Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat:
Craig LaBan: It's been a couple of weeks, since I just returned from the Shenandoah and Smoky Mountains with the family on vacation. I wanted to share a few highlights from the trip: At Southern Kitchen in New Market, Va.: excellent peanut soup, awesome fried chicken, a huge steak for two, and the greatest hush puppies ever. A magical dinner beside the three-acre garden at Blackberry Farm, foodie heaven in the foothills of the Smokies. . . . A visit to Benton's, where Allan Benton smokes some of America's finest bacon and country hams. . . . A dinner at Knox Mason in Knoxville, where rising star Matt Gallaher cooks some of the best New Southern cuisine . . . .
Reader: My most guilty of TV pleasures started a new season this weekend, with the fourth iteration of The Great Food Truck Race (shout-out to the team from Philly, who won the first challenge). What is your take on food television programming; specifically its culinary value? C.L.: I've got lots of thoughts, but the upshot is this - most recent food shows tend towards reality-based competitions, which don't interest me. We've drifted too far from actual cooking shows. So, for the most part, I've stopped watching.
Reader: Craig, any comments on the liquors you sampled down south?
C.L.: Yes, I sampled plenty! First - Blackberry Farm has one of the best whiskey selections anywhere, something like 200 behind the bar in its main dining room. I was between the Prichard's and the Colonel E.H. Taylor, and chose the Colonel. It was probably the greatest rye I ever tasted . . . and then I saw the price on a little rate card once I finished my drink . . . $25 a shot! Also, I really enjoyed the Troy & Son oaked whiskey I bought in Asheville, where the microdistillery is located. It's a very lightly aged version of their white whiskey - good barrel sweetness on the nose, but that edgy moonshine taste of grain is still vivid. Highly recommended. I'd also love another taste of the Belle Meade, straight up.
Reader: How was Benton's? Definitely on my "foodie trip" list.
C.L.: You'll be hearing about my trip to Benton's (and Blackberry Farm) in a future Food section piece. But this is the real deal for mountain-cured ham and bacon. Allan Benton is one of the most genuine Southern gentlemen you'll ever meet - incredibly humbled by the national recognition his traditional product has received. But . . . it is so deserved. Many restos in Philly use the bacon (it's the favored fat for Khyber's bacon popcorn), and Pa 6 is serving the prosciutto-like country ham with its house-made pimento cheese.
Reader: How was the food at Blackberry farm? Did you eat in the main restaurant?
C.L.: We ate in the garden; the meal was intentionally simple to highlight the heirloom produce from the garden but overall it was magical. Excellent use of local and seasonal products. Perfect tone with combination of rustic mountain touches and Relais & Chateau sophistication. Clearly one of the great gastronomic destinations in the country. But crazy expensive!
Reader: Which new restaurant opening are you most excited about?