By Ric Kolenda
Dec. 17, 2014. After well over a quarter of a century in their Banner Elk location, proprietors Patrick and Laurie Bagbey have managed to precisely cut that fine line between tradition and innovation that keeps visitors and locals alike coming back year after year. The couple did not create this local institution, but as Louisiana Purchase celebrated its 30th anniversary in September, the Bagbeys are so clearly proud to continue offering the loving approach to food and wine that their predecessors demonstrated before them.
This should come as no surprise, since the restaurant has only changed hands twice in three decades – and both to former employees and chef-owners associated with and committed to the founder’s vision.
The restaurant was established in 1984 by Fabian Botta, a Buenos Aires native who emigrated to the United States with his family at the age of 12, after opening the Tack Room in Foscoe in 1977 and The Village Cafe in Blowing Rock in 1980.
Before moving to the High Country, Botta worked in Atlanta’s Joe Dale’s Cajun House, where he learned the art of Cajun cooking.
“I wanted to do something that was created in our country, so I picked the idea of New Orleans and the spiciness and the fun with the fish and the whole culture and mixture of French and Creole and everything else,” Botta said.
He noted that when he first started cooking Cajun style, residents and tourists in the High Country weren’t very aware of Cajun food, nor spicy cuisines in general. But it was soon clear that he had caught the zeitgeist, because that style exploded with the publication of the now classic Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen that same year. According to Botta, Prudhomme’s book and immediate status as one of the original “celebrity chefs” helped spread the idea of Cajun cooking to people in the mountains.
Though Botta sold the restaurant in 1985 to Mark Rosse, who was chef and manager at the time, Botta still returns as a guest chef from time to time. He praised both Rosse and the Bagbeys for keeping the Louisiana Purchase tradition alive in the High Country.
“They are doing a great job,” Botta said of the Bagbeys. “I have a restaurant here on the coast now, and I hear people talking about [Louisiana Purchase] all the time.”
Botta left the restaurant in the fall of 1985 to open additional restaurants down the mountain. Rosse didn’t want to move with him, so he decided to buy the Louisiana Purchase from Botta. Rosse expanded the restaurant, doubling the space when a next-door unit became available.
He enhanced the menu and then stocked the restaurant with so much wine that he had the second-largest wine list for a restaurant in North Carolina for years. The wine offerings went from 35 wines initially to nearly 400 wines in 1990. The restaurant has won the Wine Spectator’s “Best of Award of Excellence” honor, a recognition that only a miniscule percentage of restaurants earn per year, more than 20 times.
While Rosse said he’s always enjoyed cooking and working in the restaurant industry, it was time for him to sell the restaurant in 2003. So just weeks before his impending nuptials, and like his predecessor, Rosse sold the restaurant to the two people he felt were best able to carry on the torch with Louisiana Purchase: Patrick and Laurie Bagbey, chef and manager, respectively.
“If I would have sold it to anybody else, it wouldn’t be here today,” Rosse said. “I have complete confidence in that.”
And Rosse, like Botta, drops in every once in a while. He noted that its fun and “good for me” to catch up with patrons he used to serve and check out the old stomping grounds.
Chef Patrick Bagbey began his association with the Purchase soon after moving to the High Country in 1998 at age 21, when he was offered some shifts as a part-time dishwasher.
From there he worked on the line at a few “corporate” restaurants before finding himself back in Rosse’s kitchen full-time, where he rose to run the kitchen before becoming the third chef-owner. Bagbey had always loved cooking, which he picked up while helping in the kitchen for family events back in his small Virginia hometown. And while he did not attend a formal culinary school, he knows now that he was fortunate to have worked in a place where things were done correctly. “Working here was my culinary training; I had everything I needed right here.”
And of course during that time he met his now wife and business partner, Laurie, a Winston-Salem native who managed the front of the house after a stint at what was then the Emporium in Blowing Rock. You can hear the love and pride that the couple has for this place, and it shows in their food and hospitality.
Upon arriving for our recent visit, we were greeted warmly by Laurie, who seated us at a lovely window table. Scanning the dining room, I was definitely reminded of visits to the French Quarter, with the white tablecloths and white walls, splashed with colorful prints and murals, of classic New Orleans fine dining. But despite the upscale appearance, there was also a warmth that seems to invite the diners to relax and enjoy their evening.
After settling into our seats, we began with a round of cocktails. I chose the New Orleans classic Sazerac, which was a bit different from some that I’ve had, but quite tasty in its own right. And barely a few sips in, the first course began. We asked for a selection of the chef’s favorites, and we were not disappointed. The veal pâté ($15) was a perfectly-spiced country-style slab of veal liver, served with crusty French bread and pickled okra replacing the traditional cornichon. The salads were as beautiful to the eye as they were to the tongue. We especially enjoyed exotic greens ($12), with its crispy Kataifi dough-wrapped Boursin. They get their greens from nearby Charlotte’s Greenhouse when available and other local ingredients whenever possible.
By this time our cocktails had somehow magically disappeared and were replaced with some fine French sparkling wine; a perfect accompaniment for what was to come next. No trip to the Big Easy would be complete without the seafood course – in this case a half-dozen perfectly baked oysters ($15) with Pancetta, spinach & Gruyere, and a sumptuous version of the French classic Coquilles St. Jacques ($15), served in scallop shells. Très magnifique!
Fortunately we took our time in devouring these dishes, because the main event was worth saving room for. And for the main course, we chose a lovely wine from their massive, and award-winning cellar. What was already arguably the best wine list in the High Country got even better when Rosse expanded into what is now the main dining room and upstairs bar areas. And while the cellar can now hold up to 900 wines at any given time, we could have easily been happy with one of the 14 wines in their impressive Cruvinet, a temperature-controlled wine preservation and dispensing system.
I was glad there were three of us in my party, because I wanted to try everything. But again, asking Chef Patrick’s advice, he brought us three remarkable entrées. The chicken ($29) was a bit undersold on the menu, but the Ashley Farms breast served over cheddar risotto was juicy and delicious, as was the charred broccolini accompanying it. The hanger steak ($34) won the evening for one of my dining companions.
“Best I’ve ever had,” she said, and I know for a fact that she’s had a few others before this. It was certified Black Angus, rubbed with harissa, a North African spiced chili paste used with many meat and vegetable dishes from that region, and served with a yummy quinoa salad, curried okra, tatziki, fried spinach and a pomegranate reduction. And finally, my personal favorite, and the chef’s special that evening: breaded veal grillades with stoneground grits, rainbow chard, haricot verts and carrots. The tender veal was smothered in a flavorful roux, which when combined with the grits was both intriguing and satisfying, and the veggies were perfectly seasoned and cooked.
I didn’t think we could manage dessert after all that, but we could hardly resist when offered chocolate bourbon pecan pie à la mode; homemade double dark chocolate whoopie pie filled with Godiva mousse; and freshly made ice creams with a caramelized cookie. The diet started the next day.
By this time, the dining room was emptying out, and Laurie and Chef Patrick finally had a chance to stop by the table to see what we thought. Their commitment to their craft, and to the satisfaction of their patrons, was very clear as they spoke passionately about their food and the diners who return week after week, and season after season. Banner Elk is a seasonable destination, but one gets the sense that their regulars would be glad to be able to visit year-round.
So don’t let those fancy white tablecloths fool you; the Purchase is about delectable food, amazing wines, lovely cocktails and good times. Or as they say in New Orleans, “laissez les bon temps roulez!”
Louisiana Purchase is located at 397 Shawneehaw Avenue South in Banner Elk. For more information, click to www.louisianapurchasefoodandspirits.com or call 828-963-5087.
Photos by Ken Ketchie