Drinking It In
Jeffery Lindenmuth - July/August 2014
In the spirit of the artists who preceded them, a Master Sommelier and executive chef have transformed a forgotten creative haven into an oasis of food and drink.
Fred Dexheimer, a Master Sommelier perhaps best known for his role with Laurent Tourondel’s BLT restaurants, never expected he’d be leaving New York City for a restaurant hidden among the Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Office Max off U.S. Highway 15-501 between Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. But Straw Valley has a way of moving people. A former artist’s studio and residence, constructed on a dilapidated dairy farm in the 1950s, Straw Valley remained an oasis for the longtime owners even as the big boxes encroached. After years of pleading, developer Scott Bednaz finally succeeded in purchasing Straw Valley in 2007—with a promise he’d restore it for the community.
In some ways Bednaz was too successful. “When I came to see the place, they had a cafe with decent enough coffee,” says Dexheimer, who was lured to Straw Valley by current head chef and partner, Adam Rose, formerly of Il Palio in Chapel Hill, whose sister happens to be married to Dexheimer. “But people were treating it like a public park. They were bringing in food, hiding in the houses, and sucking up Wi-Fi for hours. I’d walk into a building to find someone working there as if it was their home.”
“I knew it was special the first time I saw it,” says Rose. “I took a 20 minute tour, phoned my wife, and said, ‘I have no clue what I just saw. It was beautiful, and bizarre.’” The duo kicked around names like Labyrinth and Rendezvous, but Straw Valley stuck. They dropped the prevailing cafe moniker and set out to develop a “Straw Valley Food & Drink,” a complex that would engage Dexheimer’s mastery of beverages, while unshackling Rose from Italian cuisine, a destination of all-day options across the Scandinavian-inspired structures and sprawling outdoor spaces.
“There’s no category of beverage I won’t touch,” says Dexheimer. In upgrading the coffee program, the partners enlisted Scott Conary of Carrboro Coffee Roasters, an artisan roaster and certified judge for the World Barista Championship, outfitting the cafe and wine bar with a custom orange La Marzocco Strada MP espresso machine as its focal point. “Scott is like a Master Sommelier of coffee. He travels the world, works with farmers, and roasts the best coffee. I’m still a novice, so we rely on Scott to teach us all he can,” says Dexheimer, noting that baristas, servers, and captains received three full days of coffee training.
At Rose’s urging, Dexheimer next delved into a juice program. Following extensive research on equipment and nutrition, he arrived at a rainbow array. “We aimed for an accessible program, with juices that are balanced and not too far out. I thought in terms of color first, then targeted the ingredients that would give freshness and acidity,” says Dexheimer, invoking sommelier speak.
With their vivid hues and good balance, the juices also form the foundation for many of the house cocktails at The Black House restaurant, offering 55 seats—some of them chairs crafted locally in the style of Hans Wegner. Fountain of Youth juice (kale, ginger, parsley, green apple, and lemon) is shaken with Hendrick’s Gin and topped with ginger beer to create the Lolla’s Garden. Tropi-C-al Boost juice (pineapple, orange, grapefruit, strawberry, and mint) can be shaken with light and dark rums and bitters for a Bamboo-z-led, or topped with Prosecco and mint for the Minta Bell. “Using the juices, you have a cocktail that includes 10 ingredients, but requires just three steps,” says Dexheimer, who utilizes the vegetable-based SV8 for Bloody Marys.
After 5 p.m., the cafe transforms into a wine bar with 44 seats, offering a raw bar and small plates such as 24 month aged Pio Tosinni prosciutto and burrata with Sunny Slope Farm tomatoes and 12 year aged balsamic. The affordable wine list is categorized as “Oyster Wines,” “Cheese Wines,” and “Meat Wines,” all offered in three ounce, six ounce, or bottle portions. Full bottles, including oyster wine Moreau-Naudet Petit Chablis 2012 and cheese wine Lini Lambrusco Emilia-Romagna 2012, are all priced at $35 or less. Dexheimer, who now finds himself the only Master Sommelier in North Carolina, adds tasting flights several nights a week, priced at just $10.
With white wines ruling at the raw bar, Rose says he cooks with an eye to big reds in a protein-driven steakhouse style at The Black House. While Mediterranean influences remain, international and Southern nuances also emerge—redeye gravy on a pasture-raised filet mignon, or vinegar-laced Carolina barbecue sauce as the basis for a mignonette. “After cooking Italian for seven years at Il Palio, I remember going to the market and buying ginger for the first time. I felt like, ‘Now the gloves are off,’” says Rose.
Rose’s knock-out punch arrives in big dishes built for two—bone-in rib eye with chimichurri ($68), a “half-baked” chicken with sautéed mushrooms, Sherry, and thyme ($42), or a châteaubriand in Sauternes sauce topped with foie gras ($75). “We wanted to encourage sharing in a big way. We tried small plates, but it didn’t feel right. This place sort of tells you what it wants, and this idea is like the opposite of tapas,” says Rose.
Dexheimer’s two page list of around 170 wines has enough California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to make anyone comfortable, but isn’t shy about diving headlong into wine geek territory, as he supports the winemakers, importers, and wines with whom he holds a personal connection. “The challenge is I’m not working with a BLT budget, so I’ve put a lot of little goodies and interesting wines in that $40 zone, and that seems to be working,” says Dexheimer, pointing to Chateau Musar Musar Jeune 2011 from Lebanon ($45) and Plavac Mali Zlatan 2010 from Croatia ($40). “We’re buying the best food ingredients, and they’re expensive, so I aim to offer value in the wine. I am OK with that because I’m in business selling bottles, not percentages,” he says.
With summer, the partners will unleash their collection of craft beers in a multi-tap beer garden in an 8,000-square-foot courtyard, promising a fountain that shoots fire and casual beer-friendly foods like tacos, wursts, and whole lobster. By building a viable drink and dining destination, they may yet succeed in fending off the bulldozer from Straw Valley’s bamboo forests, koi ponds, fountains, and palms. “We’re a business, but we also want to keep the utopian spirit of the place. Have a sandwich or a glass of wine. Walk around and have a stretch or relax in a little nook. We offer a lot of great options, then let people do whatever they want,” says Dexheimer.
Jeffery Lindenmuth is a consumer of fine drink for reasons personal and professional. He writes about wine, spirits, and good living from his home in Pennsylvania.