“Let me cook for you.” There are no sweeter words to a food-lover’s ear, especially when they’re spoken by a chef. This is the raison d’être behind Azalea Bistro, a little restaurant on Main Street in Saluda, North Carolina, where Chef Garrett Tallent and his wife, Emma, cultivate a true sense of community.
Garrett grew up in Winston-Salem, but his family has roots in Alsace-Lorraine, a region on the border of Germany and France. While he appreciates the German food he ate growing up, it was French cuisine that really lit his fire. “French food was always a part of our culture,” he remembers. “I tried snails for the first time when I was nine and I never looked back.”
After graduating from culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, Tallent headed to New York City. Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Eric Ripert are but a few of the eminent chefs with whom Tallent has worked. So if you’re wondering what someone with his credentials is doing hidden away in Saluda, you’re not alone. As it happens, his in-laws retired here several years ago at the same time Garrett and Emma were looking to leave the rat race in Charlotte, where the chef launched his Bon Vivant catering company. They moved to Saluda last winter and opened Azalea Bistro in April.
“I’ve tried to create food that speaks to my history, my background, and the fact that my family is German-Alsace,” Garrett says. That background also includes living for a time in Charleston, South Carolina, his wife’s hometown. While there, he was smitten with the authenticity of Lowcountry cuisine. Dishes such as classic she-crab soup, and crab, corn, and lobster cakes with truffle Dijon aioli fuse flavors of France and the Lowcountry on the bistro’s menu.
Even the décor of the renovated dining space, with its white beadboard paneling, whitewashed brick, haint-blue ceiling (a Gullah custom to repel haints, or spirits of the dead), and oil paintings of Lowcountry landscapes, evoke the breezy hospitality of the coast. “To me, the bistro feels like you’re sitting on a really nice Southern front porch,” notes Emma.
Though Garrett has a degree in baking and pastry, “I am by nature a saucier,” he claims, referring to his love of the thick sauces, demi-glace, and beurre blanc he knew in Alsace. This proclivity shines in his garlicky escargot sauté, couched in a delicate brandy beurre blanc with caramelized pearl onions, oyster mushrooms, and heirloom cherry tomatoes; and a meltingly tender Benne seed-crusted bison filet, brightened—in flavor and color—by a ruby-red lingonberry demi-glace. The chef gets playful with his nightly amuse-bouche, and the seafood specials that rely on the fresh day-boat catch from North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
“What I really want to do is make solid bistro food that everyone can relate to on some level,” Garrett shares. “I want my guests to understand how much care we put into this little place. I want them to take away a sense of contentment and satisfaction, like they’ve met a new friend.” That feeling of genuine welcome, of being cared for, infuses this little bistro, where the chef is always happy to cook for you.
For more information, visit azaleabistro.com