BARBOURSVILLE, W.Va. -- However you feel about the politics and future of coal, it's a curious fact that a new niche restaurant market has grown up around cooking with coal.
At Christopher's Eats, the rectangular "artisan flatbreads" delivered to the table arrive there via one very hot and piping route: a coal-fired oven.
Whether it's the Pulled Pork or Roasted Chicken Flatbread, the White Flatbread with goat cheese, the Miss Piggy featuring pork belly or other flavors, the pizza-like flatbreads are all cooked up rapidly through a rarity in the state -- a coal-fired commercial restaurant oven.
The oven is not only an attempt to differentiate Christopher's Eats, but a high-powered, rapid way to get dishes to the table, say the owners.
"You can get the food out faster because it burns hotter and you cook the food faster and get it to the table faster," said Jeremy Adams, who runs the real estate firm Palace Properties. He co-owns the restaurant at 6005 U.S. 60 E. in the Gateway Plaza, with his brother, David, a Huntington school teacher, and their cousin and the chef, Christopher Dixon.
The oven is fueled by anthracite, a cleaner burning coal with fewer impurities than other types of coal, purchased in bulk shipments from the Reading Anthracite Co. in Pennsylvania. The largest fields of anthracite available domestically are in northeastern Pennsylvania and the way anthracite burns makes its use possible in a food oven.
"This particular kind of coal is the cleanest and hottest burning coal mined in the world," says Adams.
While the restaurant's DoughPro oven does not impart a specific flavor as a wood-fired pizza oven burning aromatic wood might, "it does lend a little bit of a smokiness flavor to the food," said Dixon, whose first name christened the place upon its opening Jan. 28.
The oven is also used to serve up chicken, chicken wings and other dishes. Dixon, who attended culinary school in Orlando in 2004, is looking to experiment with the oven, trying some fish dishes in the high, quick-cooking heat -- from 600 to 900 degrees -- created inside the oven by banking a corner heap of red-hot coals.
A smattering of new coal-fired ovens and chains are popping up around the country, harkening back to an older era of institutions like Grimaldi's "Coal Brick Oven Pizzeria." For more than 100 years, Grimaldi's flagship operation near the Brooklyn Bridge has served up what its website describes as "a unique flavor and a crisp crust that is just not possible from gas, convection, or wood burning ovens."
Scott Klein, a sales representative for Reading Anthracite, said the company sells palettes of its coal to a small market of restaurants like Christopher's Eats -- which uses about 4 tons every three months -- and chains like Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza.
"It's more or less a niche market. When you compare the large industrial uses for the product and home heating use, it's less than 1,000 tons in a year."