The story below is an excerpt from our May/June 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
This flavor-rich region of the country is home to restaurateurs as dedicated to their customers as they are to their craft.
‘Modern Mountain Cuisine’: The Gamekeeper
Perched on the side of a hill on curvy Shull’s Mill Road, a few miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina, The Gamekeeper takes diners back to the atmosphere of a 1940s hunting lodge. It’s an era the young owners, Wendy and Ken Gordon, have only read about.
They spend most of their evening elbow-to-elbow, inhaling the fragrance of a hickory fire back in the kitchen and plating up boar-in-a-blanket appetizers, fanned filets of ostrich, grilled elk and pheasant pot pie.
All the game is humanely farm-raised, much of it from Colorado. Wendy and Ken are on the “first call” list of fishermen on the coast at Cape Hatteras and Wilmington, who spear grouper, amberjack, mahi and triggerfish and ship them to the highlands.
“Speared fish haven’t put up a fight, so there’s no toughness to the meat,” says Ken, who has come a long way from his first restaurant job pushing fast food out the window at a Hardee’s, where he mistook hash browns for filet of fish before another employee set him straight.
Now he’s moved from fast-food fries to twice-baked potatoes stuffed with Stilton and goat cheeses. Wendy has taken a time-tested chow-chow recipe and sparked it with a liberal sprinkling of cumin and other spices from India.
“She’s always slipping in Asian things,” Ken interjects.
“We have a good time. We’re not real serious,” Wendy adds.
For a special Halloween dinner one year, they crafted eyeballs out of radishes and stuffed them with olives and formed mashed-potato ghosts with black-bean eyes and sun-dried tomato devil horns.
A stuffed pheasant peers over the stone fireplace in this 1920s residence and former girls’ camp that was converted into a restaurant in the mid-1980s, but the game theme is only one part of the restaurant’s offerings.
Ken and Wendy grill as many vegetables over that hickory fire as they do meats, and they use as much locally grown, organic produce as possible. A grower in Lenoir sells them oyster, chanterelle and Hen of the Woods mushrooms, and it’s not unusual for locals to come in with baskets they have foraged on the mountainsides.
Wendy and Ken call their fare “modern mountain cuisine.”
“Our first season, we got ramps from Chicago,” recalls Wendy. “Now, come June, we use them in everything, and they’re all picked right around here.”
Among the dinner offerings is cornmeal-coated North Carolina Rainbow Trout, served with a lemon-caper salsa and a side of creamy polenta. Upscale? Perhaps. But Wendy and Ken warn, “This is not haute cuisine.”
However you label it, Gamekeeper food has attracted a loyal following in this part of North Carolina. We were there on a bitterly cold January night, and the place was completely booked.
The Gamekeeper has a Boone address, but it’s actually closer to Blowing Rock, North Carolina. The address is 3005 Shull’s Mill Road.
Louisiana Flavors in Ski Country
Diners disagree about first impressions at Louisiana Purchase Food and Spirits in Banner Elk, North Carolina. Which is more welcoming, the engaging staff or the alluring aromas from the kitchen?
Building on the wave of popularity of Cajun and Creole cookery, Louisiana Purchase first fired up its ovens back in 1984. The spirited cuisine of south Louisiana has been served in the North Carolina high country ever since.
Skiers fresh off the Western North Carolina slopes warm up with bowls of chicken and Andouille sausage Mumbo Gumbo and sherry-laced shrimp bisque. Although the Louisiana Purchase menu changes by the season, a constant feature is Barbecue North Carolina Shrimp with a spicy sherry and herb butter sauce, on an Andouille sausage and cheddar grit cake.
The lively flavors of Louisiana come together in the restaurant’s Creole Jambalaya, also a menu constant, featuring rice, shrimp, chicken, crawfish, Andouille sausage, all baked in a creole sauce.
Louisiana Purchase Food and Spirits has earned several Wine Spectator awards over the years and currently offers 14 wines by the glass, using a Cruvinet wine preserving and dispensing system. And don’t forget to round out the Louisiana theme with a steaming café au lait.
Louisiana Purchase Food and Spirits
397 Shawneehaw Avenue
Banner Elk, North Carolina