Caleb Smallwood doesn’t take the easy road.
The 31-year-old executive chef at Tessa Farm to Fork is the kind of person who is unwilling to just show up to class and be marked “present.” It would be a mistake to describe any commercial cooking gig as easy — it’s time-intensive manual labor and generally pretty thankless and anonymous (especially around here), the kind of work that will grind down your body and eat up your entire schedule. Yet Smallwood is the sort of head chef who pushes things a step further.
It’s not just where he’s sourcing ingredients from, emphasizing local whenever possible as part of a growing local segment of the national farm-to-fork movement. That one’s sort of obvious, given the name of the northwest Greensboro restaurant he joined back in February a few months after it opened. It’s also the energy imbued in Smallwood’s cooking.
Take, for example, the chicken & waffles I ordered when I showed up recently for brunch. The name pretty much says it all, and while Dame’s does an incredible job with the dish, offering a collage of choices for how each component is prepared, most venues are content to churn out basic entrees with little to no inventive flair. Smallwood, meanwhile, put forward a delicious and memorable chicken confit — rare in its own right —and served it with poached watermelon, feta, peach habanero sauce and a touch of basil.
It tasted so good that I didn’t even add maple syrup, not wanting to drown the chorus of flavors in sugar.
The BLT biscuit, also featured on the brunch menu, starred local pork belly, goat pimiento cheese, roasted heirloom tomato and local greens and jam. Arby’s can pretend all it wants that it offers a pork belly sandwich — the commercials for the thing make it look like glazed dog food — but it will never touch the kind of elevated cuisine Smallwood is providing.
Let’s not give undue credit; it’s easier to be creative as a head chef, and that kind of culinary freedom is something most cooks only dream about. And while farm-to-fork dining isn’t exactly mainstream, especially here, it certainly isn’t novel. There are other creative chefs in the Triad who do both.
But Smallwood should be ranked among them, and with him Tessa itself, the year-old restaurant on Battleground Avenue that is one of the last stops on the thoroughfare before leaving Greensboro city limits.
It’s good to see another restaurant that prioritizes fresh, local and seasonal fare succeeding, especially one that’s putting forward interesting and tasty food. Tessa is in sort of a weird spot, tucked back from the road on the left as you leave town behind an Elizabeth’s Pizza where it would be easy to overlook. It’s far enough out of the central rotation that the downtown crowd could miss it entirely, and its distance from other like establishments makes it less appealing for a nice dinner out before grabbing drinks elsewhere.
That’s unfortunate, because Tessa is open for dinner five days a week, with choices including Sneads Ferry crab cakes with local greens, crispy cauliflower, marscapone, golden beet marmalade and a fried local egg or local chimichurri beef with cheesy wheat pasta and crispy shallots. And those are just some of the appetizers.
Dinner at Tessa is an expensive affair; the cheapest entree currently listed online is the $27 fennel-crusted chicken confit, unless either of the two market price dishes end up dipping below that watermark. That’s the price of responsibly sourced, thoughtful and delicious food that’s presented like art, but if the price tag is too high, the lunch and brunch menu rates are far more palatable and in line with the city’s average. Consider instead the $12 lunch with heirloom grain risotto, traditional mirepoix, preserved lemon and cayenne gastrique or the $10 butternut squash salad with smoked local honey, nut crumble and chevre.
Given the location, which is far flung to some but convenient to the Lake Brandt area, it’s good that Tessa holds a liquor license, plying its own signature cocktails in addition to a sizeable wine list and more than a dozen in-state craft beers. The cooking of the long-haired, tattooed Smallwood is reason enough to make the trek from anywhere in the Triad, and the drink list should be a worthwhile excuse to stick around.
Visit Tessa Farm to Fork at 3929 Battleground Ave. (GSO) or at tessagreensboro.com.