The next time you see the term “Chef’s Table” on your restaurant menu, consider taking advantage of it. You see, the chef’s table is the opportunity for you to be the guest of the chef. Sit down, and be prepared to be wowed. It’s not a new concept, but a trend that is really starting to take hold.
This type of meal gives you the opportunity to try dishes that allow the chefs to showcase their particular talents, foods that are usually fresh and local, and to pair the food with wines that they have selected especially for this meal. It is a unique experience and will be a truly delightful evening.
“Welcome to Never Blue. Please enjoy this menu which is prepared especially for you at the Chef’s Table.” These were the words I read when I first sat down on a Thursday evening at Never Blue, in downtown Hendersonville. I had been invited to meet Chef Jesse Roque and see if I could entice her to compete in the WNC Chefs Challenge due to start in March of 2011.
The restaurant, located in Hendersonville on South Main St., is very open with plenty of wall space that is totally covered with art. I got to meet Jesse’s mother, the creator of all that art and a loyal fan of her daughter’s cooking. Jesse is a graduate of Johnson and Wales, when the school was located in Charleston. She did a double major and one of those was as a pastry chef. Even though it was a fairly busy night, Jesse took the time to tell me about her background, her passion, and what she hopes to achieve in the future.
I started the meal with what Jesse calls Spicy Goobers. These are boiled peanuts in a rich concoction of preserved lemon chutney, poblano chiles, sun-dried tomatoes, and garlic. The chiles and sun-dried tomatoes created a rich sauce. While I’m not a great fan of boiled peanuts, the fun of cracking them open (no, I don’t eat shells) and dipping them into the rich sauce was totally Yum! So good in fact that I finished off the sauce with pieces of freshly-made bread. Jesse’s background of dealing with southwestern fare really shows in her cooking. She then served Billy Bread, which is a toasted baguette slathered with house-made herb goat cheese, artichoke hearts, and topped with local baby arugula and parmesan.
Jesse dashed out from the kitchen for a few brief moments between courses, and talked about her “Farm to Table” efforts to buy local produce, meats, and seafood. She has a supplier on the North Carolina coast near the Outer Banks called Frog Island Seafood, which is located in Barco. She phones in to see what’s the freshest and then has it overnighted to her. Tonight I was fortunate to be served large and succulent North Carolina shrimp. Jesse served three shrimp dishes, a salt-and-pepper warm shrimp cocktail with Caribbean cocktail sauce, and a coconut shrimp with a mango habanero aioli. The third was Jesse’s Low-Mex style shrimp and grits, I could not get enough of this, which delayed the next course until I had cleaned the plate.
Each of these courses was paired with wonderful wines – a sparkling, a white, and a red. The wines were unique and complemented each dish. The wines were Paco Lola, Villa Montefior, and a Barista Pinotage. I also had a chance to look at the bar menu. Oh my Gosh, I’ve never seen so many margaritas. Each one unique and each one from Jesse’s handcrafted recipe. I’m coming back some early afternoon to try a few of these with friends.
At this point, the meal should have been over, as I was happily wined and dined, but we were on to the fourth course, which was an in-house Zah’tar Crusted Lamb Rack over Yukon gold whip potatoes with a Malbec/Thyme demi-glace with locally-grown brussel sprouts. Jesse related that a local farmer had shown her this incredible stalk of brussel sprouts and she instantly saw all the culinary possibilities. Jesse told me that much of the produce for this evening’s meal was from Kirby Johnson of Johnson Brothers Farm in Mills River.
The evening would not have been complete if I had failed to enjoy Jesse’s dessert expertise. The beautiful plate placed in front of me contained a mouth-watering bread pudding (her secret ingredient is a croissant), a Brittle Basket of fresh fruits, a melt-in-your-mouth brownie, and a delicious Southwestern dessert called Tres Leches, which is a cake made with three different types of milk.
I rarely get time to visit many of the towns located throughout Western North Carolina, so Hendersonville really surprised me with the number of new restaurants, wine bars, coffee houses, and interesting stores. There were plenty of people out enjoying the food scene, talking with friends, and just enjoying their special dining place.
Never Blue Restaurant (www.theneverblue.com)
Chef’s Table (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chef%27s_table)