May 11, 2012

Carolina Eats and Treats

Here in Chapel Hill, we live in something of a Southern culinary Mecca. With Durham and Carrboro just a stone's throw away, we have dozens of fresh, farm-to-table eating establishments with Southern-eclectic menus. And even though our community is recently mourning the close of Durham's iconic Magnolia Grill, we still celebrate the establishments that have flourished in recent years and contributed to our region's burgeoning food scene.

I have been wanting to write an ode to Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill for weeks now. Crook's has a special place in my heart for so very many reasons, from its luscious shrimp and grits to its frozen mint juleps. Crook's Corner is where my fiance, Andrew, and I went on our first date two years ago and where we got engaged a year later. Both times I had the shrimp and grits; in fact, it took me over a year to order something there that wasn't shrimp and grits. I associate both the restaurant and the dish with celebration - of food, life, and the people I love.

If I were to write a haiku about Crook's Corner, it would go something like this:

Shrimp and grits at Crook's
The best food and memories
Frozen mint juleps

But that's only if I were to write a haiku, of course.

I can't say that I was entirely surprised that we got engaged when we did. We had designed a ring together, based on my grandmother's wedding band as a base and diamonds from both sides of our families. But that night at Crook's was the first time I saw the ring and the first time we were able to tell people that yes, it's all official. We had crackers with cream cheese and pepper jelly; the chef sent out complimentary champagne; we ate shrimp and grits and fried chicken livers. It was a night of excitement that was equally shared by the delightful staff at Crook's. We promised each other that Crook's Corner would always be a dining out staple, both for the specialness of the memories we have had there and for the deliciousness of its dishes.
Fresh fried oysters with lemon
Last week we visited Crook's again to get a taste of its rare spring treat, honeysuckle sorbet. Preceded by fried oysters and local beer, this icy sweet dessert was like nothing I have ever tasted. We all know the smell of fresh spring air, drunk with the fragrance of wild honeysuckle. The only way I know how to describe this sorbet is that it tastes just like honeysuckle smells. It reminded me of the honeysuckle bush from which we tasted cream and yellow blossoms as children. It tasted like luscious, floral springtimes in the South.
Honeysuckle sorbet (with Tabasco background), taken with Instagram
Crook's Corner also has its own love story, from its founder, Rachel Crook (who was murdered at the intersection of Franklin and Merritt Mill; no wonder this location is so magical) to its original chef, Bill Neal. Neal invented the shrimp and grits recipe that I had on our engagement night, as well as several other Crook's staples, including honeysuckle sorbet and jalapeno hushpuppies. Since then, chef Bill Smith has forged ahead and graciously turned Crook's Corner into a true local icon.
Honeysuckle sorbet, true color
Crook's is a truly precious locale in this culinary land of plenty. It represents that exquisite balance between cutting-edge food philosophy (fresh, local, farm grown) and longstanding traditional Southern dishes. If you live in the Triangle area, make Crook's Corner your destination sometime this summer. If not, it is worth a pilgrimage.

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