A Chef’s Table dines at Trade Street Diner
The little eatery might be called diner, but it’s a far cry from what you might envision. Trade Street Diner was the venue for the latest Chef’s Table. It’s always fun when the owner picks a “slow night” for the event, and then the place gets packed with us and walk-in patrons who get into the fun a little as plates of surprise courses whirled by.
Trade Street Diner opened last fall in Sweet Potatoes former residence at 529 N. Trade St. by two well-respected chefs and businessmen, John Tharp and Freddy Lee. Chef Lee has been in the restaurant industry for years and opened the beloved Bernardin’s with his brother in the ‘90s and since then a second Bernardin’s location in Charlotte, Bleu Restaurant & Bar and Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse. Tharp was the chef at Bleu for 10 years after relocating from New York. After some years working together, they partnered up to buy Town Centre Diner in Wallburg and last year decided to go a little higher end when the space in the Arts District came along. Tharp said both are diners, but the word diner is about all they share in common.
“It’s a modern take on a diner,” he said. “We give people a little more than what they expect. Town Centre is a family concept, breakfast, lunch and dinner. More homestyle choices and priced accordingly, with meat and two or three. Whereas Trade Street is a little more eclectic and higher end but simplistic in its approach.”
Chef Tharp said they took the concept and inspiration from Poole’s Diner in Raleigh.
“We felt like Winston-Salem needed something like that,” he said. “Something very approachable with mid-range prices. You can come two or three times a week, have a glass of wine, have a salad or mac and cheese, or share an appetizer, hang with friends or have a nice date.”
What the diners experienced at Trade Street Diner was something of a departure from the regular menu. This fully showed how Chef Tharp was intent on celebrating the flavors of the season but also demonstrated his creative side. Attendees of Chef’s Table know that there’s never a menu ahead of time (and often none at all, which is encouraged) and the guests are sort of at the chef’s whim. It does no good to cheat and check out the restaurant’s online menu. You may or may not see that item in front of you at the tasting. It was last week, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see these dishes in some form when you choose to visit this inviting diner.
We love getting a little palate teaser before the rest of the courses rolled out. This was Asian-inspired and had a nice little kick of wasabi oil. Enough that our table mate, Melissa, felt the need to alert us. But the wasabi walloped us a bit in the very best way.
A selection of fresh fish sautéed scallops. It was a beauty. Fresh seafood lovers, this dish is for you.
House-made Goat Cheese Ravioli with Pea Puree and Tomato Fondue
This light little ravioli was a true hit at my table. Chef Tharp is a big believer in making his own pasta, and though it’s not on the menu very often at the diner, the flavors of spring in this little dish made us wish we could go back for some more. Plus the look of it just said “spring.”
Seared Scallops with Crispy Potatoes
The course is pretty self-explanatory with seared scallops and potatoes with a bit of mushroom. The creamy sauce was a perfect consistency and added a lovely richness and coziness to the seafood component.
Filet with Red Pepper Sauce and Parsnip Puree
The filet lets you catch a glimpse of the steak you might order at Trade Street on any given night. The red pepper sauce was bright and flavorful and added a bright pop of color.
Triple Berry Cake with Dark Chocolate Mousse
If the mousse is ever on the menu at Trade Street Diner, we suggest you order it. It’s perfectly creamy and rich, and this dessert paired ever so perfectly with the diner’s freshly brewed coffee.
Chef Tharp has been in the restaurant industry since he was 14 years old, working his way up from bussing tables to attending culinary school at Johnston & Wales. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else,” he said. After working in Charleston, Chef Tharp decided to broaden his view of restaurants and moved to New York, where he was a sous chef at Tribeca Grill. “It really opened my mind because every plate had to be correct. There’s no room for error, which is typical of New York,” he said laid the groundwork for his focus today. “We have to make sure it’s the best at all times. We try for every dish to be as perfect as it can be.”
The menu at Trade Street Diner is set up to change often “We want the menu to be special enough that the customer keeps coming back,” Chef Tharp said. “It’s great concept to live by because it keeps me and it keeps the kitchen pushing to be better. We want to elevate the common food like a hushpuppy, and that reinforces what we’re really trying to do here. We want our guest to think, ‘Wow, what’s coming next because this is exceeding our expectations.’”
After speaking with Tharp, it’s clear this chef has some very interesting ideas for the dining scene in Winston-Salem. He also has goals to travel more to add breadth to his culinary skills.
“Some chefs are fortunate to travel to Asia and Europe to learn about spices and concepts and that’s something I’d like to do in the next five years or so, to travel often and learn about cultures and the food and put my own interpretation on it,” he said. “Food is food the world around typically it’s all been thought of. So new flavor combinations or ways to invoke a memory are what makes a restaurant different.”
May marks the two-year anniversary of Chef’s Table. What started out as a small group of local food lovers gathering together for an evening of surprise plates has continued with larger gatherings, new friendships and sell-out foodie events where we get to learn more about that chef and be surprised by what he or she is working on. Cheers to supporting our area chefs and restaurants and the local goodness they embrace.
To hear my podcast featuring Chef John Tharp, listen to “At the Table with Triadfoodies” on the Triad Podcast Network. triadpodcast.com
Kristi Maier is a food writer, blogger and cheerleader for all things local who even enjoys cooking in her kitchen, though her kidlets seldom appreciate her efforts.
Trade Street Diner is located at 529 N. Trade St., Winston-Salem. tradestreetdinerws.com Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, Brunch and dinner on Sunday.