Travel | The Umstead Hotel & Spa

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Top rated cuisine, immaculate grounds, and 12 acres of forest are just a few things that set this destination apart from the rest. {Credit: The Umstead}
 As one of only two five-star, five-diamond rated hotels in North Carolina, The Umstead Hotel & Spa is a gorgeous retreat that is absolutely worthy of its reputation. Located within 12 acres of lush woodlands that overlook a private lake, the atmosphere is serene, tranquil, and downright magical.

Unlike many hotels, The Umstead is very tastefully decorated; no kitschy, tacky artwork around here. Huge, fresh, and artistically designed bouquets of flowers welcome you in to the hotel. Moreover, aside from being immaculately clean and well-manicured — both inside and outside — The Umstead prides itself on a uniquely curated and creatively displayed collection of art.

Works of art by both local and national artists can be found throughout the property. Currently, The Umstead boasts 95 pieces of original art in its collection. One of the most noteworthy pieces is a stunning Dale Chihuly glass sculpture titled “Ardea Figura,” which sits in the main lounge of the hotel.
img_1659The design of this hotel and spa embodies its desire to be a luxurious space “where nature and art collide.” The Umstead’s emphasis on appreciating the forest surroundings is showcased everywhere you go on the property. For example, if you feel like taking a walk, there’s a charming lakeside trail that gives you an even more immersed-in-nature feel. Further elevating guests’ experiences is the luxurious two-story, 16,000-square-foot spa which offers 11 treatment rooms, including three couples’ treatment rooms, separate men’s and women’s private lounges with a steam room infused with eucalyptus, deluge shower, whirlpool and sauna, a relaxation lounge, an open-roof current pool, and more.

UmsteadThere are plenty of areas to both lounge and dine al fresco, a pristine garden, benches to simply take in the peaceful beauty of the lake, and all the while you can hear the sounds of birds chirping. For chillier evenings, you can cozy up on the outdoor terrace, which is decked out with an impressive fireplace and seating to enjoy a meal or drinks.

My room was lovely, quiet, and the bed was wonderfully comfortable. (There’s nothing worse than an uncomfortable bed in an otherwise excellent space.) The first thing I indulged on was the fresh bowl of fruit waiting for me as I entered my room. I was a huge fan of the Umstead Spa Signature botanical bath amenities, which only made soaking in the super deep bath tub even more of a luxurious experience. I also loved the fact that the plants in my room were actually living — a nice touch. The staff was very nice, attentive, polite, and available 24/7 to make sure all needs were taken care of.

img_1595The food was on point. I highly recommend dining at The Umstead’s signature restaurant, Herons, even if you’re not staying at the hotel. Headed by executive chef, Steven Devereaux Greene — a current semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s 2016 Best Chef: Southeast award — this restaurant offers modern American regional cuisine that showcases seasonal, local produce. Greene has been with The Umstead since 2009 and has transformed the now award-winning restaurant, along with the hotel and spa’s other dining options, into culinary heavyweights.

The dining room is elegant and the wait staff is knowledgeable, attentive, and friendly. Dinner at Herons was a fantastic experience. Each course was unexpectedly unique in terms of presentation, creativity, and flavor.

The meal began with a trio of fun amuse-bouches, which included foie gras bon bons in the form of freshly picked cherries; quail corn dogs with truffle ketchup and pickled cucumber; and smoked trout cannoli with American sturgeon caviar. The menu is divided into four courses, plus an artisan cheese option, and each dish is described with only main ingredients which leaves much to the imagination.

Corn dogsI started with a course of cubed beets, roasted salt, elderflower, a dollop of frozen yogurt, pistachio, and lemon sorrel. I can’t exactly say how all these layers of flavor came together in the dish, but it was delicious. My dining companion ordered the oysters, which was an exceptionally impressive dish. With saffron dashi, yuzu, cauliflower, scallion, white poppy, and sturgeon, each oyster came in a ceramic oyster shell and was presented on a platter that (thanks to dry ice, I assume) was literally smoking. One of the coolest dishes I’ve seen.

My second course was the 62-degree egg, and for those of you not obsessed with food, this is widely considered to be a perfectly cooked egg. I’ve never tried to cook an egg like this, but I can say that the result is a silky, creamy, delicate egg white that gently encases a liquid gold egg yolk. It’s no joke. This special dish was served in an urchin-shaped bowl and accompanied with another spiky urchin holding crisps to scoop up the soft, eggy goodness. Along with the egg was a serving of sea urchin, Charleston gold rice, mushroom espuma, and a crinkle of edible gold.

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For my entrée, I decided on the pork loin and belly, which was artfully plated with edible violets, black plum, purple yam, fennel, salted oats, and braised walnuts, topped with a single pork rind. This loin and belly combo was tender and rich and had a flawless, well-seasoned searing. Overall, the entrée was sweet, savory, and indulgent; I’m always a fan of pork belly.

Dessert was quite a difficult choice for me. From the coconut with lime caviar, caramelized pineapple, passion fruit, black cocoa, and mango; to the tira-mushroom made with coffee, mascarpone, lady fingers, branches, and flourless chocolate cake; I was at a crossroads. So, I decided on the peach: Carolina peach nectar, raspberry cells (literally individual cells of the berry), amaretto nuage, and spun sugar (aka fancy pink cotton candy), topped with pink flower petals. This dessert was a work of art; I couldn’t have been happier with my choice.

peachAdditionally, we were served chocolate “cigars” — out of a real cigar box — complete with a chocolate-dust-covered “ash tray.” We were also served an incredible “glass” orb filled with a chocolate mousse-like filling, along with tiny balls of white and dark chocolate, and gold leaf. And just when we thought the experience was over, the servers brought over the most adorable dessert/piece of artwork.

chocolateSituated on a wooden log was a forest scene with a bed of river rocks, branches, leaves, chocolate-dipped and golden-dust-coated fruits, sugar-coated raspberries, and several green, marshmallow… caterpillars! Complete with drawn-on faces. I was amazed.

The Umstead also has a bar and lounge open for lunch that offers Herons-inspired cuisine. Before I hopped on a plane back to New York City, I had a lovely lunch al fresco, overlooking the lake scenery with a succulent plant on my patio table and chirping birds on the deck.
img_1700Smaller plates at the bar and lounge range from tuna tartare with a spiced mustard and cucumber; and fried okra with a buttermilk pimento dressing and pickles; to beef carpaccio with a curry aioli and charred beets with a goat cheese mousse and pistachios. For hearty entrées, they offer a nice selection that includes grilled salmon with asparagus and a lemon broth; and beef tenderloin with baked mac and cheese and a house made steak sauce.

dessertSaying yes to dessert at The Umstead — courtesy of pastry chef Jonathan Fisher — is a no-brainer. Having worked at fine establishments such as The French Laundry in Yountville, California, and El Cellar de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, Fisher takes desserts to new heights both in taste and creativity. I chose to indulge on the salty/sweet milk chocolate cremeaux, which came with corn ice cream, caramel, and Anson Mills corn cake. Served with corn kernels, caramel popcorn, and a brilliant yellow, marbled chocolate coating, it was fabulous.

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