Restaurant is both rule and exception

by Brian Clarey

Sweet Potatoes restaurant does its thing just a couple short blocks from my Winston-Salem office on Trade Street, and those who are familiar with the place have probably been wondering why I haven’t reviewed it yet, even though I’ve been working in downtown Winston-Salem for more than six months.

The answer: I’ve been saving it.

This is one of my favorite restaurants in North Carolina, mostly because it retains an air of Southern-ness while still putting out showroom-quality plates that can stand toe-to-toe with haute cuisine from any discipline.

The dinner menu teems with savory entrees that could have come straight out of your mama’s kitchen – if, that is, your mama spent some time in a four-star restaurant or an A-list culinary school. Sweet potato-cornbread dressing and apple-brandy gravy accent the pork chops; the duck breast is barbecued and served with corn and green-tomato relish; the BLT utilizes green tomatoes and you can even get a giant slab of moist, peppery meatloaf hidden under a copious pile of fried onions.

And the weekend brunch is becoming the stuff of local culinary legend.

I’m here for lunch, and a word to the wise: Get here right at noon for the midday meal or you shall certainly end up waiting for a table. That, or eat at the bar.

And a good way to start things off is with an order of fried green tomatoes and okra, served in a basket with a sweet-potato aioli with the color and demeanor of a fine remoulade. It stands with the okra just fine, but this sauce was made for the fried greens, and the melding flavors of bitter tomato, spicy garlic and subtle sweet potato are as fine a symphony as I’ve ever tasted.

The core ingredient here is the noble and nutritious sweet potato, one of the world’s leading crops – North Carolina is the largest domestic producer. But for today’s lunch I go against my usual rule: If a place is named after a dish, then by all means order that dish and you will rarely be disappointed.

Sweet Potatoes serves sweet potatoes, of course, baked until they’re mushy and served with an array of toppings like white cheddar, diced ham and red peppers; or diced tomato and bacon; or toasted pecans and coconut.

My concession to the yam is an order of a hot brown, which is much more delicious than it sounds. Sliced turkey breast shares space with mushrooms, bacon, tomatoes and a thick white-cheddar sauce layered atop a split sweet potato biscuit and served en cassoulet. It is sweet, salty, smoky and sharp, a fine mess of tastes, and try as I might, I just can’t finish the damn thing.

This is possibly because of my side order, a passel of sweet-potato fries that I tear into pretty heavily. They have none of the limpness that an fast oil bath can sometimes impart, and I wonder aloud how they managed that trick.

The sous chef, Marie Souffront is immediately sent for, and she makes her case.

“We found a really good frozen product [for the fries],” she tells me. “Sweet-potato fried are really difficult to do with fresh potatoes. They’re really delicate and they’re hard to cut.”

Everything else – the aioli, the muffins, the pancakes – she assures me, are made with fresh sweet potatoes.

“It’s amazing how many things you can do with sweet potatoes,” she says.

The sweet-potato pecan pie here, however, just may be the best use of this particular tuber.

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