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Chow down with John Batchelor at The Undercurrent

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Chow down with John Batchelor at The Undercurrent

My wife and I went out for a full-service, sit-down dinner in Greensboro for the first time in a year. For this special occasion, we chose The Undercurrent, an old favorite, where we joined friends Dave and Maggie. 

It’s not just the food and dining experience we have missed; it’s the conversation with companions.

One thing remains clear, however: standards at The Undercurrent have not changed. In spite of the preceding year’s difficulties, this remains one of the Triad’s premier restaurants, with food, service, and ambiance sustained at stellar levels.

Regarding ambiance: the look is elegant but not stuffy. It’s easy to relax here. And for me, of equal importance, it’s easy to carry on a conversation, given the low noise level.

The staff remains remarkably stable. Dining here a few times begins to feel like having dinner with friends instead of a waitstaff.

Chef de Cuisine Michael Harkenreader, an honors graduate of the CIA culinary program, also holds a degree in hospitality management from the University of Delaware. He previously worked in that state at the Hotel Dupont and the Dupont Country Club. Sous Chef Jonathan Ramos graduated from the GTCC culinary program. Chef-Partner Chris Wheeler, also a GTCC culinary alum, and his brother, Manager-Partner Wes Wheeler, both worked at The Undercurrent in the kitchen and in the bar before moving into an ownership role about ten years ago, completing that transition last year. 

This kitchen is especially devoted to local, fresh ingredients. The wine list is commendable for quality and value, with well chosen by the glass and half-bottle selections providing particular convenience.

Warm, crusty, aromatic bread, prepared from scratch in-house, arrives promptly.

One chilly evening mandated an up-temperature starter. Sweet Potato Soup filled the need, arriving hot, bursting with mellow sweet potato flavor enhanced with a light drizzle of rosemary oil, sprinkled with microgreens.

Mushroom and Brie Galette place sliced shiitake, cremini, and portobello mushrooms over soft Brie cheese, baked in an open pastry crust, folded around the edges. A small arugula salad on one side incorporates toasted hazelnuts. Down the other side, a pink peppercorn crema, mashed and swirled for visual effect, is laced with steeped cherry juice.

Fried Oysters have long been a personal favorite here, and the most recent rendition lived up to fond memory. The plump oysters themselves bear a crisp crust, their flavor sharpened with whole grain mustard Dijonnaise. Onion relish and a small spinach salad with crumbled bacon and sliced pear complete the presentation.

The Country Pate’ is wrapped in bacon. Calvander cheese and smoked pecans complement the primary pork flavors as well as lending complexity. Cranberry compote provides a sweet finish.

Among the seafood entrees, Salmon is skillet seared, creating a pleasant crust, its inherent flavor well served, but not obscured, by a lemon-parsley puree. This is placed over sesame Carolina Gold rice- a heritage variety, joined on the side by vibrant al dente green beans. Slivers of country ham lend additional flavor.

I have declared Scallops a special strength of this kitchen. Consistently browned, yet always tender, on the current menu, they are enhanced with vanilla-grapefruit vinaigrette and apricot puree, presented over hazelnut-thyme couscous laced with spinach. Parsnips, cut shoestring style, are fried crisp.

Grilled Shrimp, one evening’s off-menu special, were rubbed with chili powder and coriander and presented on skewers, exuding a delightful grill smoke-enhanced flavor. A micro greens salad provided color as well as a little vinaigrette pique for the palette. Green beans pierced a basil risotto; a pea shoot salad with Apple Jack vinegar rested alongside. 

I am a big fan of the Grilled Pork Tenderloin here, its natural flavor slightly sweetened with golden raisin puree. The conception exhibits strong Southern influences, a function of hominy hash studded with pieces of chorizo sausage interspersed with kale leaves. Sliced avocado blends surprisingly well with the pork.

Grilled Ribeye exudes exceptional depth of beef flavor from within tender texture. Sherry-date steak sauce is an original creation, a subtle and truly exceptional way to extend beef flavor without interfering with its intrinsic nature. A smoked paprika aioli renders French-style green beans more complex, while slivered Manchego cheese subtly mellows these myriad flavors.

Grilled Rack of Lamb, another off-menu special, was treated with coconut macadamia nut kumquat glaze, surrounded by Morello cherry tarragon crema. This came with arugula, golden raisin, and quinoa salad, along with yellow curry naan and red pepper hummus. 

Skipping dessert here would be a serious mistake. The white chocolate- blueberry Bread Pudding with warm caramel sauce is decadent, well worth the calories. French Opera Cake is a visual as well as taste treat. Thin layers of almond sponge cake are interspersed with mocha mousse, surrounded with coffee Anglaise, all flanked with a segment of chocolate-almond brittle. Brittany Leary, another graduate of GTCC, is the pastry chef.

I am often asked, “What’s the best restaurant in town?” 

I always demur because on a given night, there are a handful of places that might beat out the others with particular dishes. But The Undercurrent consistently springs to mind whenever I consider the question. It also occurs to me, given the professional training of so many personnel, that The Undercurrent embodies testimony to the GTCC culinary program.

John Batchelor has been writing about eating and drinking since 1981. Over a thousand of his articles have been published. He is also author of two travel/cookbooks: Chefs of the Coast: Restaurants and Recipes from the North Carolina Coast, and Chefs of the Mountains: Restaurants and Recipes from Western North Carolina. Contact him at john.e.batchelor@gmail.com or see his blog, johnbatchelordiningandtravel.blogspot.com.

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