“Hard as a hickory nut” is an old-timey saying, and presumably Hickory Nut Gorge holds a fair amount of this namesake specimen. But the hardest of all hardwood trees in North America is the locust, and these are the massive, burled trunks that support the Esmeralda Inn & Restaurant structurally, ornamentally, and even metaphysically.
The Esmeralda is a survivor. Set back from the road just before the village of Chimney Rock oozes into the resort of Lake Lure, it was erected in 1891, burned down in 1917, got rebuilt, and was destroyed by fire again 80 years later, a pile-on disaster after a major flood. In fact, all that locust was claimed from the deluge — downed trees pulled out of the garrulous Rocky Broad River. The river is a stone’s skip from the inn and its runner-up scenic attraction, the first being a front-row view of the Chimney Rock pinnacle.
Hickory Nut Gorge shelters both towns, and it boasts a remarkable history of movie making for such a small area. Last of the Mohicans and Dirty Dancing are the most hailed examples, and a piece of the dance floor from the latter classic (filmed at another inn down the road) was donated to the Esmeralda’s lobby when the lodge got built up once again.
Despite a rather disturbing cycle of natural destruction in this microregion — the historic wildfires of November 2016, the record flooding and mudslides of this past May — the latest Esmeralda has been standing strong since 1997, retaining new ownership for the last five. Don and Kim Cason, who formerly directed a four-diamond inn in Tennessee, added four cabins to the Esmeralda property, an eponymous park on the river, and, with their executive chef Keith Chinn, cooking classes and “chef’s table” dining (a private space in the kitchen).
The house restaurant is open to the public for dinner five nights a week, and on a recent Tuesday night, those immovable locust beams in the dining room hovered like sentinels, seeming to urge patience with the languorous pace of the place. Could they talk, they might say, “We’re not rushing off anywhere any time soon, and neither are you.”
The server was full of old-fashioned character, much like the tangled heath vines that form the decorative balustrade of the lobby’s grand staircase. Emitting quaint courtesy, if not lightning speed, he managed to convey the back story of a Truman Capote novel in just a few gestures. He calmly answered questions, but he didn’t push the menu. Too often at today’s upscale eateries, one encounters either oppressive cheer or the detached bistro attitude, so this kind of approach was refreshing.
Under Chef Chinn, the menu is likewise old-fashioned, with a few inspired additions doing justice to the region. The appetizer menu even includes a traditional French Onion soup. The Artistry of Cheese board, pulling from North Carolina creameries, is more surefootedly of the moment, a sweet and savory success. Its highlight is a glorious peppercorn- and coriander-encrusted goat cheese and the rustic handmade crackers.
“We are curing our own charcuterie, aging our own cheeses, growing our microgreens,” notes Chinn. “We will soon be cultivating our own mushrooms, and hopefully, in a year or so, farming our own vegetables. This will make us a unique destination [in Chimney Rock].”
Meanwhile, the drink menu is like a bible, pages of wines and beers so dense that deciphering the scroll requires reading glasses. Among the craft cocktails, a big win is the Key Lime Pie martini with a graham-cracker garnish.
The entrée list is a forest of stalwarts — filet mignon, duck, pasta du jour, local trout, and the classic trinity of the ocean: scallops, salmon, and crab cakes. The filet arrived a true medium; i.e., not overcooked, and the cornmeal-dusted local trout was perfect. The Esmeralda serves a more generous portion of trout than you get at most places, and it wasn’t disturbed by any overwrought sauce. The foodie moments are saved for the side items, like the horseradish potato rosti (similar to a latke or a fancy hashbrown) that comes with the beef, and the creamy risotto under the trout, flavored with tomato and textured with farro grain. Each was excellent.
Chinn is a trained pastry chef, and both the tiramisu and flourless chocolate cake were expertly turned out. The third treat on offer that night was crème brûlée. No fruit dish made the menu that night, but Chinn does mention a peach crisp for summer, and that’s promising. A contemporary menu should always have a seasonal dessert on tap, perhaps brought into modern times with unexpected ingredients or some other creative twist. Strong as she is, the dear old Esmeralda can handle it.
The Esmeralda Inn & Restaurant, 910 Main St., Chimney Rock. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5-9pm. Call 828-625-2999 or 888-897-2999 for reservations, or go to theesmeralda.com to access the Reservations page.