Life in one meal: A Chef’s Table at Sophie’s Cork and Ale
Some “foodies” say having breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert all in one meal would be life.
Well, at last week’s Triadfoodies Chef’s Table, Chef John Wilson gave us life.
Sophie’s Cork and Ale opened in June 2016 just in time for alcohol sales to become legal in Davidson County. Uptown Lexington was already making the turn to become a little hot spot for eats. Sophie’s is Dave and Cynthia Milligan’s first restaurant venture and has landed itself as the spot for wine and craft beer and also small plates and shareable portions packed with local ingredients. After seeing photos of Chef Wilson’s food, which are always packed with color and texture, we paid a visit to Sophie’s and were really impressed with the atmosphere of the wine bar as well as the food.
The Milligans hired Wilson after learning about him from Chef Dion Sprenkle, who they had brought in as a consultant. “He found me and I found him and he trained me a bit on how they wanted things,” Wilson told me. “Originally they wanted to do just small bites and cheese courses and things like that, but I really just wanted to take it to another level. I knew we could become more here and do something different than Lexington has ever seen.”
Wilson actually grew up in Lexington and got his culinary start in high school working in country clubs and most recently at Willow’s Bistro in Winston-Salem, where he says he learned much about using local ingredients. “I really wanted to come back to Lexington and show them what I’ve learned and give the town something that it was missing.” The menu at Sophie’s has traditional items like crab cakes, flatbreads and salads as well as pub fare, all in an ever so tiny kitchen with simple induction burners, no fryers and only a couple of people working in the back. Wilson’s burgers are actually becoming something the young chef is known for. “I love to take classic sandwiches and dishes and turn them into burgers,” Wilson told me. “The reason I make them so big is because I have a small kitchen and I’m limited by not having a fryer for french fries. I do have some side items but I make these burgers fat so you’ll get nice and full. When I go out to eat burgers, I want a big one so I make them like I like them.”
Duck bacon Benedict on a cheddar biscuit with duck fat hollandaise & Early’s Honey Hickory Smoked Sausage & Brussel hash
I just love benedicts and the savory side of breakfast. Duck fat is already a truly special ingredient to cook with. This dish had it all for me. It was big enough to stop there. But we had three more courses of life to go. Despite its size though, some of our guests wanted seconds. The beauty and delectableness of the dish had most of us wondering…” why exactly isn’t Sophie’s open for brunch?”
Pork Belly Banh Mi Taco
Chef Wilson was inspired by the traditional banh mi, which is served on a fresh roll and layered with meat, crisp veggies and herbs. Here, he took a succulent piece of pork belly perfectly seared and topped with the pickled daikon radish, carrots, cilantro and a drizzle of sriracha. It was beautiful and tasted as wonderful as it looked.
“Stout trout” fish & chips with avocado tartar sauce & malt vinegar microgreen garden salad
Chef Wilson called this dish a Southern twist on the classic with North Carolina trout and North Carolina stout beer.
Butternut squash pie with graham cracker crust & homemade banana nut bread pumpkin ice cream sandwich
This dessert though.
You’d think you couldn’t improve much on the lovely, autumnal flavors of a pumpkin pie. Taking some inspiration for that, Wilson knocked it out of the park with this delicately spiced pie, which was on a homemade graham cracker crust and topped with homemade whipped cream. Alongside, a sweet little ice cream sandwich with homemade banana bread (Chef Wilson’s mom’s recipe) and homemade pumpkin ice cream. Eye-rolling good. Also, did you catch all the homemade in that description?
Cynthia Milligan said Chef Wilson had been “chomping at the bit” to do a dinner that featured all the day’s meals. “John has taught me so much about putting flavors together,” she said. “He’s so talented and I’ve learned not to question him at all.” Wilson admitted that he’s been especially wanting to serve a breakfast for dinner dish and that our event was the perfect time to do it.
It really was a beautifully thought-out dinner and so very different than any other Chef’s Tables over the past 18 months. Sophie’s is a treasure in the Triad and really highlights the kind of food scene that is headed to Lexington, which has been known for its barbecue since forever.
The wine bar has a solid local following, which was evident by their support for the Chef’s Table, but it’s beginning to be well-known to folks who live outside of Lexington and is convenient to those traveling between the Triad, Salisbury and Charlotte areas. Fortunately, a couple dozen people who have never been to Sophie’s now know what a talented Chef Wilson is.
Wilson said he welcomes folks who want to give their lunch or dinner a try. “I just love playing with different ingredients and doing things with food that you might not have ever thought of,” he said. “ I love working with the local farmers here. The products grown here are just amazing. I love cooking with local ingredients. it makes the food taste like home and I think people really appreciate that.”
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.
Sophie’s Cork & Ale is located at 23 West 2nd Avenue, Lexington. Open for 11am-9pm Tuesday through Thursday; 11am-midnight Friday; 4pm-midnight Saturday. sophiescorkandale.com Follow them on social media for daily specials.