Jeff Carter, the original Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro chef, has returned to his roots
Before anything else, make a note to visit the Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro in Townsend and order Executive Chef Jeff Carter’s North Carolina Rainbow Trout and Grits. A cornmeal-dusted trout is served atop creamy grits, Conecuh Sausage from Evergreen, Alabama, gulf shrimp, crayfish, and preserved tomatoes in an irresistible presentation. The trout is crunchy with a savory fresh-caught flavor. “It’s a take on the original Dancing Bear menu,” says Carter, “bringing the original Dancing Bear to the new Dancing Bear. It’s an effort to bring authentic Appalachian cuisine to the Low Country.” Tall and lanky, with dark hair, a well-trimmed goatee, a ready smile, and an easygoing manner, Carter could easily pass as the friendly bass player in a bluegrass band.
Back in 2006, Carter moved from Blackberry Farm to become the first chef at the Dancing Bear, where he made his Appalachian-inspired regional culinary statement for three years. For the past six years, Carter has been the executive chef for the Aubrey’s chain and especially visible as the 2018 Top Chefs second place winner, the 2019 double entrée and dessert winner, and the creative genius behind Sunspot’s tantalizing tacos, superb soups and salads, and fan-favorite burgers—both the black bean and meat variety.
In the meantime, Dancing Bear burned down in 2013. Entrepreneurs Mark and Sharon Oldham, who had grown to love the Smokies during their years at the University of Tennessee, bought the property, rebuilt it, and relaunched in 2015 under several excellent chefs who were—each in his or her way—faithful to the mission of genuine Appalachian cuisine.
Last April, when Carter heard that the executive chef position was open, he decided to make a switch. “I love this area,” he says. “This restaurant has a special place in my heart.” Amid the tall trees just off Lamar Alexander Parkway, the Dancing Bear has a hunting lodge feel with wood beams, bark walls, and a roaring fire in a majestic fireplace. Responding to the demand for outdoor eating spaces during the pandemic, the Oldhams have added comfortable covered and heated patio and porch areas that enable diners to be even closer to the budding trees and luscious landscaping. The firepit is a great place to relax and let your meal settle, with an ample supply of graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate bars available to bring memories of summer s’mores to life.
One winner on the “To Share” section of the menu is the crunchy, slightly spicy green and red Blistered Shisito Peppers. Their taste explodes in the mouth thanks to preserved garden pepper vinaigrette, toasted peanuts, Noble Springs Dairy goat feta cheese, house-made chipotle mayo, and cilantro.
Under “To Start,” the Butternut Squash Soup with Golden Delicious apples, crispy heirloom sage, smoked pepitas, and fall spice echoes Carter’s previous triumphs, as does the Poached Pear Salad, featuring red-wine poached pears, rosemary pistachios, crumbled blue cheese, Banyuls-sorghum vinaigrette, charred grapes, and bitter greens. The French company Banyuls ages its red wine vinegar in oak barrels, giving it a light but potent flavor, and the sorghum provides the sweetness.
Among “The Mains,” the Pork Tenderloin with red beans and rice places a cider-brined Cheshire pork tenderloin atop braised Anson Mills calico beans with Benton’s country ham, Carolina Gold rice, house chow-chow, and red-eye vinaigrette. The roasted Bison short ribs are firm and tasty, served atop creamy grits with a preserved lemon gremolada and braised au jus. The taste of the striped bass is amplified by creamy mussel velouté on wild rice with radicchio fennel slaw.
In a nod to genuine Appalachian ingredients, Carter offers a light and fluffy parsnip, apple, and almond cake—a twist on the more familiar carrot, orange, and walnut variety—with apple butter cream icing, crispy parsnip ribbons, and cider reduction on the side. When guests come from out of town, make sure to take them to enjoy fine dining in the shadow of the Smokies.