The Blue Ridge Mountains engulf us as we drive the ribbon of highway through the Pisgah National Forest toward Blowing Rock, NC. My eyes travel from the gentle hills to the high rocky outcroppings that are just beginning to crown with the early signs of fall color. As we round another sweeping curve, civilization interrupts the never ending roll of green that surrounds us in the form of a simple roadside stand selling apples and local honey. We drive by, and the table of honey passes quickly in a golden blur and I wonder if it is as sweet on the tongue as the air in these mountains is.
It’s a Friday afternoon and I have escaped to the mountains, where I hope to find a brief weekend respite from late summer’s scorching heat in the North Carolina highlands.
In Blowing Rock, the air is blessedly cool. As I walk to my room at the Village Inn, I swear I can taste the promise of crisp Autumn on the evening air. It’s a perfect evening for a Sunset Stroll.
Sunset Drive is the heart of historic downtown Blowing Rock. Only about 3 blocks long, it is lined with quaint galleries, cupcakeries, restaurants, and boutiques, and dead ends into the downtown City Park. The businesses of Sunset Drive host the Sunset Stroll one Friday of every month from May until October, with businesses staying open later hours and hosting wine and cheese, local artists, and free music. These Fridays coincide with City Park’s “Art in the Park” event, held on the following Saturday each month.
Not only does the Village Inn have beautiful rooms with decadent king sized beds and luxurious furnishings that make me want to grab a riding crop and a sniffer of thoroughly aged brandy and head out on a fox hunt, but it is ideally located at one end of Sunset Drive. It is the perfect starting point to the “stroll.”
We peruse beautiful Ayala Bar jewelry in Art and Artifacts, peer pathetically into the closed windows of Oh La La Cupcakes, and enjoy a complimentary wine tasting at Christoper’s Wine & Cheese, after which my unsophisticated palate and I promptly resort to our preferred method of selecting wine and purchase the one that has the prettiest bottle.
As the sun begins to dip lower in the sky, we hear the sounds of live music carried on the cool evening breeze. To find it, we need only to follow the crowds of smartly dressed people to the lawn of the Best Cellar at the Inn at Ragged Gardens where the warm sounds of the King Bees are heating up the night. This is obviously the PLACE TO BE and it seems that all of Blowing Rock is assembled here, sipping cold glasses of Chardonnay. We don’t need an engraved invitation and within minutes we are stretched out on a blanket with a couple of glasses of Pinot Noir.
As the King Bees end on a sweet note, we head to Bistro Roca for dinner. I have been told that Bistro Roca might be hard to find. It is and it isn’t. If you follow any GPS or map, it will take you straight to it without a hitch. The problem lies in the fact that it turns you into what appears to be a private residential entry (but isn’t). Ignoring my inner Nervous Nellie, who keeps telling me that we better turn around because in moments, someone is coming out with a (very expensive, I’m sure) shotgun to tell us we are on private property, we drive on and find the restaurant exactly where the map tells us it will be.
Nestled in the trees in a cozy wood-sided building, Bistro Roca manages to feel off the beaten path while being located only blocks from downtown Blowing Rock. The restaurant exudes a rustic warmth and casual elegance. While the restaurant is highly regarded as one of the best that Blowing Rock has to offer, I select it because the website features Buckwheat the Pug, the restaurant’s official spokesdog. Who can say no to Buckwheat?
Buckwheat does not let us down. The interior is warm and glowing, with the most delicious smells coming from their brick oven, the only wood fired oven in the North Carolina highcountry. We are seated at a romantic table for two and order a paloma and a basil strawberry cocktail from their very inventive cocktail menu. For starters, we sample two of the Roca Spreads, trying the olive tapenade and their house made cheese spread. We also order the Mountain Man Rillettes, which are 3 delicious sweet corn muffins, a sauce trio, red onion salad, and a small dish of “Q.”
I am puzzled by the “Q.” I pick up the silver dish and, well, it looks like a dish of lard. If you have grown up in the south and have a grandma, you know lard when you see it (Laugh if you must, but in the south, essential things for survival include: 1) Air, 2) Water, and 3) Pig Fat). I dig around and realize that it is, in fact, lard…..and that underneath that thin layer of pig fat is a delicious and savory serving of barbeque pork, tangy with vinegar and spices. Well, butter my behind and call me a biscuit. That is one fine appetizer.
For dinner, my husband has the mountain trout which comes out golden and stuffed with heirloom tomatoes, served over a quinoa pistachio pilaf with confit baby fennel and broccoli raab. As fine as that sounds, it does not hold a candle to my Habi Burger: a thick, juicy beef patty topped with cheddar, lettuce, tomato, bacon, fried onion straws and basted in their house made habanero sauce. It is so fantastic, I want to say, “butter my behind and call me a biscuit” again, but I think saying that twice in such a short span of time is a southern faux pas.
Actually, I think saying it once qualifies.
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