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Keepers of the Tavern

by Kristi Maier

@triadfoodies

This could be the story about a new fun way to dine out called, “Let The Chef Send Out Whatever.” But actually it’s a look at all the happenings in this new era being ushered in by the owners of the Tavern in Old Salem.

But it is still a little bit about the chef sending out whatever. After a couple of very fun occasions dining out with friends, it’s become my new favorite way to go. Imagine four to five (or six or seven) plates of food among four to five people. It’s fun and you might just get to taste something you might have been apprehensive about otherwise.

We decided to go this route a couple of weeks ago at one restaurant and then a few nights later at The Tavern in Old Salem. Chef Jared Keiper has just rolled out a new menu and we were able to get a preview of creative dishes that highlight not only our local area but the heritage of the most historic area of Winston-Salem. First, some history.

Established in 1816, the Tavern in Old Salem is the oldest tavern in North Carolina.

Rick and Lori Keiper became its 24th tavern keeper three years ago. Chef Keiper had previously worked at the former 223 S. Elm in Greensboro and helped John and Buddy Milner open Milner’s on Stratford Road. He stayed there for six-and-a-half years before joining the District Rooftop Grille. And then his parents purchased the Tavern and naturally asked him to head up the kitchen.

“I knew it would be a challenge. It was a tourist restaurant. My biggest goal was to turn it into a place where locals would want to eat “¦ and want to order more than just chicken pie.”

Hey, who can blame them? The chicken pie is awesome. But, Keiper says there’s so much more to be enjoyed. “I like to keep changing the menu, bringing in specials but most importantly, we want the Tavern to be historically in line with what the Moravians would’ve eaten when they settled in this area.”

Keiper says the Moravians actually kept great diaries of the types of food that they ate and that he’s been enjoying reading up on it. “You won’t find shrimp on our menu, but you will find crawfish, because that’s what the Moravians ate.” And you might find salmon as a special, but it won’t be a menu regular like catfish would be.

And that also means keeping everything as local as possible, as the Moravians would naturally have done. “I’ve done some farming at home, but we also take advantage of Old Salem Gardens,” Keiper says. For years, the garden was simply an attraction in Old Salem. “It was educational and that was about it. Before we came, the produce was either donated or turned into compost. They didn’t use the okra or the beets or herbs here at the Tavern. Now, folks who eat here are enjoying vegetables grown right here in the gardens of Old Salem.” And he plans to do more.

As for desserts, that’s all Mama Keiper.

“My mom bakes them like she would at home. No fancy chocolate sauces and smears. Just simple and delicious. She makes the best pecan pie. And right now, we’re into blueberry pie and banana cobbler.” But the most historic of all the dishes is the traditional Syllabub. This whipped, creamy, boozy concoction dates back to the colonial times. No one really knows how it came to be. Keiper says, “I call it an adult milkshake. You whip your cream, sugar, wine, lemon zest and pour it into a glass. It settles overnight and creates the layers.” And then the cream rises to the top (as cream does). They top it with seasonal fruit. It looks like a parfait and it’s amazing.

Back to that preview. We were able to try some items that were newly rolling out along with some staples from the Supper menu. But no chicken pie for us this time.

To start, two new appetizer dishes. The first featured an amazing smoked German sausage called Debreziner served with a Brussel Sprout and Kale hybrid called Kalettes, Ashe County cheddar and a wild boar reduction. We also tried the fried Ashe County Cheese Curds with homemade whole grain honey mustard. Think of them as fried cheese sticks gone southern. Delicious.

That was followed by a few entrees that literally went into the middle of the table and we all went at it. The new Lemon Pepper Carolina Catfish, which Keiper calls one of his favorites: The lemony fish is adorned with heirloom bean ragout, Brussels sprouts and pepper jelly and lemon butter. Duck 3-Ways featured roasted duck, confit parmesan spaetzle (kind of like mac & cheese), grilled duck bacon and spinach. We’re still in Moravian times with the Braised Wild Boar Shank, spaetzle and roasted carrots in a red wine reduction. And finally, the Filet Mignon & house made bacon with roasted fingerling potatoes , creamed spinach and local mushrooms rounded out the entrees.

Two desserts were shared between the four of us. Gingerbread with lemon curd ice cream, which tasted like Christmas. And the Syllabub.

The Tavern in Old Salem has a full bar, albeit somewhat small, that definitely harkens back to the old days. It’s well stocked with local beer, NC wine and NC spirits. And you can even enjoy your lunch or supper under the covered patio. As for the menu, expect this one to stick around for a few weeks until Keiper gets ready to change it up to highlight other seasonal items. The chicken pie is still there. And the Keipers say it will always be.

But go and let the chef have his way with you, okay? You’ll be glad you did. !

WANNA go?

The Tavern in Old Salem is located at 736 South Main Street in historic Old Salem. It is open for lunch and supper Tuesday through Saturday. Brunch from 11-3 on Sundays.

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