At Terra, it's all about the flavor

Mike Davis, executive chef at Terra, is getting noticed

otaylor@thestate.comFebruary 7, 2010 

Tom-ato.

Tom-ato.

The pronunciation debate is negligible, but a discourse on quality and taste ... well, there really isn't a need for one if you're talking to Mike Davis, executive chef at Terra.

"There's nothing like a summertime tomato," he said while sitting at a table in the West Columbia restaurant one recent afternoon before dinner prep began.

"You eat a tomato in August when it's meant to be eaten to enjoy it at the height of its power."

And the power of a tomato now?

"You eat a tomato right now that you would get at a grocery store that was grown in a greenhouse somewhere and pulled when it was half ripe and then gassed," Davis began, his syllable-pace increasing.

"Then the flavor is completely different."

It's all about flavor for Davis, a chef whose contemporary Southern cuisine packs a gastronomic punch, the kind of taste-savoring and unexpected ingredient combinations that get a cook noticed.

On Tuesday, Davis will present dishes for a banquet of guests at the James Beard House, the prestigious New York venue that showcases diverse culinary approaches.

The diners will get a taste of what Davis offers nightly at his restaurant on the corner of Gervais and State streets. And Davis will get the kind of exposure only select chefs enjoy.

Chefs who are invited to the Beard House scrutinize every component of their food - including the tomatoes - and they treat dining like an experience.

"We set our standards high," said Howard Jarrett, Terra's general manager. "By them picking us, it proves we're on the right path. It reaffirms what we're doing."

ON TERRA FIRMA

Lounging at Terra's bar on a recent Friday night, one noticed that most tables seemed to be the site of animated conversations.

It happens the first time you eat a wood-oven pizza such as Duck Confit, which is topped with delicately shredded duck meat, caramelized onions and port-soaked cherries.

"I've heard of Mike Davis," said Rich Ouellette, who was eating with friends Julie Blackwell and Kellie Wise. "Everything we had was amazing."

"Look at the menu. It's so varied," Blackwell said.

"It's eclectic," added Ouellette, an owner of the Art Shack, the gallery and cafe combination off Rosewood Drive. "It's the closest I've tasted to Charleston" cuisine.

Jarrett wore his spectacles on the top of his head and carried a cordless phone in his back pocket as he chatted with guests. The servers blended into the restaurant's rustic ambiance.

Instead of asking customers about their food, Jarrett inquired about their evening.

"We're detail-driven," he said. "This is a dining experience for people."

In one corner of the low-lit restaurant - table 50 in Terra parlance - Bryant Faries ate with his wife, Emily. A bottle of champagne chilled on the table as they dined on grilled veal hanger steak (smoked pork, butternut squash, wild mushroom risotto and bourbon chicken jus) and Louisiana crawfish etouffe (a crawfish stew with basmati rice and a grilled baguette).

The Faries were celebrating an anniversary: It was a year to the date that Bryant proposed to Emily as they dined in the same booth.

"We actually had our first date here as well," said Emily, after she and Faries settled at the bar for a post-dinner cocktail.

They were joined by friends Nate Furr and Emma Zunker, who were experiencing their first night at Terra. (They sat at separate tables.)

"The thought and the preparation that goes into the food is what keeps us coming back," Bryant said. "It's kind of easy to grasp, and it's so damn good."

Andy Haddock, Terra's bartender, is quick to recommend a drink - or concoct something entirely new for diners, like a chilled and shaken espresso martini that was dangerously delicious.

Zunker tried one, while Furr sipped Grand Marnier.

"She's wanted to come for two years," Furr said, while Bryant Faries pulled up the where-should-we-eat Facebook chat he had with Furr earlier in the day on his phone.

"When people come to town, we come here," Emma said.

And they stay for a while - past 11 p.m. on this night - because the guests at Terra are always well-received.

As the couples walked to the door, Furr and Bryant joined Haddock in this refrain from "Hotel California": "You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave."

'SUCH A PICKY EATER'

Davis, 35, could be labeled as a deconstructionist.

"Quack" Madame, his take on the ham sandwich, is duck confit, caramelized onion, toasted brioche, fried quail egg and arugula salad.

Growing up in Dothan, Ala., he would've balked at such a combination.

"As a kid, I was such a picky eater," he said. "I ate few vegetables and hamburgers with just the meat and cheese."

Davis didn't start cooking until while at college at the University of Alabama. (Davis went to Pasadena, Calif., to watch the Crimson Tide roll over Texas.) Davis then attended Johnson & Wales, the culinary school in Charleston.

He moved to New Orleans, where he worked at Bayona as the sous chef for James Beard award-winner Susan Spicer. From there, Davis went to work for another Beard winner, Frank Stitt, at Chez Fon Fon in Birmingham, Ala. Both helped refine Davis' knowledge of how to let local ingredients sparkle on a plate.

He opened Terra in 2005 in the spot that formerly housed Mangia! Mangia! Davis is involved with Slow Food Columbia, which supports better growing and eating practices, as well as the use of locally grown products.

"I don't think you can overstate the farm to the table," customer Bryant Faries said, referring to Davis' uses of local ingredients.

Including tomatoes.

Davis, who regularly works 13 hours a day, five days a week, refers to Terra as "ingredient-driven contemporary Southern food that leans toward simplicity."

But it isn't so simple coming up with dishes that pair roasted golden beets, lentils and sherry mustard butter with grilled Atlantic salmon.

"Right now, I'm going through a writer's block kind of thing," Davis said. "Everything feels forced. I just can't really come up with a dish that I'm super stoked about."

The salmon dish, which has a wintry and earthy flavor, is doing fine, Mike. It's the vinegar.

"It's something bright. It adds that sweet yet tartness to it," Davis said as he deconstructed the dish. "It adds a different layer to the flavor and rises humble lentil to something a little more tasty."

Shani Gilchrist, who writes the foodie and design blog Camille Maurice (http://camillemaurice.com), said Davis' food is quirky.

"It's special to Columbia because he takes traditional French and Southern cuisine and presents it with a twist," said Gilchrist, who will attend the Beard dinner.

"Quack" Madame is her favorite dish.

"It's kind of got a fluffy character," she said. "The texture is what really got me. It was very pleasant to feel as well as taste."

After a recent dinner service, Davis walked behind the bar to fill his clear plastic cup with fountain Coke. He wore a New Orleans Saints hat, the team he will cheer for during tonight's Super Bowl.

"We're proud of you," a male diner said, holding up a flyer announcing Terra will be closed Tuesday and Wednesday for the Beard House dinner.

"We have some friends who are hardcore about you right now," his female companion said.

'A PLACE FOR EMERGING CHEFS'

James Beard was a chef, author, teacher and mentor.

Beard, who established himself in New York in 1955, was a chef who taught to eat locally and seasonally. He also countered the technology of the era, such as canning, which was supposed to make cooking easier.

Beard thought eating should be about flavor.

"Cooking shouldn't be a chore. It should be an absolute pleasure," Izabela Wojcik, director of house programming for the James Beard Foundation, said of Beard's philosophy.

The foundation was established in 1986 to honor Beard, who died a year earlier. It raised money to purchase his New York home and convert it to a culinary destination. The foundation's other programs include industry awards, scholarships and publications.

In 1988, the foundation began showcasing chefs. Wolfgang Puck, a then-unknown who is now one of the world's most famous chefs, was the first to prepare a meal at the James Beard House.

"He set the tone that this could be a place for emerging chefs," and not a glorified bake sale, Wojcik said. "That history of having so many great cooks cooking here when they were just starting out or only moderately known adds to the prestige."

What about Davis caught her eye?

"There's always the charm of Southern-inspired food," she said. "Those kind of traditions always speak highly in New York."

Everything about Southern cooking plays well - expect the use of rabbit, which Davis had planned to use in a braised dish.

"They said that rabbit turns people off in New York," he said. "They said, 'You might want to choose something else.' At first, I was taken aback and like damn them, I'm going to show myself."

A mentor advised him to not use rabbit. The Madeira-braised South Carolina squab will be served with wild mushroom fricassee and corn spoonbread.

"It's a great representation of Southern (cooking) dressed up in Sunday's best," Davis said of his menu. "It's taking traditional Southern ingredients and dressing them up, and that's something that I think is a big thing.

"They're bringing me up there to show a representation of what we do at Terra."

Davis sounded confident. He'll prep at the Beard House Monday.

"I'll get accustomed to the workspace and put everything where I want to have it put so when we go in there Tuesday, it will just be finishing up the prep, and like another service."

The first dinner course: Port Royal shrimp remoulade, Benton's country ham and fried green tomato salad.

That's how you eat a tomato in the winter.

Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.

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