How do you sum up Crook’s Corner in five dishes?
With an ever-evolving seasonal menu, there are still many classics we could pick, from chef Bill Smith’s annual celebration of soft-shell crabs to banana pudding.
Later this year, the restaurant’s owners and chefs will begin a new chapter.
Smith, only the restaurant’s second chef in its 36-year history, will step down, taking on the role of chef emeritus. He’ll represent the storied Chapel Hill restaurant at events and dinners.
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Chef Justin Burdett will take over for Smith and has been at the restaurant since August to learn the dishes.
Gary Crunkleton and Shannon Healy, the new owners, said they want to keep the dishes that put Crook’s on the map while giving Burdett the freedom to put his own touch on the menu.
If you’re just going to Crook’s for the first time, or your 30th, here are the five dishes you should know.
1. Shrimp & grits
It started as a simple breakfast by shrimpers in Charleston’s lowcountry: freshly caught shrimp sauteed with bacon grease or butter and poured over breakfast grits. The late Bill Neal, the founding chef at Crook’s, took that idea and turned it into a white-tablecloth dinner dish, sauteing shrimp with bacon, mushrooms, green onions and lemon juice and serving it over stone-ground cheese grits. It’s gone on to become one of the best-known Southern dishes, made from Mississippi to Maine.
2. Atlantic Beach Pie
Growing up in New Bern, Smith remembered that fried-seafood restaurants on the North Carolina coast all served lemon pie for dessert. He added a simple saltine-cracker crust to balance the sweet filling, a genius move of salty, sweet and creamy. National media outlets from NPR to Food 52 grabbed on to it, and it became so well known, Smith jokingly calls it “that stupid pie.”
3. Green Tabasco Chicken
A garden of too many peppers was Smith’s inspiration for this rendition of roast chicken. In his cookbook, Smith writes about switching out bottles of vinegared peppers for the green version of Tabasco, preferring its mild heat, but strong pepper flavor. The chicken is basted with the green Tabasco and a pan sauce is made from the jalapeno and garlic that cooked inside the chicken and all those drippings.
4. Persimmon pudding
For a few months in the fall, when the wild persimmons have ripened, Crook’s serves this glorious pudding. Of all the recipes Smith inherited from Neal, he has said this may be his favorite. A puree of the deep orange fruit is baked to a rich brown and served hot with whipped cream and a sprig of mint. Warming spices of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger are the woolen blanket draped across the lap on the nights when a chill becomes a frost.
A large mass of honeysuckle blooming behind the restaurant in early summer led owner Gene Hamer to challenge Smith to find a way to use it. Smith hit on an ancient Arabian technique for flower ices, soaking fresh blooms overnight in water to capture their essence. Crook’s has several signature sorbets, including mint sorbet served in a bourbon cocktail and orange sorbet flavored with Red Hots. But the brief seasonal appearance of honeysuckle sorbet has fans obsessed.