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Crook's Corner: Celebrating a 21-year tradition


Crook's Corner sorbet - PHOTO BY YORK WILSON

Crook's Corner, a Chapel Hill institution, celebrated its 21st birthday on April 13. Writers, former employees, Chapel Hill denizens and, of course, chainsaw sculptor Clyde Jones, whose painted wood critters adorn the restaurant, were there to mingle and enjoy such Crook's classics as jalapeno hush puppies and rhubarb sorbet.

Crook's has attained just about everything a restaurant would want to achieve--a loyal following, a colorful past, a back-door relationship with the Carrboro Farmers' Market and, last but not least, respect in culinary circles all over the country.

Only two chefs have run the kitchen over this period toward adulthood--Bill Neal, whose passing in 1991 ended a promising career, and Bill Smith, who has been commanding the stoves, gently I might add, for the past 10 years. Smith continues on the tradition of fresh, seasonal, Southern flavors that his predecessor began, calling his own style "church picnic supper" and "cooking of the Southern garden." He allows the menu to change with the movement of the seasons and with what local farmers and purveyors bring to his back door. As his kitchen is tight for his staff of four or five, this has also dictated what he decides to make, thereby keeping it ever simple.

So what's new in Bill's kitchen? Bill finds himself surrounded by more and more variety. Perhaps some fresh fennel or a fuchsia colored vine fruit called a "watermelon pickle" grown in the northwest mountains might find its way into a salad as an appetizer offering. Ramps, which are a relative of the leek (and equally unpleasant to clean) are a springtime guest, possibly found in a quick sautee over fish or at the bottom of a sauce pan. There is also an exciting array of salad greens from mesclun to mizuna available. The list grows, no pun intended, each year, which unintentionally is changing the palate of what we can call cooking Southern style.

Another influence that is affecting food offerings up and down Franklin Street, according to Chef Bill, and more specifically at Crooks, is the incredible growth in the Mexican population. When I asked Gene Hamer, who owns the restaurant, where he saw his eatery in 10 years, he responded without pondering too far--that we will certainly see a greater influence from across the border that would push its way into the menu's bloodlines. Chef Bill is already a regular shopper at the local Spanish market. That's where he buys his usual bag of Mexican tamale flour to dust oysters for frying, #10 cans of hominy (which remains perfectly intact for his coastal spring scallops, hominy and fresh spinach sautee), and new ingredients to test.

Since his "honeysuckle sorbet recipe" became famous, Bill has been experimenting with other flowers, as well. After the grandmother of a friend sent him a jar of preserved rose petal marmalade, he contacted another friend of his who grows untreated roses and is currently trying to duplicate the Italian recipe for a menu item in the near future. Bill envisions the marmalade to be served with a hearty and strong cheese like gorgonzola as a before or after course. The jam itself is extremely intense with just a hint of rose--certainly worth a try.

To sum up his years in the kitchen, Bill has been working on a cookbook that is expected to be released next spring. The book is entitled, A Year in the Kitchen: Recipes and Stories from a Well Tended Life. It is separated into the four seasons and will cover a part of his time in the kitchen at Crook's Corner and on tour at the Toronto Farmers' Market, where he makes an annual pilgrimage. Asked how it was to write down the recipes for dishes he has made these many years by heart, converting taste into measurements, he replied, "It was the hardest thing I have ever done."

Around Town

As many now sadly know, Butterflies, the innovative French and Mediterranean spot located at 6325 Falls of the Neuse, closed its doors the week after Valentine's Day. As for chef Sarig Agasi's plans to open a new restaurant, that remains a mystery. What we do know is that Shin Kai Japanese will be moving into the location previously owned by Butterflies, opening within the next few weeks ...

Humble Pie at 317 South Harrington St., the eatery previously known for its brunch, has now become quite a lot more. Chris Gant, formerly of Peppercorns, now runs the kitchen and is producing an exciting new tapas menu. Some of the featured items are mussels in a chipotle broth and marinated salmon rolled in shredded filo. Prices range from $5 to $13 on all menu items. They are open Tuesday through Saturday, until 2 a.m. on some nights. Brunch on Sunday and closed Monday.


April 26: Cooking classes from Jim Anile of Il Palio Restaurant, 1:30 p.m. at the Raleigh Conference Center-Southern Women's Show. Chef Anile's menu will feature hearty salads and tips for making a great spring luncheon. Call 929-4000 for more information.

April 27: "Best Barbeque Joints Revealed" at the N.C. Museum of History, 5 East Edenton St., from 3 to 4 p.m. UNC-TV's Bob Garner reveals his favorite barbecue restaurants in the state. Free.

April 28: Fins Restaurant at The Greystone Shopping Center on Leadmine and Sawmill is hosting "The Wines of Washington State," with wines from Stimson Lane and Chateau St. Michelle. Wines will be paired with a six-course dinner. $110 per person. Info: 847-4119.

May 6: Second Empire, downtown on Hillsborough Street, is holding its first dinner in a series on "Wines from Places You Wouldn't Expect." Washington State wines will be featured and paired with a four-course dinner. Call for information, 829-3663

George's Garage, 737 Ninth St., will be offering jazz every Sunday in April and May right outside the restaurant from 1 to 4 p.m., weather permitting ... Cafe Momo, in the Woodcroft Shopping Center at N.C. 54, has been purchased by and will become Rick's Diner, which will begin serving casual Southern food for breakfast, lunch and dinner beginning in early June. Chef Heather, who has been the creative force at the Cafe Momo, will go on to pursue her degree as a registered dietician ...

Fishmongers at Brightleaf Square is celebrating its 20th anniversary throughout the year, offering specials on various menu items as a thank you to customers... A restaurant and club called Bakus Tapas & Wine Bar is opening April 25 at 746 Ninth St. They'll be open every day from 11:30 a.m. until midnight featuring a complete tapas menu and a variety of paellas, burgers and cold appetizers. The club side, titled "9," will feature everything from lively jazz to sensual Brazilian samba, bands, DJs and suites for parties.

Chapel Hill
Matt Murray, the well-tatooed sous chef at Elaine's, will be leaving to fill the position of chef de cuisine at Magnolia Grill as of May 12. Ryan Stewart, who originally helped open Elaine's and has been working in New York at the well-known Montrachet, will replace Matt in the kitchen as of June ...

For those who have been wondering what is planned behind the doors of the former Silk Road Teahouse, guess no more--Demir Wilford, Nomadic Trading and Teahouse owner, is planning to open a restaurant called Tallulla, which is gaelic for "lady of abundance" and Indian for "jumping water." With a projected opening date of June, Demir and Benji Shelton, former owner of Lilly's Pizza, will start out by serving organic pizza and a variety of tapas, which will feature tastes from all over the Mediterranean. There are plans down the road once the show gets rolling to import a particular chef from Turkey to conduct the rest of the menu ...

Spice Street will be having cooking classes every Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., Thursday at 11 a.m., and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. from April 24 through the end of May. Call to confirm all times as some vary. Day classes are $45, evening classes $50. Classes are taught by Cordon Bleu alumna Janice Escott. Info: 928-8200


April 25: Il Palio, 7-10:30 p.m., live jazz night featuring The Richard Tazewell Band. Reservation are not needed to enjoy the hotel's new bar menu and wine pairings.

RestaurantBeat runs the fourth week of the month. Send your restaurant news and events to Erika Gamel at

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