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Oak Hill Café Shakes Up the Greenville Dining Scene

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Greenville has found favor among culinary enthusiasts with a diverse array of options for great dining. When Oak Hill Café and Farm opened in June, 2019 on Poinsett Highway, local gastronomy took a more serious turn. The partnership of Lori Nelsen and David Porras has bumped the city’s already strong farm-to-table movement to exciting new heights.

With an academic background in environmental science and chemistry, Nelsen spent previous years helping local farmers make their soil more nutrient-rich. She channeled her passion for sustainable farming practices and married it with her affinity for baking and cooking to conceive the idea for Oak Hill Cafe.

Her desire to put both into motion through a restaurant-farming endeavor gathered steam when she met Chef David Porras at a Furman University gathering. A native of Costa Rica, Porras brought to the table years of farm-to-table experience as well as professional training in avant-garde techniques from the French Culinary Institute in New York City and a master’s degree from the Basque Culinary Center in Spain.

“We strive to be hyperlocal—source our ingredients from our farm as well as nearby farms—and have a focus on sustainability in everything we do here,” Nelsen said. “Our goal is to push the boundaries of what it means to be ‘farm-to-table.' I love the science behind cooking and it’s a perfect fit with what David does in the kitchen.”

The restaurant, which serves brunch and dinner, operates in an old farmhouse that has been renovated with significant input from local craftsmen and artisans. The lines are clean, the colors are natural and light, and the atmosphere airy. There are three dining rooms, a small bar and an adjacent area where Nelsen sells her delicious homemade breads and other baked goods, as well as some refrigerated items made in the kitchen. (Tip: Pick up a batch of the pesto, which is bursting with fresh, grassy notes as it is made from Oak Hill greens—carrot tops, beet tops, parsley and whatever is on hand. Pair it with slices of the crusty-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside sourdough.)

The dinnerware was commissioned from local potters and the wall art represents the work of local artists. That dynamic is reflected right down to the small touches, too. For instance, bread for the table was accompanied by a pair of hand-carved wooden spoons filled with flavored butters made by the kitchen. Flatware and spares remain on the table nestled in custom-carved wooden holders.

The most important aspect of Oak Hill is the no-till, organic farm behind the building which has been evolving since 2017. This is where 12 varieties of mushrooms sprout on oak trees that grew on the property and a variety of vegetables are grown on the land and in the greenhouse with experimental and sustainable techniques used by Nelsen and a small team of farmers.

Vegetables are an integral part of the menu, sometimes forming the foundation of Oak Hill’s dishes. For example, recently offered on the rotating menu was a smoked beet salad, an earthy dish of chunky beets contrasted with briny turnips and dusted with beet green ash, which is literally the ashes from charred beet greens (so as not to waste any part of the vegetable, according to Nelsen). Porras’ certification in hydrocolloids (the science of using gums to thicken and gel), was also in evidence here with the presence of a deep-purplish beet jelly. A roasted cumin vinaigrette was then poured, tableside, over the root vegetables to finish the dish.

Porras’ chemistry chops also come into play in dishes featuring foams, which offer subtle, complementary hints of flavor. A delicious brisket stew was one such recent offering, presented in a deep, handmade ceramic bowl. Inside was a gift: a tender bar of brisket wading in a savory sauce (ladled tableside) that was studded with pearl onions, potatoes and other seasonal vegetables. On top was a swath of potato foam, which Porras said would deliver a taste of potato that would almost immediately disappear—and it did. While such touches are not heavily applied, it is this kind of playfulness that makes Oak Hill Café a special place in a city where the local dining scene is striving to become a mover and shaker on a much larger culinary stage.

As Porras put it: “Our goal is to push the boundaries, to do more foraging, to break things and glue them back together in new ways.”

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.