The term "hillbilly" conjurers images of toothless rednecks in overalls...think Cletus from The Simpsons (by the way...the hubby does and excellent Cletus...cute and disturbing all at the same time). But for me it also conjures images of fun times and excellent food.
I've personally been to many a hillbilly party in my day. I've been to pig pickin's so far in the middle of nowhere that the damn radio doesn't work. And Nick and I have even shared a bowl of beer with some fine locals while camping in the woods of West Virginia (they forgot to bring cups but kindly offered us bowls of beer...who were we to refuse!?).
As much as I love haute cuisine, I appreciate rustic cooking much, much more. Making delicious meals out of simple ingredients is a tale as old as time and I really believe it's the mark of a truly talented chef...case in point...Chef Apri of Hillbilly Cafe.
Nick and I put off dining at the Hillbilly Cafe for a few weeks because a place that serves tea instead of booze didn't quite sound like our idea of a Friday night out. Boy were we wrong.
We arrived at Hillbilly Tea around 6:15 last Friday night. Located in a cute and unassuming storefront downtown, with a downright charming decor inside, the restaurant immediately makes you feel welcomed and comfortable. Once you open the menu, peruse the dishes, then glance at the amazing prices, you feel more than comfortable...you feel downright at home.
We perused the tea menu and decided on one of their many flavors of iced tea (which are delightfully displayed along the wall), Big Earl's. We shared a quart of it and at $2.75 it was a refreshing (and high quality to boot) beverage for a fraction of the cost of my typical martini. The waitress brought us our tea and some deliciously flaky biscuits and we were off and running.
We perused the menu and I realized that during lunch they offer things a la carte, but in the evening they put together "Tea Dinners". For the low, low price of $15 we each chose a salad or soup, an entree, two sides and they threw in some corn pone because what's a hillbilly meal without it!
Now, I know what you're probably thinking...offering a soup or salad and letting you choose your sides is more Blue Plate Special and less highfalutin cuisine. Nothing could be further from the truth here.
The salad that evening was sorghum roasted squash(who knew sorghum was so good!) with arugula, walnuts, some amazing (really really good) goat cheese and the most lovely sweet vinaigrette. I would order that salad a la carte any day of the week. The fact that it came with the meal made it even tastier.
The soup was parsnip. Nick ordered it because he always orders the soup. He thought it would be pureed but was pleasantly surprised when it arrived at the table as more of a chunky vegetable soup. It was rich and satisfying with a depth of flavor that you don't typically find in a veggie soup. Nick concurred...he too would order that soup a la carte any day.
For his protein, Nick chose the cider glazed cornish hen. I chose the stuffed trout with cornbread dressing. For our sides we both chose the roasted sweet potatoes and I picked the braised greens while Nick decided on the chow-chow.
Nick's cornish hen was honestly what I would expect to see at a high-end restaurant. It was glazed beautifully with a slightly sweet sauce and cooked to perfection. I know this should be reserved for KFC, but it really was finger lickin' good. As for his chow-chow...I was jealous, and will certainly order it next time I go. It was crisp and refreshing, a far cry from some soggy chow-chow I've had in my day, and packed with flavor. Honestly...yummy.
My trout was a pleasant surprise. I expected the cornbread dressing to overpower the trout both in quantity and flavor but neither was true. The trout was moist and flaky, and to my surprise, it's delicate flavor was only amplified by the perfectly seasoned cornbread dressing that sat atop it. It came with a teeny, tiny little shot glass of sauce. I have no idea what it was but if we weren't in public I would have drank the remaining sauce directly out of the container. My guess was creme fraiche with a touch of lemon juice and secret, but delicious third ingredient. I overlooked it at the beginning of the meal and towards the end was literally pouring it on everything I had left on my plate.
Both of our sweet potatoes were cooked to crispy sweet perfection and my greens were prepared almost exactly as I do them at home so you know I'm going to say they're good!
When the waitress (whom was extremely pleasant and helpful I must add) came around for our dessert order the hubby hardly let her finish her sentence before he ordered the bourbon bread pudding. It was a pretty traditional pudding with some pretty nontraditional accompaniments...a marshmallow-like topping and a sweet bourbon sauce that I would bathe in. A fantastic end to an even more fantastic meal.
We forgot to order the crispy fried liver bites to start and I really want to try their frogs' legs so it looks like I'll have to go back for seconds (did I forget to order them for that very reason?? perhaps).
I would be happy, no, delighted to return to Hillbilly Tea for seconds for so many reasons. The prices were more than reasonable. The technique was wonderful. The quality of the ingredients were second to none. And perhaps the thing that kept us away this long...the lack of liquor...was actually a blessing in disguise...because honestly...amidst the charming decor, the delightful cuisine, the refreshing tea and the wallet friendly price tag...I didn't miss it one bit.