On three consecutive Tuesdays last month (September), Crippenâ€™s Country Inn & Restaurant in Blowing Rock, turned their kitchen over to threeÂ James Beard Award semifinalistÂ chefs. Each chef worked with Crippen’s Executive Chef, Stan Chamberlain and his staff to create a special prix fixe dinner showcasing their cuisine and talent.
Chef Bill Smith has been with Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, NC for 17 years and has twice been a finalistÂ for the “Best Chef Southeast”, standing out among all nominated chefs from Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. Crook’s Corner was the 2011 James Beard Foundation “American Classic” winner.
I counted myself extremely fortunate when an invitation to this dinner landed in my inbox. Because dinner went well in to the evening and I live a couple hours away, Jimmy Crippen was gracious enough to offer overnight lodging for myself and PIC at the Inn. Logistical magic happened – PIC dropped me off for dinner and was able to spend time with College Son who attends Appalachian State University in nearby Boone. They went out for burgers and beer while I was treated to delicious traditional southern comfort food put together by a master.
As I was dropped off, this picture of gathering herbs for dinner steps from Crippen’s kitchenÂ HAD to be taken.
Our room and adjoining bath were beautiful – luxurious and homey at the same time. I can honestly recommend any of Crippen’s rooms after a little poking around before dinner, checking them all out. A thoughtful beverage station with cold and hot drinks is in the hall. We each chose a favorite flavor and helped ourselves to coffee from a “pod coffee maker” in the morning. They also offer complimentary Wi-Fi.
The meeting prior to guest arrival process was fascinating to observe. Each and every facet of the evening was discussed as management and staff determined the mostÂ efficientÂ practices for a smooth guest experience.
As couples and groups arrived, they gathered in the front garden, on the porch and in the front bar area of Crippen’s for cocktails and passed Chicken Liver Mousse on Honey Wheat Toast. The mouse was simple and delicious, made with chicken livers, butter and whiskey. This was so popular, kitchen staff scrambled to make more as servers passed through the kitchen, picking up plate after plate of the tasty toast triangles.
After moving to the recently renovated dining room, Chef Bill talked for a few minutes about his history, Crook’s Corner and the menu.
Fresh Corn Tamales in the Style of Oaxaca were served at table first. Chef Bill mentioned that these have become aÂ favoriteÂ at Crook’s Corner and that he originally learned how to make them from his Mexican employees. Many think of traditional Oaxaca corn tamales as being served in banana leaves with a “black mole”, but they are also made as shown below, in corn husks and with green or yellow moles. These were nice and moist and picked up a little punch with the mole.
Fried Oysters with Roasted GarlicÂ Mayonnaise followed the tamales.Â Chef told us these are another favorite at Crook’s and he gets complaints when they’re taken off the menu seasonally. The folks at our table that really love oysters couldn’t get enough. Fried corn flour batter added a nice crunch when biting through to a succulent center.
The course that really caught my attention was the Eastern North Carolina Corned Ham with Green Peach Salad, Grilled Okra and Mashed Potatoes.
We make mashed potatoes from scratch all the time and I’m pretty partial to PIC’s version. These wereÂ comparable – not runny-smooth-blended, but texture and taste of potatoes that have been peeled, boiled and mashed with some butter, salt and milk (in our case). I didn’t watch what happened to these potatoes past the boiling stage in the kitchen, so I’m not sure exactly what was added.
Star number one on the plate was the ham.Â “Corned Ham” was new to me. According to Chef Bill, it’s only available in a couple eastern North Carolina counties and is always baked and served plain. The bestÂ explanationÂ he can find for the ham’s name is that the salt historically used to short-cure fresh ham was the size of cornÂ kernels.Â Greyish in colorÂ when served, Chef Bill describes it as a cross between tender roast and ham. This was “porkiness” at its best – tender, moist and flavorful.
Star number two, the Green Peach Salad. Slightly unripe peaches tossed in sugar and salt, macerated for 10 minutes until glossy and then tossed with olive oil, mint and black pepper. That’s right, I said black pepper. This is a dish I’d make a special trip for. Just fantastic! Here’s a blog post by food52, “Crook’s Corner Green Peach Salad” (includes pictures).
For dessert, old fashioned Banana PuddingÂ made with traditionalÂ ingredients, includingÂ vanilla wafers and a gorgeous meringue. It was pretty darned quiet during this final course! The pudding was obviously bringing back memories throughout the dining room.
See more pictures from this dinner in the slide show below. Hover mouse and click to begin slideshow. If you have trouble seeing it, click here.
Crippen’s Country Inn and Restaurant
239 Sunset Drive
Blowing Rock, NC 28605