Acre Restaurant in Auburn creates its culinary identity from its surroundings

Acre Restaurant in Auburn creates its culinary identity from its surroundings
David Bancroft presents a featured sandwich from Acre Restaurant. (Brittany Faush-Johnson/Alabama NewsCenter)

David Bancroft is a young chef who does farm-to-table with very few steps in between. In fact, much of what goes into Bancroft’s dishes is grown and gathered right outside his restaurant’s front door.

Bancroft is the chef and partner of Acre, which sits on a little more than an acre in historic downtown Auburn. The seasonally driven menu changes daily and showcases Black Belt farmers and makers with modern interpretations of traditional Alabama dishes. His food, the way it’s obtained and prepared, his sustainability practices and even the bones of his building reflect an innate understanding of the land and a profound appreciation for its bounty.

This is attracting attention. Bancroft was a semifinalist for the 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: South. He’s humble about this honor, calling it simply validation that he’s “on the right track.”

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Food has always been a passion for Bancroft. Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, he would smoke brisket and invite his high school baseball teammates to come over and eat after doubleheaders. He followed a family tradition of attending Auburn University, and at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity he became the kitchen steward.

His first restaurant position was at Auburn’s Amsterdam Café where he quickly rose in the ranks. He ended up leaving the university, where he was studying in the Harbert College of Business, to pursue his dream of cooking, and in 2013, with the help of family and friends as investors, he opened Acre.

This is fine dining that’s approachable and even whimsical. Consider the Garden & Gun tomato grilled cheese sandwich. It’s made with processed cheese because “it melts like no other.”

But then it gets fancy. The artisanal bread, made with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, is baked fresh daily. The Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes are from the garden. And the bacon in the savory beer and bacon marmalade is smoked onsite. “Everything about that sandwich isn’t a peasant dish. It’s not just a grilled cheese,” Bancroft says. “It’s our version, which exists at our Acre here.”

Edible landscaping surrounds Bancroft’s Acre.

Two Toomer’s Corner oak clones, probably the only decorative plants here, anchor a garden seasonally filled with figs, blueberries, okra, persimmons, watermelons, cantaloupes, peppers, lettuces and herbs of all kinds. Blackberry bushes form a hedge in front of the restaurant. Pear trees in the parking lot contribute to a dish of whipped foie gras with pepper mash waffle, seared “parking lot” pear, foraged chanterelles and black walnut-lemongrass streusel.

“The garden was part of the plan from day one,” Bancroft says. “We use every part of it. It’s like snout-to-tail, but it’s root-to-leaf.” For instance, leaves from a Meyer lemon tree near the front door scent various dishes, and branches from the olive tree become skewers.  “It’s a challenge for the staff,” he says. “We really have to buckle down and learn to utilize every part of the plant, every part of the pig.”

Perhaps the commitment to craft is most evident in the meats that are butchered, cured, aged, preserved and smoked in-house. At any given time, there are a dozen slabs of bacon and a couple of trotters hanging above a pecan-wood fire behind the oak-clad iron doors of the smokehouse attached to the patio.

There’s a pile of old menus – charred by the heat and scented by the smoke – off to the side. The staff uses them as doilies for the cheese boards or to hold fish and chips, the smoky paper enhancing the dishes and the experience.

Fans from all over appreciate not only Bancroft’s food, but also his philosophy.

In Acre’s garden, they have just pulled up the last of the corn, but Bancroft has planted some Cherokee White Eagle seeds strictly for seed. They are an old variety of corn that survived the journey of Native Americans along the Trail of Tears nearly 200 years ago, he explains. The blue and white corn was a variety planted in Oklahoma and is still highly revered by descendants of the Trail of Tears. Someone at an event in North Carolina gave them to him knowing that Bancroft will honor the plant’s rich heritage and help the heirloom seeds survive.

History is important to Bancroft. Even Acre’s fairly new building is full of history.

Massive beams, salvaged from the 100-year-old Crawford General Store, form the rafters. The walls are clad with whitewashed oak planks from trees at Bancroft’s grandfather’s catfish farm. Bancroft followed behind the carpenters picking up scraps of wood, which he took home, sanded down and brought back to the restaurant to serve as charcuterie boards.

“We wanted to capture what was on the land, preserve it and put it to use as best we could,” he says.

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