A certain mystique hovers around the idea of an astonishing restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Seekers relish the image of the charming find in a tiny town where obscure magicians conjure unimaginably delicious food at stoves steps away from a secret garden. In my career, most hunts for such hidden wonders have usually led to polite duds. I’ve instead found polite souls serving earnest food that’s a boon to an underserved area and usually hews to culinary trends about 10 years past their height in the nearest metropolis.
Knife & Fork, despite its banal name, is the rare exception — an actual destination-worthy restaurant. It resides in the small town of Spruce Pine about an hour northeast from Asheville in the thick of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Spruce Pine’s population is below 2,500. As I drove into town a fire (burning trash?) smoldered by the curving train tracks across from the restaurant. It was a Wednesday in early May; the spare dining room (sage and green walls, chairs with wicker backs around simple wooden tables) was nearly empty. Most of the diners had instead gathered around smoky gray picnic tables on the restaurant’s garden patio.
Nate Allen, the restaurant’s owner and head chef, was pulling service duty that night as well. Allen cooked for 10 years in Los Angeles at restaurants like A.O.C. and as a private chef for Hollywood stars whose identities he won’t confirm (his rumored clients included Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire). In 2009 he and his then-wife Wendy relocated from California to be closer to her family in western North Carolina, where Allen also has relatives. As a cook, Allen had been yearning for a climate more closely tied to actual shifting seasons. Selling alcohol in restaurants had just become legal in Spruce Pine that year. He took it as a sign to open his own place in town.
Initially Allen intended Knife & Fork to pay homage to Appalachian cooking, incorporating influences from Irish and German settlers. But over time his cuisine has evolved into a more modern and personal expression: He might fold in global nuances, but the ingredients largely hail from the region, most strikingly in the form of wild fauna that liberally peppers his dishes. The staff could easily present field guides along with the menus. Of course his foraging credo smacks of the Nordic trend spearheaded by Noma, but this approach also makes inherent sense given the lushness of the mountains that surround the restaurant.
His foraging credo makes inherent sense given the lushness of the mountains that surround the restaurant.
And Allen, wiry and bearing a passing resemblance to Top Chef Masters’ Curtis Stone, is a magnetic character who’s built Knife & Fork a loyal following despite its remoteness. Ask him about some obscure, in-season foliage and he’ll swoon and utter expletives. He enthused about how the sturdy, sharp green known as stonecrop holds up to heat as a finishing touch to rabbit loin with black radish and ramps. He rhapsodized over the slight nuttiness of an herb called Solomon’s plume served alongside zippy sochan, another springtime green, to accompany our grilled pork chop. Often the leafy additions are as much for the eye as for the palate: A slice of washed wind tomme from Vermont (Allen allows himself shipments of cheese from Murray’s in New York) came camouflaged among tender spruce tips, lemony sumac, and wood violets. Talk to him long enough about his work and the conversation takes on spiritual shadings: "The more I discovered what grew and when it grew, I saw that the hills will take care of you if you stop, look, and listen. It was like going back in a time machine."
The kitchen’s precise execution kept the meal temporal. Skillful sears on the pork chop and rabbit kept the meat juicy; their earthy savor made the foraged greens taste all the brighter. A childhood camping snack of Beach Cliff fish steaks in Louisiana hot sauce, which included the softened bones in their tins, inspired his "trout marrow" appetizer. He put the vertebrae of the cleaned trout through the wringer — pressure-canning them, blending them in the Vitamix, mixing them with agar agar to set, whirring them again — until, infused with cream and wine, they tasted like spreadable chowder. The evening’s only slight miss was naan, topped with sultry braised lamb and queso fresco and herbs, that came off more like dry American-style focaccia. Savory ebelskiver, a Dutch puffed pancake similar to a popover served with sauteed ramps and finger-length morels, redeemed the kitchen’s baking skills.
It was hard to wrest ourselves from the enchantment of the setting. Reservations can be tough to claim as the summer progresses and it’s easy to can see why. Allen and his cooking have the kind of charisma that could lure you back season after season, year after year.
Cost: Dinner starters $4-$10, house-made charcuterie $12-$20, entrees $15-$24, desserts $9. Lunch dishes $4-$10. Brunch dishes $5-$20.
Sample dishes: Daily changing menu of modern American food embellished by edible plants and other wild fauna from the surrounding Blue Ridge mountains. Look for dishes like grilled trout with bamboo shoots and wild ginger or grilled pork chop with sochan, Soloman’s plume, and bacon cream.
What to drink: Start with a classic cocktail like a Negroni or a French 75 at Knife & Fork’s sister bar — named Spoon, naturally — up a flight of stairs adjacent to the restaurant. At dinner, chef-owner Nate Allen fills out his short wine list with lesser-known varietals. Choose something light and versatile like Picpoul de Pinet, a crisp Rhone white that won’t overpower the many leafy curios in Allen’s dishes.
Bonus tip: Knife & Fork’s days of operations vary throughout the year; May through October the restaurant is open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday.