For Greg Gettles, pretzels elicit playful reminiscences. He recalls sitting around with his sisters, puffing at the end of pretzel sticks as though the kids were power brokers enjoying a cigar, or sharing a bowl of classic twists with his dad while watching Jurassic Park on the couch.
But standing in the kitchen of Piedmont, the revitalized Durham restaurant where Gettles has served as the executive chef for the last year, he confesses that his restaurant's pretzels—the most popular item on the place's mischievous new bar snacks menu—don't much resemble those nostalgic totems. Instead, with their thin shield of butter and salt gleaming in the small room's bright lights, they look more like chicken nuggets, fish bites, or even swollen, sweet pastries—perfectly tanned brown rectangular cubes, edges slightly rounded and occasionally broken by a fold.
"I originally wanted to do tiny, nice pretzels, but here's the thing: I'm not very good at it," says Gettles, laughing. "And then we thought about cutting them into sticks, but I thought that looked stupid, too."
To taste them, though, is to be content with the shape. The thin skin is just firm enough to require a little push to the bite. The interior is so succulent and hot that it offers the illusion that the pretzels are still being baked. It's sweet and salty, simple and indulgent. Dip it in the dream-like fondue made by combining a reduction of Mother Earth Brewing's Weeping Willow Wit with milk, intoxicatingly spicy mustard from Asheville's Lusty Monk, and a rotating lot of local cheeses, and you'll soon think you've gone to a football game of gourmands or dipped into one of the area's newfangled luxury theaters.
Yet the process for Piedmont's pretzels is admittedly ordinary. Julio Castro Perez, a senior line cook, arrives at eight each morning to begin the day's preparation, and blending a batch of dough sits near the top of his to-do list. It rises in the refrigerator for five hours, or until the initially modest bolus pushes against the plastic, pulled tightly against the rim of the wide stainless steel bowl. They cut the dough into chunks, blanch them briefly in boiling water laced with baking soda for that firm exterior, and then let the pieces rest until the order arrives. Gettles fries the bites briefly and adds a wisp of butter. Two minutes later, they're on the way to a table that made the right choice—and for five dollars per generous serving, a cheap one at a place known more for expensive entrées.
"The best food always evokes a memory, and pretzels, you remember that as a kid," Gettles says. "This is whimsical enough where people will be into it, but you'll also realize it's an adult pretzel. As long as it's evoking that memory, taking you to a time in your life, that's the biggest thing."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bold Gold"