy into this," says Adams, who grew up in Charleston and has cooked around the globe. "It's only going to get better."

Piedmont's contemporary Southern cuisine is deeply rooted in its location. Ingredients ranging from just-picked produce to pasture-raised heritage pigs come from Coon Rock Farm, which is likewise owned by the Eno Hospitality Group. Located just down the road in Hillsborough, it's close enough to draw inspiration from whatever is available that day. Freshly laid eggs often play a starring role in brunch, which only recently returned.

What doesn't come from the farm is sourced from partnerships with local growers, foragers and vendors who share their passion for seasonal foods and sustainable practices. "We have people who want to grow and find things for us that we can't get anywhere else," Adams says. "And we've built a team that can prepare food really well—and consistently."

In the front of the house, Leavoy has shaken things up on the cocktail menu. He cleverly tweaks pre-Prohibition era classics like the Negroni and very sippable 95 Sq. Miles (a play on a 12 Mile Limit, renamed for the size of Durham) with house-made bitters, syrups and infusions. They plan to update the appearance of the bar to better match Piedmont's renewed sophistication.

Additionally, Leavoy has significantly expanded the restaurant's wine list. In fact, it's grown to the point that the tiny print may be illegible to those who left their reading glasses at home. Diners are in good hands, however, when he manages course pairings.

Recent menus have demonstrated the kitchen's diversity and range. Appetizers, from $7-$13, have included such showstoppers as fried Rappahannock oysters atop a luxurious duck liver parfait, house-smoked Carolina trout dip with crisp lavash crackers and a chilled cucumber vichyssoise garnished with tangy pickled little neck clams.

Adams shows a light touch in cooking the local catch, such as Carolina red snapper pan-seared in browned butter. Also impressive was the Whitman Farms pork chop with tender Anson Mills grit cake and the duck leg confit, which featured Durham-made Melina's ricotta gnocchi. Don't overlook the roasted Springer Mountain Farms chicken, served with roasted cauliflower, Carolina Gold rice and Anson Mills benne seed; leftovers make a great cold lunch. Most entrees are priced between $22 and $26.

Desserts are as satisfying as the entrées. Hurry in for the seasonal rhubarb tart, in which crimson slices are artfully tucked into almond frangipane to create a rosette that's almost too pretty smash with your fork. One bite of the decadent sticky date cake with salted caramel ice cream, dulce de leche and caramelized white chocolate and you'll understand why it's been on the menu since Adams took over the kitchen. They are $8 each and definitely shareable.

Adams and Leavoy regularly collaborate with local chefs and producers for special events, such as a TOPO Distillery dinner June 18 and a Bastille Day feast with master baker Lionel Vatinet of La Farm Bakery July 14. Piedmont recently hosted the Drinks and Desserts Reception for TASTE The Event, a five-day celebration of Triangle food. Adams shared his kitchen with superstar chefs Kim Floresca and Daniel Ryan of [One] Restaurant and Daniel Benjamin, the former Herons pastry chef who will soon open lucettegrace in Raleigh.

Now that he's cooked through all four seasons at Piedmont, Adams says he's ready to bring back some favorites, like a cold corn soup with barbecued shrimp. "Everybody loved that last summer," he says. "It may have been the first dish that really was a sign that things were moving in the right direction."o

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