Chef Justin Burdett Presents a Flavor-Focused, Locally Inspired Taste of Appalachia

When you walk into Ruka’s Table in Highlands, North Carolina, prepare to be transported to a place a bit earthier that what has become the norm in the mountain vacation town. Home to just 1,000 year-round residents, the town’s dining establishments typically cater to those visiting in the warmer months. The boom that took place in the 60s has many of the same folks who visited the region as children continuing to return year after year. Falling into their comfortable routine, any of the local dining establishments have too fallen into a comfortable routine of replicating the 1960s menus these visitors came to know those many years ago.

If traditional, banquet style food is in fact your dining preference, you may want to stop reading now. If you would regard yourself as a more progressive, ingredient conscious diner in search of inspired meals and rich flavor, read on. For a sustainably minded, foraging chef, stop into Ruka’s for a real taste of the Highlands and all the flavors the region has to offer.

The Décor:

Offering a lunch and dinner service, the dining room offers a polished appearance with warm, comfortable tones. Straddling the line of progressive and traditional, the large, copper-topped bar is adorned with a variety of house-made pickles.

The floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace, dining-room-length chalkboard with a listing of the farms utilized for sourcing, and mason jar candle holders add just enough of a rustic feel without getting lodgy.

Rukas Table Main Dining Room

The Service:

The service at Ruka’s is an apparent team effort and perhaps in need of a minor polish. Casual and informative, there’s certainly no complaint possible about hovering. Because of the unique ingredients and stories involved in each meal, a quick explanation from the staff upon presentation to the table could prove valuable in reinforcing the quality of ingredients and style of preparation. Aside from the one, minor suggestion, the Ruka’s Table staff offered an exceptional experience and were very accommodating to our unique requests.

The Cocktails and Appetizers:

Delivered to the table in the traditional copper mug, the Moscow Mule featured a refreshing ginger base with a slight bite. The Dark and Stormy was equally refreshing and enjoyable during our heavy appetizer course. The Charcuterie platter came garnished with the chef’s house-made pickled radishes, berries, and fig jam – an absolute showstopper between the heavy lardo and house-made sausage. The cheese platter, complete with a house-made Manchego would make an excellent, small plate snack if stopping in for drinks. The final of our three appetizers was an expertly fried serving of gulf oysters. They were so highly recommended in reviews that we felt obligated to try them – a decision we were certainly pleased with.

The Main Event:

As the main course arrived, a quail dish, local trout, sirloin, and a variety of side dishes, the generous portion sizes were a bit overwhelming. It was something of a flashback to a Southern Sunday supper with extra care taken for the plating and of course, the flavor. Each meal well prepared and rich with local flavors, it was difficult to find where the chef had faltered. In lieu of failures, I’ll opt for a hierarchy of Chef Justin Burdett’s excellence.

The quail alone will be cause for a drive back to Highlands. Perhaps it will even be responsible for a few multi-hour detours to and from other regional hot spots. At a close second was the trout. Sourced from Sunburst Trout Farm, a name that has come to be synonymous with excellence in the region, it was no surprise that Chef Justin’s light seasoning of the protein was all that was necessary to bring out the great, natural flavor in the meal. Finally, in third was a not so average, but not quite as impressive sirloin from Brasstown Beef. While well prepared, it lacked the progression of flavor the other entrees possessed – a bit one-noted. For the more conservative diners, it’s certainly a safe and satisfying bet.

The fried okra stood out from the side offerings with an excellent coating and unique presentation. Cut lengthwise, the vegetable to coating ratio was much more satisfying than the typical mini pieces provided in average southern restaurants. The locally sourced grits were a good stop between the rich main course flavors and offered a light and airy texture – a surprising alternative to the many dense grits dishes chefs lean to.

Ruka's Table Entrees

The Sweet Endings:

For those with a sweet tooth, consider the chocolate tart. While I’m generally one for a savory ending to the meal, the texture was perfect and the other diners were quite fond of the flavor.

The Takeaway:

For a meal that elevates local flavors and integrates modern preparation to Appalachian and Southern cuisine, a trip to Ruka’s Table is certain to be enjoyed. As one of three restaurants open year-round, be sure to detour down Highway 64 in North Carolina regardless of the season. From winter’s kale to summer’s radishes, Chef Justin Burdett will have an exceptional offering primed for your arrival.

Ruka’s Table is open seven days per week and is now open for lunch. Call ahead to verify seasonal hours of operation. Visit www.rukastable.com for a look at the menu or call 828.526.3636 to speak with their staff.

Want to learn more about the chef responsible for these culinary creations? Visit our Interview Spotlight on Chef Justin Burdett.

Chelsea B. Sanz
Chelsea B. Sanz

Chelsea Sanz has lived in East Tennessee since her family moved here from South Florida just before she started high school. While she initially begrudged her new home state, she eventually realized she had come to not only love it, but to “bleed orange” as University of Tennessee Volunteers fans here like to say. She and her boyfriend Hunter, a trail worker for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, enjoy exploring the nation’s most visited national park and coming up with their own farm-to-table recipes.

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