Southern comfort redefined
By Stephanie Burnette
Photographs courtesy of Hotel Domestique
“As a designer, you become superstitious,” said Eric Brown. “The hotel had 13 guest rooms, which I found fabulous. It was the perfect omen for a project. That’s when I knew it could be simply beautiful.”
La Bastide, the former inn and vineyard in Travelers Rest, S.C., sat empty until George and Melanie Hincapie re-imagined it as a destination and enlisted Eric Brown Design to create a resort centered around cycling, dining and respite. It would be renamed Hotel Domestique.
Brown remembers being unsure of what they would find and describes a Dickensian first walk-through. “It was like entering Mrs. Habersham’s mansion maybe if she had a country cousin: an explosion of chintz and grape motifs, mixed with cobwebs and dead bugs.”
The Hincapies favor a modern European aesthetic. They like contemporary art and comfortable, deep furnishings, so Brown envisioned a space with wonderful practical style, neither stodgy nor staged.
“The goal was serene with artful moments,” he said, and the proof hangs at every turn with the hotel’s rotating collection of listed artists. An oversized portrait by Philip Morsberger currently greets guests in the entry, and Brown also likes the new pieces by local artist Matt Baumgardner, who he calls brilliant.
There are great, two-person leather chairs for comfort and palatial, tufted ottomans all custom designed by Brown’s studio and built by the Belgium maker, Verellen in High Point, N.C. The down sofas are fluffed like a feather bed by the staff several times a day.
“These pieces are authentically European and their groupings are sumptuous,” Brown said. “You should feel like a guest at an eclectic country house, welcome to lie about. I love avant-garde with a pinch of mystery. It adds romance to a hotel.”
A palate of orange runs through the lodging, complementing the original pine beams and clay roof tiles of the structure. Pairs of sculptural painted chairs in the lobby are standouts and may be the most photographed detail of the hotel. “They are not something you’ll stay on for long,” quipped Brown. “But people look really good perched on them.”
Even the halls echo an orange hue, though they were color matched to the Veuve Clicquot label. “Happiness is important when you’re away, and when the sun sets through the windows at the end of the hall, nothing could make me happier than the color of Veuve’s label,” said the designer.
Guest rooms are moodier and atypical, boasting iron tester beds, original art, wingback chairs, lots of lights that can be dimmed and raw wood floors. Brown renamed the rooms for the regions of France. His favorite is Azet, with its Juliet balcony and sweeping view of the Carolina foothills. It sits by itself, between floors, at a landing in the staircase and is the smallest guest room, designed to be very intimate with its one queen bed.
The hotel’s renovation can best be described as tip-to-tail. Brown and his team oversaw every detail and even trained the staff how to dress a room to create effortless luxury. (Curtains should be dropped and poked twice as if a window has blown open and beds should be precisely made, but the throws tossed, not folded.)
“It’s the whimsy,” he said. “The relaxed state of the décor that makes all the difference, the indistinct line that beckons you to the balcony or the bed.”
Today, Brown describes the Hotel Domestique as authentically Hincapie and uniquely western Carolina. “As owners, they poured their heart and soul into Domestique and entrusted me with their aesthetic. It works because of the land and the sky and the people who come to experience it. It’s a place I return to again and again and always find something new to take in.”
Like the hotel, designer Eric Brown put his artful eye on the restaurant space, now Restaurant 17.
He immediately added a second floor to the restaurant and installed the much-photographed bubble chandelier. Yet a more significant design feature likely goes unnoticed. The chairs are ergonomically designed to be comfortable throughout a luxurious meal because Brown explains he was “tired of being in a restaurant that the food was spectacular but the chairs were horrible. That would not be the case at Restaurant 17.”
The cuisine is deceptively elegant and perfectly designed. Chef Greg McPhee constructs his menu daily to be in line with the styling of the hotel, the time of year and the lifestyle of his guests. McPhee and his small team work every station and put out astonishing dishes for an ever-changing menu, including bread baked in-house (sourdough loaves utilize a starter originating from 1952). He will often feature local fish from South Carolina towns just a half hour away — trout raised in Pumpkintown and white bass from Walhalla.
“What goes on the plate is really what we can source locally that day,” said McPhee. “Where most restaurants serve eight ounces of protein and four ounces of vegetables, we do the opposite because the produce is that good.”
He recalls childhood meals of seasonal vegetables with meat playing a secondary role. “I still think of dinner that way,” he said. “When you talk about Southern cuisine there’s an implication of pork fat slathered with dairy, but that was never my memory.”
High acid/low fat combinations are employed to drive flavor; McPhee relies on lemon juice, vinegar, wine, hot sauce or fresh citrus rather than large amounts of salt and butter, which he thinks dulls a dish, equalizing it. “We’re pushing the definition of what Southern means to include shape, color, texture and flavor because we want our diners to have a multi-layered experience here.”
This extends to Restaurant 17’s wine service. Wines are selected based on acidity and parity, and McPhee prefers less oaked wines for their clean finish and modern interpretation.
Right now is the season McPhee most looks forward to and admits that July and August are challenging to get everything on the menu. A mushroom forger brings wild varieties directly to Restaurant 17’s kitchen. Chanterelles, Oyster mushrooms, Milk Caps and the giant Lion’s Mane will pepper the menu in creative and unexpected ways, such as Wood Ear mushrooms that were roasted and filled with grits and Boursin cheese in the spring.
Charcuterie is a natural starter at Restaurant 17. The boards were specifically designed to span the length of their tables when ordered along with a cheese board. McPhee said he’s honed the offerings to “what we’re good at.” Don’t miss the pork belly prosciutto (rinsed with Alberino), an astonishing pickled butternut squash sliced by mandolin, briny red onions and cukes and mustard made with local beer (perfect to slather over crostini).
The Friends Table may be the utmost way to experience Restaurant 17. Parties of six and more can reserve this chef’s table, just off the kitchen, for family style dining paired with wine. It’s an experience that unleashes the talent of Greg McPhee and everything the countryside of the Carolinas has to offer.