An edible work of art

Published 2:16 pm Tuesday, November 1, 2016


Going to dinner at The Orchard Inn should begin long before you sit down at the white-linen table, overlooking the majestic wooded scenery just one mile from the quaint mountain-top town of Saluda, N.C. It should be that special occasion, that anniversary, that get-away, that secret rendezvous that you savor in your mind for days in advance.

The food may be what you originally came for, but along the way, you realize the food is actually the climax of a love story you’ll have at The Orchard Inn. It is something you don’t want to rush, you want to enjoy every moment, even the time you spend driving either up or down the winding Saluda Grade. Take it slowly and enjoy the journey, the dappled sunlight, the cooler breezes, the fresher air. Like a patient lover of all things refined, you’ll be welcomed and received, and made to feel oh-so-special.

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It is impossible to experience Newman’s Restaurant without experiencing The Orchard Inn. They are forever intertwined, one giving gracious shelter, the other giving nourishment prepared from the best and freshest ingredients found within the Carolina Foothills, prepared by a reserved young man who is called “an artist” by those who know him best. Who cares what exactly is on the menu, you know it will all be over-the-top tasty, every baby veggie still firm and bright bursting with natural flavor, every careful smear of truffle oil, every tidbit of something you just aren’t sure what it is. Sometimes, not knowingexactly what you are eating is part of the pleasure.


You can’t see The Orchard Inn from the road, the Saluda Grade. Look for the unassuming sign ensconced in manicured greenery and take the one-lane graveled driveway just far enough into the woods for total seclusion. The curvy driveway is lined with old-growth woods and a scattering of mophead hydrangeas, altheas, and hostas. Will you stay in the historic inn, in the one of the cozy upstairs rooms once occupied by a retreating employee from Brotherhood of Clerks for Southern Railway that built the inn 1926? Or will you stay in one of the outlying cottages and be afforded a higher degree of privacy?

If you are there just for dinner, you’ll be greeted by either the hostess or one of the owners, Marc or Marianne Blazar, and treated to some pre-dinner nibbles right from the backyard garden, a concocted cool drink, or, if you like, something a little stronger to take off the edge. Chill before you sit down to dinner. Explore the side deck and look far off into the distance, find a seat on the porch, and say “hey” to who’s coming and going, or engage other guests in light conversation in the large main room furnished with an eclectic collection of antiques and art. Two resident Boxer bulldogs will come by to sniff you. Newman, the Siamese cat and restaurant’s namesake, is likely to pass by, too. Lose yourself in the inn’s casual comfort, and don’t worry: When dinner is ready, they’ll find you.

My wife and I were so fortunate to be among those staying a recent Saturday night. We spent several hours just wandering about, enchanted by Marianne’s exotic Venetian accent as she told the inn’s story. As I was there to experience and write, I felt obligated and privileged to spend time with the chef, Stuart Partin, a South Carolinian gone rogue from his downhome upbringing. He’s traveled far and wide, and along the way gained an instinct for what worldly people with discriminating palates like to eat. When it comes to food, this guy is the bomb of locally sourced preferably grown by himself in the inn’s backyard garden ingredients. That bomb explodes in the kitchen and the fallout is gastronomical.

This was the growing season and a few hours until dinnertime. Stuart was tending the fruits of his labor. There were pole beans, eight varieties of heirloom tomatoes, greens of every variety, sugar snap peas, carrots, beets, Australian cucumbers, Mexican cucumbers, Ronede De Nice squash, but the parsley was gone, chewed off at ground level. One of the Boxers had decided he needed fresher breath. Oh, well, Stuart is the kind of guy who goes with the flow. He had plenty of other options. Some of his beds were filled with seedling sprouts, growing for later in the season. It takes a lot of water, time, and labor to grow organic veggies for Newman’s guests, but that’s the way Stuart likes it. This was his calm before the storm, time to get back to nature, to remind himself where it all comes from.

As we continued to tour the 4,000-square-foot garden, Stuart pointed out that at some point in the inn’s history, this terraced hillside had been a small vineyard. The garden was maintained and organized but not manicured to perfection. Like all the grounds at the inn, there was a bit of casual unkemptness, giving it a level of “let your hair down” comfort. Most of the plants had been grown from select seeds that Stuart had personally sought out from specialty companies. He tends toward the unusual, the exotic, the unheard of, or at the very least, the not common varieties. He admitted to feeling a bit privileged to have complete control of the garden, and he appreciated the confidence that Marc and Marianne had granted him. Little did he know, both Marc and Marianne had said they felt privileged to have Stuart, who they consider to be “an artist” in the kitchen.

The afternoon was waning and dinner guests would be arriving soon, and the mood of the inn was picking up from a casual lull to a perky anticipation. It was time for Stuart to head to the kitchen. I followed. The sous-chef and serving staff were already in gear, hustling about between the kitchen and the dining room. Not a big kitchen, they dodged and bobbed around each other, coming and going with glassware, napkins, and the ingredients for the pre-dinner nibbles. All was well under way and under control.

Ever thoughtful, Marianne asked if I would prefer to eat at the more-private Perry Como Table or in the main dining room along the backside of the great room. Despite the Perry Como Table’s celebrity status, we opted to be the center of attention and took a table with a panoramic view of the rolling countryside. There was seating for as many as 45 guests with tables for two, four, or more all with fresh flowers and candles. Tonight’s menu was Prix Fixe, meaning for the fixed price of $59 per person, there would be four courses with three to six choices within each. The inn’s wine list, something Marc takes great pride in, is extensive and well thought out. If you’re splurging, ask to see the “Exceptional” wine list.

For my first course, I chose the salad, and my wife chose the Burrata (Italian cheese) plate, and we both wondered what we might be missing by not choosing the chilled beet soup with crème fraiche, bacon, roasted beets, sunflower seeds, and basil cracker. This would be a dilemma we would face throughout the entire meal. As an avid salad eater, I was most pleased with the buttercrunch lettuce, red Russian Romaine, Arugula, spinach, Simpson lettuce combination with peaches, cucumber, toasted pecans, pickled beets, goat cheese, and a peach and rice wine vinaigrette. I was quite glad that each bite was a singular delight, so unlike most salads where each bite is exactly the same.

My wife’s cheese plate introduced us to Burrata, an Italian combo of soft mozzarella and cream that was light and a welcome reprieve from the richness of the other items it came with, the star being the duck prosciutto that was cured by Chef Stuart. Thankfully, only a very small portion of the prosciutto was served for its richness was off the chart. The same can be said for the raisin membrillo that was tempered with fresh strawberry. The pickled shallot gave the plate a nice tart contrast as you might expect. But the standout for us was the grilled marinated carrots. So many times, carrots are just okay, but these – marinated slices, grilled, and served cold – got our attention. Tender but not mushy, infused but not overwhelmed, these gourmet carrots retained their true flavor and made fans of those who have for so long considered carrots to be a vegetable of the last resort.

We had four choices for the second course: trout, squash blossom, shrimp, and baby artichokes. I ordered the grilled Gochujang pepper marinated North Carolina shrimp with lemon risotto, crustacean nage, Nasturtium foam, sugar snap peas with borage. I like spicy food, so when I was told the Gochujang pepper is a Korean fermented condiment made with chili peppers, I was intrigued. The fantail shrimp were excellent, of good size, and had a kick, especially when paired with the lemon risotto, which was surprisingly light, flavorful, and unique. It all sat on a seafood reduction sauce, a bit of Nasturtium (the edible peppery flower) foam, a few sugar snap peas and some Borage, which is a Mediterranean blue star-shaped flower that tastes like sweet cucumber.

My wife chose the tempura fried squash blossom with grilled marinated carrots, parsnip puree, roasted baby chioggia beet and aged balsamic. As born and bred Southerners, we had only heard of eating squash blossoms, and found them it to be delightfully light and filled with gooey herbed cheese. We ate the stem and all. Adding touches of new flavors were the parsnip puree and roasted baby chioggia beet, which is an Italian heirloom vegetable. Very small; very tasty. And the balsamic vinegar gave just a tad of zing.

The main course offerings: beef tenderloin, poussin ballotine (stuffed chicken thigh), duck confit, scallops, lamb chops, and flounder. Each of these entrees would come with exotic accompaniments and suggested wines. At this point, I was looking for something a bit more basic and chose the hickory smoked bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin with parsnip puree, sautéed swiss chard and lacinato kale, roasted beet, asparagus, roasted mushrooms with a demi-glace.  It was the perfect choice for me. The meat was cooked to my personal perfection and to prevent any surprises, it was cut right in half to demonstrate the doneness to order. The combo of chard and kale was a good mixture of cooked greens that provided some earthy bitterness, and the single beet, asparagus spears and scattering of mushrooms were just enough to make me have second thoughts about dessert.

My wife ordered the chicken, aka spinach-stuffed poussin ballotine, with grilled baby artichoke, carrot puree, sugar snap peas, grilled carrot, and porcini mushroom jus. This was not a simple plate of food. The stuffed chicken thigh could certainly hold its own against any rival. And although the other individual elements were small and few, together they ganged up on the chicken competing for attention. When everything is extra special, every bite is an adventure. It was almost too much of a good many things.

Not the biggest eaters in the world, my wife and I were by now about to our limits. The idea of dessert was daunting, but we opened wide and went for the vanilla bean panna cotta with white chocolate, pistachio and lavender gelée; and the chocolate espresso crème brulee, with pecan biscotti, strawberries, topped with the lightest, airiest whipped cream ever. The panna cotta was another new experience for me. It is an Italian dessert of chilled and molded cream, sugar, and gelatin. The white chocolate morsels, and bits of pistachio and strawberry slices, created a sort of trail on the plate, leading to the panna cotta. It was the lavender gelée that got our attention. Sitting atop the mold, this thin layer of gelatin was just a strange and wonderful hint of English lavender. It tastes like it smells: elusive and alluring. The crème brulee was much heavier and richer. The thin layer of torched crispness was like a lace of caramelized sugar, covering a creamy darkness. However, those deep flavors were offset by fresh strawberries, the simple biscotti, and, again, a whipped cream that I’ve never thought could be so light.

Like all great moments in life, a visit to The Orchard Inn and a meal at Newman’s are experiences to be remembered. Universally, The Orchard Inn gets five-star ratings from Google, TripAdvisor, Yelp, and In my mind’s eye, I see the grand yellow two-story house with a slate-stone walkway bordered by old boxwoods. I know that it welcomes me as no other place can. And as I imagine sitting at the small table looking at the wonders of nature, I anticipate the server gently placing an edible work of art before me. It looks too good to eat, but somehow I’ll manage. I tell myself to go slow, but I know, once I take that first bite, there’s no stopping the inevitable: indulgence with no regret for leaving nothing behind. •