Southern Voices: Chef Aaron Deal, The River and Rail, Roanoke, VA
By Stephanie Burt
River & Rail is nestled in the Appalachian mountains, a region traditionally known for scratch-made cooking, and it’s a region that Deal knows well since he grew up in North Carolina in its foothills, a short drive to the glades and hikes and bubbling streams of the Blue Ridge. He enjoyed camping with his father in those mountains, and these days, recalls its traditions not only through the menu at his restaurant, but through working with local producers, or even participating in community canning days during the summer.The River and Rail in Roanoke, VA is a restaurant based on Southern ingredients, but elevated beyond the everyday. “We have to justify people coming to dinner for a night out, and so we focus on being an elegant Southern bistro based on scratch cooking,” says executive chef Aaron Deal. “And the right way is usually unfortunately the hard way.”
His own family traditions, however, often centered around holidays -- just like many families -- who would gather at a grandmother’s house for a meal. If it was Thanksgiving, the dessert was always Cybil Deal’s pecan pie, but the chef stresses that not every year was a shining example of the pastry. “Sometimes she’d burn the bottom of the crust a bit,” he recalls, but the family always ate it and acted like nothing was wrong. “It was tradition.”
Sweets and pecans are another tradition, but for his fall menu at the restaurant, he prefers to go main dish instead of dessert with a pecan-crusted quail over a bed of spinach tossed in a deeply flavorful, complex vinaigrette. It’s at once familiar yet a bit elevated, just like his restaurant. And none of the guests at your table will have to feign deliciousness for the sake of tradition. Prepare for sincere “oohs” and “aahs” instead.
Pecan Crusted Georgia Quail, Wilted Spinach & Maple Sherry Vinaigrette
½ cup sherry vinegar
2 tbsp. maple syrup
1 tsp. dijon mustard
¼ tsp. fish sauce
¼ tsp. soy sauce
2 tbsp. olive oil for vinaigrette
Salt and black pepper
1 cup roasted pecan pieces plus ¼ cup for garnish
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tbsp. olive oil for quail
1 egg beaten with 1 tsp. milk
4 ea semi boneless quail
6 cups fresh spinach, cleaned, stemmed and firmly packed
1 cup julienned red onions
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