120 E. Martin St., Raleigh
It takes a village to wait a table at Provenance.
When your parent-server is occupied with another diner or an errand to the kitchen, your uncle-server or godparent-server or neighbor-server swoops in with the assist. One carries a dish. Another describes it. Another refreshes your water. Another clears your plate, or replaces your cutlery or tries to take your “Older Fashioned” one sip too soon.
“No!” I proclaim, perhaps a bit more boldly than intended. But it was a great drink, made with Defiant whiskey, distilled in the small western North Carolina town of Bostic, and orange-and-fig bitters from Crude, made less than a mile away. Purplish, muddled beets dye the cocktail a magenta so bright that the drink seems bioluminescent. The flavor is earthy, sweet, and strong, like kvass you actually want.
Our uncle-server hands over the glass and nods. He’s the cool uncle.
“I love that Old-Fashioned. It’s so good,” he says. “Weird … but good.”
The same, I consider, could be said about Provenance.
The restaurant opened in February on the ground level of the SkyHouse apartment building in downtown Raleigh. Elle Decor named it one of the fifty best places to have Easter brunch in the country, the best in the state.
It’s easy to see how Provenance caught a designer’s eye. The architecture is chiseled like a model, with sleek, sharp lines and, every so often, a curve. The walls are white and gray with wood accents and minimalist artwork. This aesthetic is sterile and bare, maybe even boring as a backdrop for a neon pink cocktail.
As I glance back and forth between my drink and the dining room, I can’t help but think of a modern art museum, where the blank walls seem to withdraw behind the paintings. Indeed, such an intentionally crafted, completely neutral space is often meant to showcase something else. Here, it’s the food and the ingredients, not the decor or even the chef.
That says a lot, considering the celebrity-chef hunger of our culture and the background of owner and head chef Teddy Klopf. The thirty-one-year-old Culinary Institute of America graduate has a résumé as lofty as the SkyHouse’s twenty-three floors. Herons at The Umstead. McCrady’s in Charleston, where he worked for James Beard Award winner and television favorite Sean Brock. Various Michelin-starred restaurants. He’s a certified sommelier.
Think big tuna, swimming in a mid-size, triangle-shaped pond.
But you’ll probably never see him. Open kitchens may be the way to brighten the spotlight on successful chefs, but Klopf seems less interested in himself than in his work and its sources. The completely closed back of house, without so much as a window or swinging door, feels somehow innovative. The dishessourced almost exclusively from North Carolina produce and productsspeak for themselves.
The servers help translate. The braised pork lettuce wraps, for instance, are presented with a lesson on sustainability: Did you know 90 percent of supermarket lettuce comes from California? Provenance’s lettuce doesn’t even know what California is. This happy Bibb grew up in a hoop house nearby. I was happy eating it, too, stuffed as it was with sorghum-sticky pork and crunchy pickles.
The crab cake Benedict arrived like a debutantevery accomplished and very pretty. A nori-crusted, gooey-yolked egg sat on top. A house-made, open-crumbed English muffin sat alongside fried and pickled green tomatoes. The dish curtsied, and I almost clapped. My neighbor-server brought the crab cake, which, somehow, didn’t make the plate but was worth the wait. I wish they had forgotten the mealy April apples instead.
When your server-parent is stretched too thin, he or she simply sets down and abandons other, simpler dishes, like the spicy greens with mustard juice vinaigrette and caraway croutons. That shortcoming is much like what you would find at any other restaurant, sure, but Provenance does not want to be just any other restaurant.
At first glance, Provenance is an ode to local ingredients. But it is also an ode to technique and creativity and cooking as art, expression, exploration. For years, fine dining has sought to serve as an evening’s entire entertainmentdinner and the show. This one, under Klopf’s direction, is captivating.
See, for instance, the embered oysters. They emerge from the kitchen in an eggplant-hued cocotte by Staub, her royal highness of froufrou cookware. When the lid is lifted, wisps of smoke waft and part ways to reveal four plump Carolina pearl oysters, set atop a mountain of rosy, shimmery shells. The meat is warm and luscious, swimming in buttermilk-tangy whey and grass-hued herb oil.
Other seafood selections also gleam like sunlight on water. A rainbow of sweet potatoesbeige, pumpkin, and purple, both pureed as plate paint and deep-fried into fritterscolor pan-seared day boat scallops with crispy edges and creamy centers. Ramps and peanuts come scattered across the top.
The shrimp and grits, served at brunch, flirt with, but don’t marry, tradition. The grits are coarse-ground and loosely cooked, conjuring a truly good risotto. The shrimp are tender and blushing pinkyou would be too, if you were tipsy on Bloody Mary ketchup.
If you’re looking to keep your feet on solid ground, order the yard bird, braised and pan-seared. Like the best Southern chicken, it is buttermilk-bathed and crispy-skinned. Then there are the petite rouge peas (with the look of a legume and spirit of a ragù), a tangle of ramps, and a rich mushroom ketchup.
The brunch burgeressentially a hangover reinterpretation of Sean Brock’s iconic Husk burgernods to fast-food nostalgia. The trendiest gourmet burgers are steak-inspired: bloody and brick-thick, like April Bloomfield’s, at Salvation Burger in New York City, which weighs in at a half pound. Klopf runs the other way. He smothers two thin-ground short rib-and-bacon patties in cheese and tops them with mustard greens and a runny egg. The malt vinegar-brined sweet potato fries and Cackalacky tempura-battered onion rings are worth ordering on their own.
Between courses, Provenance reexamines the amuse-bouche ritual with Southern hospitality in mind. Instead of an initial pleasantry, like a handshake, the kitchen sends surprises mid-meal: smoked trout dip with skin crackers, dill, and lemon. Swordfish belly with rice paper crisps. A bowl of house-baked bread: chive focaccia, sesame grissini, whole wheat sourdough, and soft butter freckled with smoked salt.
I ate half before remembering that complementary breadbaskets aren’t novel. There’s a lot to be said for unexpected timing.
Other aspects of the baking/pastry operation are still wobbly. The biscuits are impressively badheavy and undercooked, served with an overcooked strawberry jam. The “ice cream cake,” a playful pairing of cornmeal cake and burnt orange ice cream, was on its way to being spectacular until someone got a little carried away with over-whipped cream.
Still, such seemingly inevitable hiccups are minor given Klopf’s incredibly ambitious approach. If Provenance promotes a certain mission, it’s to epitomize and elevate North Carolina’s culinary identityour region’s ingredients, recipes, traditions. This is, after all, what provenance implies: origin.
The word has another meaning that, to me, holds truer here. Provenance signifies ownership of art, a symbol of authenticity. If this restaurant has accomplished any one thing since opening, it is calling the bet on contemporary Southern cuisineand going all in.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Digging Deeper”