That Abingdon, Virginia, parking lot was once the home of a car wash. Now it’s the site of a culinary mecca.
Rain is celebrating 10 years in business, guided by Carroll’s philosophy of getting the very best products available and doing as little to them as possible. In midsummer, that may mean a salad using up to 15 different varieties of tomatoes grown by local farmer Tamara McNaughton, with only a simple garnish and a vinaigrette dressing.
“The tomato showcases itself,” says Carroll. “Tamara grows tiny little orange ones that are sweeter than a grape.”
That philosophy of profound simplicity is reflected in the name of the restaurant. Carroll didn’t want a lengthy “bar and grill” moniker. Instead, he used the middle name of his daughter Melissa, now a student at Virginia Tech. “It’s an ode to herone word, very simple and clear. It’s something we could build a theme around.”
Carroll hired a former high school classmate, master woodworker and musician Ben Smith, to build what started out to be a simple shelf for liquor bottles next to the bar. But the Rain theme inspired a work of art.
“The posts are shaped like water running down a windshield,” Carroll says. “The side posts are carved into extended raindrop shapes. They connect shelves that are carved with ripples underneath them to look like puddles of water. They’re half circles, so with them sitting up against the mirror, it creates a full circle effect.”
Carroll was born in Utah and spent his earliest years in Arizona, where his family lived next to a Navajo reservation. His exposure to Native American culture is the source of some of his strongest food memories. He recalls the ceremonial roasting of lamb and goat and the unforgettable flavors of fry bread and beans cooked with lard. Occasionally at Rain, to remember those times, Carroll will offer Navajo tacos topped with lamb green chili as a lunch or late-night special.
His veneration of bread continued when the family moved to Southwest Virginia, where his father, Walter, took a job as a quality engineer.
“My mother, Teresa, baked a lot of bread,” Carroll recalls. “We had a wheat grinder in the basement. She would buy buckets and buckets of grain, and the children would grind wheat into flour. My mother made whole-grain bread, and that really left an impression on me — grinding your own flour, the freshness. It’s hard to match that.”
Carroll knows the Abingdon restaurant scene from the ground up. He once baked pizzas and constructed subs at Bella’s and learned German cooking at The Tavern. Like fellow Southwest Virginia chef Sean Brock, Carroll is a veteran of the kitchen at The Hardware Company in Abingdon. One of the cooks at Rain is Shawn Crookshank, who once owned another popular but now-closed Abingdon eatery, The Starving Artist Café. Not only does Crookshank plate up shrimp and grits at Rain, his artwork graces the walls, including a recent painting of brook trout.
The visual aspect of cookery has always appealed to Carroll. When he was growing up, most of the cookbooks he paged through lacked photographs. Later, when he discovered books written by Thomas Keller and the late Charlie Trotter, it was a revelation.
“They were showing food in a way I’d never seen it before,” Carroll tells me. “They opened up a whole realm of possibilities.”
Carroll calls Keller and Trotter “food wizards,” who started with classic French techniques and took them to a different level.
Carroll absorbed that reinterpretation of French cooking styles and combined it with the love of regional cooking that originated in his mother’s Southwest Virginia kitchen. Through chef Sean Brock’s blog, he discovered Allan Benton, one of the world’s best-known pork purveyors, who had grown up in nearby Scott County, Virginia. Benton operates Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in the southeast Tennessee community of Madisonville.
“When I first called to order bacon and ham, Allan himself picked up the phone,” Carroll remembers. “As a young cook, I was able to get my hands on the same product that these rock star chefs were using.”
Carroll took an old mountain standard, redeye gravy, and did some reinterpreting of his own, using one of Benton’s products.
“Redeye gravy is really thin, as it’s made with ham renderings, water, and coffee,” Carroll says. “It’s usually poured over country ham and used to sop biscuits. I was trying to serve it in a way that wasn’t watery and not running across the plate.”
The result was a redeye gravy mayonnaise. Carroll decided to serve it on a baguette. The crowning touch is Benton’s world-class Tennessee-cured prosciutto. The appetizer quickly became a permanent fixture on the menu.
With its roots in the mountain kitchen combined with innovation and style, it’s a perfect symbol of the cuisine at Rain.
283 East Main Street
Fred Sauceman is the author of “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”