Restaurant Roundup

There’s been a bit of a fall feeling in the air lately, with morning porch temperatures in the low 60s. There have been many fewer katydids singing lately, a bit of a bummer for those of us who love the little fellows. Jacob Paul Williams, the new Union County Extension Agent, tells me it’s likely because all the rain has disrupted their life cycle. There has been some talk on the bird lists of the possibility of an early migration, based on some of the unseasonal sightings people have reported.

We’re starting to get into the fall season, so it’s probably time for a restaurant roundup. There have been a lot of changes in the Blue Ridge scene over the past few months.

Patrick Walker, the owner and creator of the Blue Ridge Brewery has cashed in and moved back to Vienna. The new owner, Gene Holcomb, also owns the bed and breakfast next door, and he and his partner Jim are busy making changes. I haven’t seen too many changes up front, but then I’m never up there. Back in the bar, there have been lots of changes in the past few weeks. The little table next to the kitchen that everyone loved is gone, and a wide screen TV has appeared in the other room, which I’m told will be tuned to sports. There seems to have been a considerable churn in the wait staff, and the younger patrons – the ones about Patrick’s age – seem to have departed. Gene tells me that he’s going to make the brewing operation more of a showplace, as has become the fashion these days. He’s already installed a glass door at the main entrance, a suggestion I made to Patrick years ago. (He pooh-poohed it, on the grounds that it would make the place too accessible, and besides the bar was making its numbers and “Anything more would be … capitalism.”) I don’t know if the live music program will survive, but the soundtrack doesn’t seem to have. I think the end result will be to make the demographic, at least in the bar, older and less diverse.

The Black Sheep has changed hands, and the covered patio, which many folks thought was the best restaurant space in town, has been converted into a large square bar, with some small tables on the periphery. I haven’t been inside to see what changes have been made there, but I imagine the bar space inside may have been converted to tables in consequence. I’m guessing that because its overall vibe was a bit too elderly for the current owners. We rarely went to the old place, because the wait staff had a large attitude problem, but I’ll miss seeing Steve work the room at night.

Joe’s Barbecue on the old highway across from the old State Farm office has been added to Danny Mellman and Michelle Moran’s empire, renamed “Blue Smoke, World Famous Barbecue.” Danny has updated the menu with items like Tri-Tip Philly, Korean Pork Taco with Kimchi, and Smoked Portobello. Along with the usual pulled pork, brisket, and ribs. (Joe has moved to the space in McCaysville formerly occupied by Georgia Boy Barbecue.)

They’ve also acquired Cucina Rustica and updated the menu a bit, doing his usual upgrading of the ingredients among other things. At the old place, there were rumors of things like selling pork as veal and flounder as grouper, not that anyone in the restaurant business has ever done that, of course. I’m not a big fan of Italian, so we haven’t been, and I’ve never gotten over Kay Kendall’s original restaurant in that space, which was the only place in town, back in the day.

There’s a new pizza and hot dog place in the little center across from Dawg Gas on the old highway (near the Village) called Mystic Mountain Pizza. It seems to be a popular spot with a lot of the transplants. It’s right next to the Mexican restaurant where all the Hispanic workers eat lunch. By the way, I’ve heard that’s pretty good.

Michael Galinski is busy up in McCaysville renovating the block that overlooks the river (where Serenity Garden had their satellite location). He’s hoping for a soft opening in September for three restaurants, a seafood place, a bakery/cafe, and a steakhouse, if I have it straight. Along with some retail space. You can read more about it in my previous column.

There’s a New England seafood place in Murphy now, called the Chowder House, in a strip mall across from the BP station, a little before the traffic light before you cross the river on 64/74. Among other things, they have something rarely seen in these parts, fried clams. It has amazing reviews on the Internet. It’s a smallish space – think there were four 4 top and three 2 top – but there’s good elbow room as they’re not all jammed together. We ate there today and had the fish and chips and the whole clams. The cod was actually cod, and it was very good. The large portion of fish & chips was two big pieces of cod, chips, very small cole slaw, tartar sauce. The fries were nice and crisp, and everything came out hot, as fried fish must. On the downside, the cole slaw was indifferent and tartar sauce was Miracle Whip, which is well below the dignity of this kitchen. The clams were good, and the serving was generous. And you’re talking to someone who ate at the original Legal Seafoods in Inman Square, Cambridge back in the 70s, when George Berkowitz himself was working the floor. (He was also running the best seafood market in the Boston area next to the restaurant space. For a few years, my friend Peter Siegel and I got oysters from the market about twice a week. We ate some of them raw while we were waiting for our wives to get off work, and then fried the rest of them for dinner. [We were both in grad school, and the hours were good.] The oysters were always great but we couldn’t figure out why they were so darned hard to open. That is, until one day when the restaurant’s shucker came in to shuck a half dozen platters for the dining room. We were waiting for counter service, and we noticed that whenever the shucker couldn’t open an oyster, he threw it up to the front of the display bin. That’s where they got the ones they were selling to us.)

By the way, we went down to Ellijay today to meet with friends at the Ellijay Coffee House. It’s in the first block off the square at 131 North Main, but it’s a bit hard to find because the best place to park is in back in the municipal lot. There’s a back entrance off the parking lot. It’s a nicely restored 40s building. It reminded me a bit of the classic English pubs, with lots of little nooks or rooms where you can get off and have a conversation, along with some patio spaces. It’s a limited menu, but I thought the kale salad with quinoa, raisins, and pine nuts was great (I can’t afford pine nuts, so maybe I’m easily impressed.) The coffee lover in the group said that the coffee was head and shoulders above anything in Blue Ridge. There’s a sign that says something like, “So we created this great space, a perfect home office for you, and we don’t care if you hang out all day. All we ask is that you buy something.” The owner’s photography decorates the walls, and it’s pretty good. I thought it was a really nice space, better than anything in Blue Ridge.

John Daly has moved his hot dog cart to the corner of the Town & Country parking lot closest to the post office, and he seems to be there most mornings. I haven’t stopped by to see what else he’s offering and get a dose of his famous attitude, but his spot next to the BP station – where the satellite operation of the Rum Cake Lady is located now – is a much lamented former breakfast spot.

Tom Carroll has opened a barbecue place in the doomed restaurant location across the street from the post office. Tom is a well known guy in town, so he might be able to finally make that location work. I won’t be going, because when you’ve had one plate of pulled pork from the electric or gas smoker, you’ve pretty much had them all, in my humble opinion. In my book, that sort of cue doesn’t rate my usual compliment to the owner of a pretty good barbecue, “Almost as good as mine.”

People who know me think I’m awfully particular about where I eat, and we don’t eat out much because I’m in love with my own cooking. Kenny’s Pizza & Subs in McCaysville and Masseria are the places I go most often, at least now that the Brewery has changed hands. And for my money, Danny is still the best chef in town, although I don’t often go to any of his places except Masseria.

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