Catfish. This one-word entrée on Oak Hill Café’s dinner menu seems simple enough. If you didn’t read the description beneath it, you’d expect the standard Southern fried preparation. When it arrives at the table, surprisingly, a bright blanket of golden sunflower petals—grown on the small farm plot out back—hides the milky catfish fillet. Beneath it, a bed of Carolina Gold rice is swathed in a sauce made from sunflower leaves. It’s a clever riff on the Indian dish saag paneer, with sunflower leaves standing in for spinach.
Oak Hill Café & Farm, the name of the white house perched on Poinsett Highway, is deceiving. While the moniker conjures up all the rustic charm due this restaurant, bedecked with handcrafted maple tables and lovely local artwork, it doesn’t fully prepare you for the menu’s innovation. Imagine going to the symphony expecting a familiar classical concert and, instead, being treated to a contemporary composition designed to challenge your perception of music. In the same way, the cuisine of Chef David Porras catches you off-guard.
While the lunch menu offers the likes of a legume and pork pastor bowl and a grilled falafel sandwich, dinner trots out trout tiradito (similar to a crudo) and caramelized miso eggplant. Many of the recipes are fleshed out in the upstairs “lab,” a haven for equipment that doesn’t fit in the kitchen—a freeze dryer, a hydrator, and a pressure cooker (that speaks Japanese!). In one corner sits a Rotovap (short for rotary evaporator), a contraption straight out of a chemistry lab like the one co-owner Lori Nelsen used to manage at Furman University. “It’s basically a fancy still,” she says, flashing a mischievous smile.
Schooled by Michelin-starred chefs at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastián, Spain, David Porras embraces the concept of molecular gastronomy. In the lab hang “mind maps,” white boards scribbled with notes and diagrams of dishes. “The idea is to give us a picture of the dish and the steps to make it happen,” explains Porras. Here, a stalk of rhubarb may be reimagined to resemble a vanilla bean, and watermelon manipulated to look like thin slices of carpaccio.
The wall behind the chef’s desk in his office upstairs is likewise littered with notes, charts, graphs, and scrawls, all part of his method of organization—essential to corral his constant flow of creative thoughts into some kind of order.
The restaurant, which has been open for breakfast and lunch for several months now, contains a small market just inside the entrance, where a glass case shows off fresh breads and pastries, and shelves lay out just-picked produce from the café’s garden, along with pre-made soups, stocks, entrées, and desserts to go. Dinner service didn’t debut until September. They’ve been inching up to dinner intentionally, leaving time to perfect menus and polish service before sharing them with the public. As Porras tells me, “This first year is about learning, from the farm to the kitchen staff.”
If the café is a symphony, Porras and Nelsen are its conductors. “David and I have to be entrepreneurs, managers, and technicians,” Lori says. They direct the various parts of their orchestra: the menus, the kitchen, the bar, the guests. Together, they set the tempo for this culinary opus.
Photography by Paul Mehaffey