As much as we enjoy dining out during our travels, we find it rather ironic that one of our favorite restaurants ever was just 30 miles from home. Sadly, the place is long closed, but the memories linger.
The street level dining room of this French restaurant was lovely, but we preferred the intimacy of the underground jazz cellar with its brick walls, glassed-in wine cellar at the foot of the stairs, and the Ken Rhodes trio coolly playing hot jazz standards and original compositions like nobody else.
Despite it being a white-tablecloth French restaurant, the atmosphere was decidedly unstuffy. Friendly waiters translated the menu, which was written in French on chalkboards. We always laughed when our waiter brought ketchup for the pommes frites we invariably ordered to accompany our wood-fired steak and fish because he called it French red sauce. Given my love of apple desserts, the exceptional tarte tatin with caramel sauce (see recipe below) was the only way to close out dinner.
Time there felt magical and our pleasure almost visceral, heightened when friends and family joined us.
Closer to home in Winston-Salem was – and still is – Noble’s Grille, which Jim opened several years later. When we moved to Pittsburgh, Noble’s Grille was our restaurant of choice during return visits.
Now that we live in Charlotte, we are back in Noble country, where Jim helms three restaurants. As culinary tastes and techniques have changed, so, too, has Jim’s approach to his industry.
Through his company, Noble Food and Pursuits, Jim serves up his signature brand of Southern cuisine, which features sustainable meats and produce sourced from nearby farms and fish from Carolina coastal waters. Self-taught, his menus mesh his study of early culinary masters with a modern style. His reverence for fresh, quality, seasonal, organic ingredients simply prepared for maximum flavor is unwavering. His accolades and awards are many.
A 10-minute drive from us is Rooster’s at SouthPark, where artisan chefs produce small plates and sharing-sized portions in a relaxed atmosphere under the watchful gaze of life-like roosters perched on a wall. Here is where we enjoyed a celebratory lunch when we closed on our house, thus making official our return to the Noble fold. Pre-theater or pre-Charlotte Symphony concerts, we often choose Rooster’s Uptown. While the menu is the same, the setting is split, with the bar on the ground floor and the main dining room up a flight.
Jim, an ordained minister and co-founder with his wife, Karen, of Restoration Word Ministries, realized that his passion for food had a higher calling, so he established The King’s Kitchen, a nonprofit restaurant, also Uptown. They donate 100% of the profits to feeding the poor in the Charlotte region and provide leadership and life-skills training to those at-risk. He holds Sunday services there and a Bible study group.
Jim has even set his sites on Charleston, SC, one of our favorite cities, where he plans to open another Rooster’s later this year in the Cigar Factory, a landmark building in the historic district.
Recently I sat down with Jim at The King’s Kitchen – the tantalizing aroma from a freshly cooked batch of Aunt Beaut’s chicken wafting by – and he dished out stories about his restaurants, food, faith, and fondness for roosters – the birds, that is.
Jim Noble: I love to eat. I mean, really. Growing up in High Point, I was in hog heaven on Thanksgiving and Christmas. I went to North Carolina State University, thinking I’d be in the furniture business like my dad. I opened a couple of college bars. In 1982 I went to Los Angeles and Napa Valley and saw food and wine paired together for a meal and said that’s it. I studied French cuisine on my own. I cooked Julia Child’s chicken fricassee and it blew me away how awesome that could be.
TRT: What prompted you to open a restaurant?
JN: J. Basul Noble was going to be a New York-style deli like Carnegie’s with big sandwiches. No one had really done it south of the Hudson River. My phone till the day we closed was 889-DELI. I changed my mind in the middle of construction and opened the restaurant.
TRT: Define your cooking philosophy.
JN: Simple, clean, green. Southern food doesn’t have to be heavy and fatback. We’re taking Southern food and giving it the finesse it needed without being froufrou. Growing up my family always ate local. That was the only choice. Every meal was from farm to table. I’d like the order to be from table to farm, where chefs say to farmers here’s what I want you to do.
JN: I had an Aunt Beaut. She’d fry chicken on Sundays after church, and this is a tribute to her. We pan fry chicken in a cast iron skillet, in a neutral oil, about 10 minutes per side. We’ve gotten a lot of press about it – we’ve been on CNN and CBN, and people contact us from all over the country to ask how we do it.
TRT: What’s new with wine?
JN: The most popular wine by the glass in the summer is rosé. I like it a lot. Some people are afraid to drink it because they think it makes them look like a beginner, but it’s not white zinfandel.
TRT: What types of meals do you prepare at home?
JN: I grill a lot – barbecue chicken, veal chops, beef brisket, 3-inch rib eyes and pork shoulder smoked for 10 hours. Vegetables like asparagus, field peas, brussels sprouts, and sunchokes. At Rooster’s we do a simple preparation of fried corn. We heat a skillet, throw in butter, and add fresh corn with salt and pepper and caramelize it.
TRT: What’s with the roosters as name, décor, and logo?
JN: It’s the national bird of France, on weather vanes, and it’s the symbol of chianti classico and early Christians. Rooster’s is like how chefs eat after work, sharing communal bowls of food. With a name like Rooster’s, you know the restaurant is comfortable, not haute cuisine and froufrou.
TRT: Your thoughts on the impact of your restaurants.
JN: At the table people forget about their cares. The greatest compliment you can pay people is to invite them to your home. You come into my restaurants and it’s like coming into my home. I have an obligation to take good care of you. The word restaurant comes from the French word “restaurer,” meaning to restore. I’m in the restoration business spiritually and physically. I take people where they are and help them get back on their feet.
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- 7-8 Granny Smith apples
- ¾ stick butter
- ¾ cup sugar
Core, peel and divide the apples into six sections across the axis. Melt the butter in a 10” ovenproof sauté pan. Add the sugar and cook until dissolved. Arrange the apple slices in a spiral starting from the outside of the pan and layering inward. Cook slowly on the stove for approximately 20 minutes until sugar and apples caramelize and cook together to a golden brown.
While still in the pan, cover the caramelized apples with pie dough (preferably home made) and bake in a 350° oven for 15-20 minutes until crust is golden. Let cool and return to a high flame for approximately 2 minutes. Shake pan to loosen and invert. Serve with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce.
- ½ cup sugar
- ¼ cup water
- Cream and butter to taste
Cook sugar on low heat until it begins to caramelize. Remove from heat and slowly add water. Finish by whisking in cream and butter.