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A taste of perfection

Herons chef blends rich, Southern cuisine with the backdrop of the natural world

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CARY, N.C. | When dining at Herons at The Umstead Hotel and Spa, the connection between nature and restaurant is palpable. Each table blossoms with artfully arranged flora set in glass globes. The ceiling arcs in the rich tones of Italian wood. And the upholstered branch-and-leaf motif seats mirror the glass etching that flanks the open kitchen. Even the name - Herons - evokes the regal bird in flight.

Then, of course, there is the cuisine. This season, the menu takes advantage of the memories most of us have of autumn. Bacon, cider, maple, date butter, parsnip puree, pecan hash and vanilla abound. The menu -replete with traditional Southern cuisine made contemporary and refined - changes every few months, which is all a part of the connection with nature the hotel and executive chef Scott Crawford abide by. The multi-award-winning chef ensures that Herons is the kind of place you go to experience your meal, not just digest it.

"It's an exciting time to be cooking in the South," Crawford says. "As a chef, I feel few boundaries - just freedom to think outside of the box and create something new and original. I love and respect the ingredients and flavors of the South, and that's often where I begin, but I don't feel bound by tradition when it comes to techniques, flavor combinations or presentation. I refine until each dish is bright and exciting, and at times both unexpected and comforting."

Though the menu reads as fairly traditional - think grilled prime beef strip with smoked portobello and yams with a rosemary maple jus - unexpected elements often make appearances. Yes, yams are common throughout Southern cuisine, but the yams in this dish are Japanese - Okinawan, to be exact - with rich purple tones. The butternut squash risotto (let's not forget that rice is very much a Southern staple, even when presented in a traditional Italian form) features roasted oats, salted pumpkin seeds and golden raisins, and in its presentation, it is accompanied by a Parmesan foam - but not just for show. The salty, nutty lather actually serves a purpose and complements the dish. Before the main course, however, your palette will be delightfully surprised with an amuse bouche teaser. A recent offering was a lobster cappuccino - light lobster and parsnip broth served in a smart little espresso cup with white truffle foam.

Jim Beley, Herons' general manager, calls his chef "a rare talent" who has fulfilled owner Ann Goodnight's vision for Herons to be a beacon for food-savvy travelers and local diners.

"Chef Crawford reminds us of how special our Southern heritage is and enlightens us as to how expansive Southern cuisine can be today," Beley says. "His cooking feels Southern and worldly all at once - from the local ingredients he weaves into each dish to the extraordinary elegance in which they're conceived and presented."

Crawford knows Southern cuisine, even though he grew up in the Amish country of western Pennsylvania. A childhood surrounded by fresh food and markets eventually led him into professional cooking, and he's been running kitchens in luxury resorts south of the Mason-Dixon for years. Before taking the reins at Herons in March, he was executive chef of The Georgian Room at The Cloister at Sea Island in Georgia, and he also spent time as a chef in South Carolina.

His seasonal menu uses predominantly local ingredients from nearby farms and creameries, and he expresses excitement about the upcoming installation of a 2-acre garden located just minutes from the property. It will be the primary source for the produce on Herons' menu.

"I believe in the chef-farmer concept - the importance of bringing together the nearby farmer, who has a passion for organic produce or farm-raised meats, with the chef, who has a passion for optimizing rather than masking their natural flavors," Crawford says. "This is one of our priorities at Herons."

Should you decide to visit Herons later next year, expect a new ambiance. Crawford is teaming with owner Goodnight in renovating the kitchen. There will be a new European cooking suite behind a wall of glass, and the hotel bar also will be renovated.

With such a commitment to quality, the restaurant serves as a backdrop to an ambitious culinary agenda. The staff is everywhere, yet inconspicuous. When a waiter appears, it's with an insightful comment concerning the menu. Should a patron take leave to the restroom, fresh napkins appear with such subtly the others at the table might not take notice. The resident sommelier, Justin Tilley, has worked with Crawford before, and their familiarity pays off: They work easily with each other and pair the meals with a refreshingly unique, yet solid, wine selection. The bar at the front of the house will be happy to refresh your glass as you enjoy the pianist playing nearby, and you can pick at pickled okra with olives and nuts in anticipation of the main meal. Art lovers will enjoy wandering among the hotel's 95 pieces of specially commissioned works from nationally acclaimed and local artists.

And let's not forget about dessert. The current menu features a quark cheesecake with gingerbread wafers, accompanied by a Pedro Ximenez soda float with prune ice cream in a shot glass. Pastry chef Daniel Benjamin obviously keeps things interesting and seasonal - which seems to be a theme at Herons through and through.

For information regarding Herons at The Umstead Hotel and Spa, visit www.heronsrestaurant.com. For information on the hotel and spa, visit www.theumstead.com. 

ABOUT SCOTT CRAWFORD:

Hometown: Meadville, Pa. 
Age: 37 
Previous Experience: Executive chef of The Georgian Room at The Cloister at Sea Island in Georgia, a Mobile Five-Star dining room. Executive chef of Woodlands Resort & Inn, the Relais & Chateaux property and Gourmand Dining Room, a Mobile Five-Star dining room located in Summerville, S.C. Chef de cuisine at the Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island, Fla., a AAA Five-Diamond dining room. Recognized as a Top 100 Chef in America by John Mariani's Virtual Gourmet.
 

HERONS AT THE UMSTEAD HOTEL AND SPA:

Address: 100 Woodland Pond, Cary, NC 27513 
Serving: Breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch.  
Details: 98-seat restaurant with a 46-seat outdoor terrace; able to accommodate private parties.  
Stars: Recipient of the 2009 AAA Four-Diamond Award and the 2009 Mobile Travel Guide Four-Star Award.  
Reservations: For reservations, call (919) 447-4200 or visit www.heronsrestaurant.com. To inquire about private dining rooms, call (919) 447-4200 or e-mail sara.payne@theumstead.com
Review: The current menu, which should be in place through the end of the year, pulls together a number of hardy dishes done with a mindful touch. The bacon-roasted quail appetizer melts in your mouth, but not before you wonder about the praline nature of the pecan hash. The delicate salads of summer have been subsidized with winter fruits, nuts and cured meat. And such entrees as the roasted pheasant breast with chestnut puree remain tender even though they can consist of a substantial piece of meat - and you might wish there was more burnt honey sauce to swish the meat through. For a finale, the cream cheese doughnuts and chocolate waffle make for one of the best "breakfasts for dinner" in which you'll ever indulge. And enough can't be said about the quality of the service.