Chef & the Farmer reopens

fried sea mullet with miso-cucumber tartar sauce & crisp lemon slices

When I told Ben Knight that I smelled smoke when I walked into Chef & the Farmer, his eyes got as big as saucers. I guess it was a little soon to make a fire joke – and I knew the scent was from the new wood-fired oven. The acclaimed Kinston, N.C. restaurant, where Knight is manager and his wife Vivian Howard is chef, was heavily damaged in a January fire. It reopened on Tuesday with a shiny new kitchen, redesigned server station and some different things on the menu.

Howard used the forced closing to read up on new techniques and hone her skills at a Chicago whole-animal butcher. He goal was to add eastern North Carolina-style charcuterie to the menu, and it was already present. She turned two pigs, who had been born the week of the fire, into items on the opening-night menu: pork belly skewers with candied bell peppers, “canadian bacon” (more like prosciutto, and awesome) with new potato and pickled ramp salad, and green garlic sausage with red peas and cabbage. Sausage from the piggies also was in a new item, the Pimp My Grits menu of creamy grits with additions like pimento cheese and greens.

It’s hard for me to walk by pork belly, and this one paired not-too-salty belly with sweet-spicy peppers. On

'canadian bacon,' new potato-pickled ramp salad, horseradish-bacon vinaigrette, crackin' cornbread

the Share Plate menu was mullet, which you rarely see in restaurants and I’d never tasted. It was crispy fried with a miso-cucumber tartar sauce. She had also fried paper-thin slices of lemon, giving the hint of citrus you find with squeezing lemon over fried fish, but better, like lemon potato chips. I had expected mullet to have a strong flavor, but it was mild and moist, with a firm texture.

Also irresistible to me is tilefish. It’s another little-known seafood that I rarely see outside of the coast. It’s a thin, flat fish with a light, sweet flavor. The vegetables in the entree dish were as good as the fish – caramelized little carrots and turnips, with bok choy. The Hub’s shellfish dish, which included clams, mussels, shrimp and a giant soft-shelled crab, all over Carolina Gold rice, was reminiscent of bouillabaisse, but with less liquid.

So, they’re back and cooking on all burners. And don’t worry if you get a little whiff of smoke when you walk in. No need to grab a fire extinguisher.