Even though the Dunhill Hotel is designated as a historic landmark, the adjacent restaurant space has not been worthy of note since the renowned Chef Scott Howell was there in 1991 — until now, that is. Farmer and chef Cassie Parsons has changed the dynamics of the space by opening her Harvest Moon Grille, a restaurant dedicated to showcasing local flavors.
In 2009, Parsons started her popular Harvest Moon Grille food truck. Its popularity led to the restaurant. The bright interior is small and simple with bare wood tables and large color macrophotography of, not surprisingly, food. The back wall sports a large chalkboard listing the sources — primarily farms — of the ingredients used on the menu.
Parsons may be the first farmer to open a local restaurant since — dare I write this — the late Gus Bacogeorge-operated Gus's Sir Beef with his famed "Fresh My Farm" vegetables. Parsons' 10-acre Grateful Growers Farm in Lincoln County is owned with Natalie Veres and specializes in Tamworth (a Heritage breed) hogs, chickens, and shiitake mushrooms. Grateful Growers pork is available locally at area grocery stores and farmers markets.
Here in the restaurant, Parsons also uses products from other area farmers. The cheese is local; the beef is from Baucom's Best; goat is from Glenreid Farms; and seafood is from the coast. In fact, Parsons reports that since opening the restaurant in October 2010, she has bought $79,000 worth of food from farmers within a 40-mile radius of her restaurant.
The dishes at Harvest Moon Grille are not elaborate, but when the ingredients are flavorful, the food — and its subtle differences of texture, aroma and taste — can speak for itself. Expectedly, pork stars throughout the seasonal menu. On the starter list is a hearty threesome of pork sliders — one with goat cheese, another with red pepper relish, and a third with a kimchi of sorts. The beef brisket sliders are similarly inventive. Pork is reprised on the entrée list as an equally tasty rendition. Rather than occluding the taste with a sweet sauce, Parsons serves her free-range pedigreed pork, seared outside, juicy inside, reposing on an island of barley pilaf spiked with roasted carrots. Among the other entrées were sweet potato cakes — country kin to a crab cake — accompanied by a mélange of mustard greens, cabbage and a crunch of carrots.
The cheese and potato stuffed pierogies are markedly plain, but the farro salad with enough chevre to add spark is laced with bits of sweet dense beets and carrots. This dish radiates late spring flavors. A plate of local cheeses is always available. Desserts such as the delicate strawberry crepes and a dense pound cake with berries are seasonal and compulsively edible. Ask for extra spoons to share.
Sometimes, the clichéd Alice Waters custom of sourcing everything on a menu seems pretentious, especially if that source is clear across the country. But in this humble context, local source acknowledgement is endearing. Parsons is not only a determined farmer, but a gifted chef fanatical about the integrity of ingredients. She is on a mission to bring first-class cuisine composed of local foods onto the city's main dining stage, where it belongs. Some have tried before. But the time now seems right.
Harvest Moon Grille
235 N. Tryon St. in the Dunhill Hotel. Hours: Breakfast, Monday to Friday 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday Brunch, 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. http://harvestmoongrillecharlotte.com.