Sunday, August 19, 2007

Another Hidden Gem

Go figure, but there's fine dining in Rutherfordton, NC.

Imagine my surprise that there existed in the small (pop. 4000), historic town of Rutherfordton, NC, nestled in the mountains of Western North Carolina, whose semi-fraying downtown reminds me of Lincolnton to some degree (although Rutherfordton seems to be further along in its revitalization process), a restaurant with a menu with nary a chicken wing, jalapeno popper or ranch-laden salad in sight. It was like stumbling on Willow Creek Inn all over again.

I admit, I did not just happen to "discover" The Water Oak. I had a meeting in Rutherfordton not too long ago and we happened to have lunch there. I was immediately blown away by the decor - the blonde wood, the hardwood floors, the clean lines, the subtle photos on the walls and the tasteful bric-a-brac selectively scattered throughout the room. It felt like a bistro or cafe you'd find in Boston. New York. Chicago. Charlotte even. But Rutherfordton?

And while the lunch menu was your usual mix of salads and sandwiches, my chicken salad was well above average and the cream of yellow tomato soup that my lunch companion started with seemed like a clever way to put summer's tomato bounty to work. But let's not dwell on lunch, because, well, lunch is not particularly exciting. It was dinner that really stood out.

So it happened that we were out at Lake Lure this weekend. And so it happened that Rutherfordton is only 15 minutes away. And so it happened that we needed a place to dine Saturday evening. And so it happened that we found ourselves at Water Oak.

Bathed in candle light, the restaurant seemed even prettier than I remembered. The attentive service was the same. A list of specialty cocktails given to us when we sat down indicated that while the bartender wasn't going to give Dale DeGroff a run for his money, he/she was up on what's in the world of mixology. I had a mango mojito that wasn't too sweet and that, while gently kissed by mint, was missing the usual muddled puddle of leaves and lime in the bottom of the glass and instead sported a single sprig floating in the orange hued beverage. Score an extra point for artful presentation.

The wine list was not extensive, but offered a selection of well thought-out and fairly priced wines including some of our favorites like Murphy Goode fume blanc, Chalone pinot noir, and Rombauer zinfandel.

As for the food, it was amazing. I had a special appetizer to begin: 3 baby yellow peppers stuffed with organic herbed goat cheese and lightly roasted. They were accompanied by a salad of organic cherry tomatoes with a drizzle of balsamic and basil oil. All I can say is, Oh My God. This was one of the most delicious summer salads I have ever had. And forget that I am a sucker for goat cheese for just a moment. But seriously, I could eat this all day, every day, and never be bored. Marty started with she-crab soup which he swore was good enough to be served at Brennan's.

For my entree, I went with a rock-grilled Cornish Hen over mixed greens with tomatoes, olives and feta. Sort of a grown-up riff on a Greek salad. And while salad is salad, the game hen was delicious. Expertly grilled, well seasoned, crispy skin outside and tender meat in. Marty went with the local specialty, red mountain trout, which they grilled and served with a mustard-tarragon butter and a potato-corn cake that he couldn't get enough of.

We skipped dessert but they all looked delicious (the espresso mocha cheesecake in particular cried out to be sampled).

And here's the crazy thing. While you'd think that we'll never come back to Water Oak again because really, why would we schlepp out to Rutherfordton for dinner, it's only about an hour away. Seriously. It takes longer than that to get to some parts of Charlotte.

And if that ain't country, I'll kiss your...