Newest iteration of French-in-the-mountains opens in Saluda
That old Low Country/High Country connection is warming up the ridgeline again, as chefs escape the subtropical heat of coastal South Carolina to try to brand their legacy in the mountains. More and more, that means attempts at gilding the Main Streets of Western North Carolina’s smaller communities — witness Air Casebier doing that with the upscale French Broad Kitchen & Wine Bar on North Main in Hendersonville.
The most recent ex-pat is Chef Garrett Tallent, a three-time James Beard Foundation nominee who can boast stints at Michelin Star Daniel and Jean Georges in NYC and at AAA 5-Diamond Peninsula Grill in Charleston. Leaving behind the Charlotte-based Bon Vivant Culinary catering company he ran for five years with his wife, Emma Teal Tallent, the chef/owner opened Azalea Bistro on Saluda’s historic, postcard-ready Main Street in late April. Azalea combines classic, old-country French fare with Southern coastal interpretations via Charleston and New Orleans, in an upscale-casual atmosphere with a very decent price point.
“Emma’s parents have been vacationing here for several years and became full-time residents about five years ago,” says Tallent, who notes that his wife is a Charleston native. “We started visiting her parents here and loved our weekend getaways to Saluda. It’s a hidden gem — zero traffic or light pollution, an excellent school for our two sons …”
Taken whole, Polk County supports an original mix of heirloom agrarianism — consider the work of Growing Rural Opportunities to reestablish the area’s farming heritage; savor the perennially quirky Coon Dog Day festival — combined with outdoorsy tourism (e.g. Green River kayaking and tubing) and the high-dollar doings of the posh horsey set, centered around Tryon International Equestrian Center. Into this milieu, Tallent brings not only his professional experience but also cultural roots from German-French Alsace cuisine. “My family is from Saarland, Germany, on the border of France. I ate my first escargot at age six, and have yet to look back.”
Those fancy snails, along with standout duck-confit beignets, top the menu, which is arranged in old-fashioned courses. The beignets are deep fried but delicate, and the scalloped deviled eggs, trimmed with pomegranate arils and the most delicate tendrils of watermelon radish in existence, approach perfection.
Salads, including arugula niçoise, comprise the second course. Tallent notes that he’s getting his greens from Bearded Birds Farm in Saluda, his grits and grains from Anson Mills in Columbia, SC, and would, eventually, “love to have at least half of our produce sourced locally.”
Soup is the third course — on that night, it was a wonderfully delicate cream of asparagus. The main courses run high toward seafood, including a “Seared Charleston Wreckfish,” the expected Low Country shrimp & grits, and PEI Mussels over pesto linguine. There’s also filet mignon, a vegetarian eggplant dish, short ribs, two chicken offerings, and a duck-confit cassoulet (spelled “cassolette” on the menu).
With everyone fleeing carbs these days like evacuees from an Atlantic hurricane, it’s great to see an “en croute”— baked in a crust — entrée among the offerings. The puff pastry surrounds a very generous portion of Alaskan salmon, accomplishing the ideal complementary textures — flaky/dry hugging flaky/moist. The salmon is paired with a savory Low Country succotash that also succeeds with the right mouth-feel and conglomeration of flavors. The cassoulet is arrayed with plenty of white space left on the plate: the traditional carrot-and-white-bean stew is the main attraction, accompanied by an unadorned, and rather salty, duck leg on the side.
Azalea nails the timbre of dignified dining, employing helpful but unobtrusive waitstaff and offering a gratis mini appetizer before the true first course — a tiny plate, if you will. On the restaurant’s first Saturday night in business, it was a morsel of eggplant ratatouille, and this charming touch set the tone for the night. The pace is totally unhurried but never too slow; diners are given plenty of opportunity to ponder the thoughtful wine-and-beer list and to digest each course in turn, including the dessert lineup, which promises fruit cobbler in season.
Though the flavor combo was a smash, the caramelized top layer on the rosewater-infused creme brûlée hadn’t hardened correctly, or really hardened at all — a curious misstep for such a classic dish. But it was only Azalea’s second night, after all, and with all the Tallent (oui, merci) shoring up this endeavor, the outlook is rich.
“Our goal is to be here for many years to come, to make Azalea Bistro the flagship restaurant of a new restaurant group for Western NC,” says the chef/owner.
Azalea Bistro, 40 East Main St., Saluda. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11am-3pm for lunch and 5-10pm for dinner. Sunday brunch runs 10am-3pm. For more information, call 828-769-9022 or see azaleabistro.com and on Facebook.