Mandolin (Raleigh, NC)

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The corner of Fairview and Oberlin Rds in Raleigh would seem to be a prime business location right in the heart of the upscale Five Points neighborhood. But while a small Chinese restaurant endures there, the spot next to it has had a handful of tenants come and go over the years, from Bellini to Mangia/Eat to EVOO and on back. Fortunately, that space is now occupied by Mandolin, a lovely farm-to-spot that, based on my recent experience, deserves more attention in the Raleigh (and broader Triangle) dining scene.

The space is gorgeous, subtle, and refined, with brick floors and light grey walls. Accented by nice lighting, ample use of wood, and pops of freshly picked flowers, it shows a meticulous attention to detail. This is a white tablecloth and white leather chair kind of place – it’s definitely more fancy than casual. But it doesn’t feel too stuffy, and there’s a small bar at the rear of the space, complete with a TV for watching the game. At a recent Sunday brunch, the place was nearly vacant at 10:30, save for a few well-heeled Raleighites and a young hipster couple.

The brunch menu is inviting, and generally covers the modern Southern repertoire. Many of the ingredients are sourced locally, and so the menu purports to change frequently, but many of the dishes I’ve seen listed online occasionally were available.  After studying the menu for a few minutes, we were informed that the biscuits were still baking, but would be out soon. This quickly dissuaded me from ordering the biscuits and gravy. When they arrived, however, they were two well-browned dinner rolls, served piping hot with some honey butter. They were perfectly delicious, even if I wouldn’t describe these yeasty delights as “biscuits”. I ordered the pork madame (pulled pork, fried egg, and gruyere on sourdough, $12) and my wife ordered the Ham benedict (country ham, poached eggs, hollandaise, smoked paprika, $12). It was a monstrous sandwich, with the egg and cheese melted on top. The vinegary-ness of the pork was a pleasant surprise, and the bread was excellent, even if there was a bit too much of it. The dish really worked well. It was served with a tiny green salad and some home fries, the latter of which were one of the best renditions of had – exquisitely crusty and crunchy and well seasoned. My wife was almost as happy with her dish, although country ham can sometimes be a bit overpowering for her.

The service at Mandolin was attentive and excellent, though it would have been nice to be informed early on about the complimentary “biscuits”. I look forward to going back for another brunch or for dinner, but do note that entree prices for dinner are generally $20-$30. To me, Mandolin is quietly one of the best restaurants in Raleigh, so here’s hoping it stays around for a long time to come.

Vin Rouge (Durham, NC)

Years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a little time in France.  One of the most fond memories I have, as you might guess, is of the excellent food.   If one restaurant in the Triangle comes closest to recreating that overall experience, it has got to be Durham’s Vin Rouge.  An institution in the Triangle, this place has served up consistently good food for many years.  But the appeal of Vin Rouge is not just about the food.  The restaurant is quintessentially French, really capturing the je ne sais quo – charm, let’s say – of a classic European eatery.

The inside is set-up rather like a home, with a sort of rambling layout of large but discreet dining rooms.  Lovely wooden tables (covered in white tablecloths), huge mirrors, and low lighting combine with a semi-open kitchen to establish a sense of unfussy elegance.  With beautiful wood floors, chandeliers, and candles on the tables in the evening, the space is warmly seductive, but it manages to achieve an easy conviviality that keeps it from being overly fancy.  Also boasting one of the most attractive patios in the Triangle, Vin Rouge is a fantastic spot for a romantic date or special occasion.

The food is strictly French, with a narrow, focused menu of bistro classics.  Although there are nightly specials, the menu doesn’t change much.  I’ve yet to try any of the fruits de mer (seafood) at Vin Rouge, but they do claim that as a specialty of the house.  Either way, you’re started off with some crusty bread served in a small metal pail.  The bread is really thinly cut, and can be too crusty.  At brunch time it’s accompanied by butter, while for the dinner service you get a small dish of excellent olive oil/olive paste for dipping.  I’ve been for brunch a number of times over the past few years, and the meals have been solid but not spectacular.  I recently ordered an omelette with mushrooms and gruyere ($9.95).  It was a huge omelette, and it came with an even larger mountain of skinny french fries, but overall it was a bit unexciting.  My wife has always been happy with their eggs Benedictine or eggs Florentine. 

But dinner has been better.  I’ve tried their decadent macaroni and cheese, and it may come closest in the Triangle to rivaling Ashley Christensen’s wonderful rendition at Poole’s.  Most recently, I ordered steak frites (hanger steak, $19.95) and a salad with lardons, blue cheese, apples, and pecans ($7.95).  The salad was tremendous – best split with another person, and very good, with just the right amount of delicate vinaigrette.  The steak was a bit chewy, though it was cooked to a very nice medium.   It was kind of over-run by the accompanying blue cheese butter and dressing from the tiny green salad on the plate.  Once again, the french fries were way too numerous but perfectly adequate.  My wife made the better entree selection – a pork chop with braised cabbage, mashed potatoes, and cider jus ($18.95).  The pork could have been a little more tender, and the sauce was close to too sweet, but really this was just plain delicious.  For dessert, we opted for the chocolate mousse, which is delivered to your table in a large serving dish, out of which the waiter scoops three little dollops into each of your bowls.  The mousse was surprisingly thick, I thought, but supremely rich and not terribly sweet. 

At Vin Rouge you can really feel like you’re in the middle of France, and you’ll get a very good meal in a gorgeous setting.  Still, when comparing Vin Rouge to Rue Cler (downtown Durham’s other upscale French restaurant), I’d have to confess a slight preference for the latter.  Rue Cler’s ambiance is not as warm as that at Vin Rouge – it’s more modern – but it’s very inviting nonetheless.  And while Vin Rouge does bistro classics very well, the food at Rue Cler is a bit more adventurous and can be stellar (see my review here), and, for brunch, at Rue Cler you have the option of some heavenly beignets.  Either way, you may not feel the need to travel all the way to France.  So let me know what you think and bon appetit!

Oakleaf (Pittsboro, NC)

Oakleaf in Pittsboro has got to be one of the most beautiful restaurants in the Triangle area.  Located in historic Chatham Mill, this place has it all: aged wood floors, enormous windows, simple but elegant wooden tables and chairs, fabulous pendant lighting, classicly understated white dinnerware, stunning metalwork including a massive old sliding door…  I could go on and on, but the point is this: the entire aesthetic, down to the simply printed menu, has been executed in exquisite detail.  It makes for a lovely dining room, with tables not too close together, a gorgeous large centerpiece table, and a fine balance of formal and casual.

But does the food match the decor?  It certainly aims to.  We visited for brunch on a recent Saturday, and entree selection was exceedingly difficult – everything sounded just right.  The menu is what I’d call American-locavore-modern.  I went with the potatoes bravas/fried egg/chorizo gravy ($9) plus a biscuit ($2).  My wife opted for the “aged gruyere/sage/fried egg/extra cheese sauce” sandwich, which came with a side of fries ($9).  Another in our party ordered the challah french toast ($8, I believe).  We were pleasantly surprised when a small bowl of freshly fried beignets arrived at our table shortly thereafter.  These were soft and delicate, and just a touch underdone and undersweetened – but that’s pretty nitpicky – they were quite good.  The rest of our food took a very long time to arrive, even though we were one of the first customers of the day.  My plate was sort of an unattractive mess of potatoes covered in a spicy reddish brown gravy.  It was ok, but I wouldn’t order it again.  The biscuit was large and included a very small amount of herbs – not really even enough to taste; it was pretty average.  My wife’s sandwich, on the other hand, was very good.  I’ll also note that it was huge, featuring two very thick slices of bread.  “Dressed” in cheese sauce, it was most certainly a fork-and-knife affair.  Anything with that much cheese would probably be good, but the fresh sage brought a real vibrancy to it.  The fries were outstanding.  The challah french toast was actually a little plain, despite a (too) small amount of excellent peach-ginger compote accompaniment.  This dish was also enormous, with four very thick half slices of bread.  Like the sandwich, it probably could have been enough for two people.  The bacon on the side was fine.

So, though it wasn’t an exciting meal, it really was an exciting place to eat a meal.  The prices are terrific for brunch, considering the portion sizes.  Service was terribly slow in our case, but that wouldn’t stop me from coming back.  Heck, I’d come back again and again just to sit in that awesome space.

 

Battistella’s (Raleigh, NC)

I’ve been quite excited to try out Battistella’s, the new(ish) Cajun restaurant in downtown Raleigh.  I’d heard great things about their former location (out near Crabtree Mall), and the menu looks enticing.  I finally had the chance for brunch on a recent lazy Sunday morning.

The restaurant is located in Raleigh’s City Market, a historic area that has charm but has seemed to me to have always struggled to fulfill its potential.  The cobblestone streets are lovely, sure, but, until recently, the lack of exciting tenants has rendered the area more of a curiosity than a destination.  In the past few years, the additions of the Epona & Oak boutique, Benelux Cafe, Troy Mezze Lounge, and now Battistella’s offers hope for revitalization.

The inside of the restaurant is divided into two spaces – one primarily occupied by the bar, the other by the small dining area.  Despite its size, the ambience was not especially cozy, though I imagine at night it could be rather charming.  The restaurant is clearly aiming to capture the mystique of New Orleans, with large pictures of that city along the artfully decrepit walls, blues music on the radio, and an interesting chandelier lending intrigue to the space.  There are a few cafe tables out on the sidewalk as well.  At 12:30pm, there weren’t many people in the place, and it oddly felt as if lunch service was wrapping up.

The menu for brunch was a bit different than what’s posted on their website.  The choices that day were much more limited, with quite a few of the starters and entrees, and all of the side items, missing or different.  The prices were also off by a dollar here and there.  A chalkboard lists the day’s specials, and another one shows off an impressive list of local farms that provide many of the restaurant’s ingredients.  I ordered the pain perdu ($10) and my wife chose the “Blount St. Benedict” ($12).  Both were very nicely presented.  Mine was an elegant stack of four large bread slices, a large hunk of split andouille sausage, and a dollop of cinnamon whipped cream.  It was good french toast, if not excellent.  The sausage was very good, although spicier in some spots than others.  I loved the use of cane syrup.  This was my first experience with it, and with luck not my last.  It offered a darker, more complex flavor than maple syrup – like a cross between that and molasses.  Unfortunately there was just too much of it, and the whole dish was too sweet as a result.  I didn’t try much of my wife’s eggs benedict dish, except for a few bites of outstanding tasso ham.

While it wasn’t the most exciting meal ever, and it might not be my first choice for Sunday brunch in Raleigh, I definitely want to return and try more of the menu.  The biscuits in particular looked fabulous, and I’ve got to try a poboy or some beignets.   Battistella’s certainly fills a void in Raleigh’s dining scene, and brings some upscale flavor to City Market, so here’s wishing them great success.

Daisy Cakes (Durham, NC)

If you love eating, as I do, you’ve got to love Durham!  There’s so much good food to be had in the Bull City, from Mexican to burgers to fine dining, and, more recently, to excellent baked goods.  First there was Scratch, which opened last year, and operated without peer in the Triangle until the recent opening of  Daisy Cakes, just a few short blocks away!  While not entirely new to the scene – Daisy Cakes operated out of a sleek airstream trailer over the past few years – their new cafe has allowed the business to really blossom.

Situated on Foster St. near the farmer’s market, the place was slam packed on a recent Saturday morning.  The interior of the restaurant is quite narrow, with very limited seating.  Lines form quickly, and finding a table is tricky, although there are a few scattered just outside the front door.  The space features whitewashed brick walls and is equally as charming as Scratch: where the latter  is subtly sleek, Daisy Cakes is undeniably cute.

Like at Scratch, it’s really hard to decide what to order at Daisy Cakes.  They have a bountiful array of pastry and sweet choices, sure, but also a tempting menu of savory sandwiches and light entrees.  The menu is ambitious, but perhaps not quite as creative as Scratch’s.  I went with the carnitas hash ($8.95) plus a strawberry “pop’t art” ($1.95).  My wife chose the day’s omelette (roasted tomato, spinach, cheese, $7.50, served with toast and fruit) and a housemade chai tea ($3.25).

My carnitas hash was a substantial dish, served with two unexpected slices of toast.  It was a bit underseasoned, and I would have liked some more onion in with the potatoes, but it came with two nice fried eggs on top and was plenty tasty overall.  The “pop’t art” was outstanding: a circular slightly sweet crust filled with just the right amount of bright strawberry jam.  My wife’s omelette was also good, if not great.  But the chai tea she ordered was incredible – served in a very funky mug with a sprinkling of cocoa powder on top, it was spicy, creamy, and just perfect.  I also got to try some of their well-regarded almond cream brioche.  It was served as a massive thick slice with a little fruit on the side.  It was very good, moist and decadent, but I probably wouldn’t order it myself.

If you’re heading to Durham and can’t decide between Scratch or Daisy Cakes, you could just flip a coin.  For me, until I try more of the Daisy Cakes menu, including their renowned cupcakes, I’d give the slight edge to Scratch.  But at either place, you’re sure to get lovingly crafted food in a super charming setting.  As for me, I’m eager to go back for more of both.  As much as we love Durham, it’s sure to be sooner rather than later!

Little Hen (Holly Springs, NC)

Little Hen is a new restaurant in Holly Springs that looks very promising.  According to this post over at LunchBoySays, the chefs are bringing a true farm-to-table approach to the food, featuring local, sustainable meats and produce almost exclusively.  The menu will change frequently, and they plan to start a Sunday brunch service in the near future.  For now, it’s dinner only (Tuesday – Saturday).

I’m very excited to try it out!

 

Review: Rue Cler (Durham, NC)

photo courtesy of flickr

Durham has celebrated restaurants, to be sure, some of which get more attention than others.  You hear about places like Magnolia Grill and Watts Grocery, and, lately, Scratch Bakery and Bull City Burger & Brewery.  And, though it is certainly not hidden, Rue Cler in downtown Durham is absolutely a gem, and indeed deserves more attention as one of the top few restaurants in the entire Triangle.

Occupying an unassuming corner in downtown, Rue Cler is a fancy restaurant without a hint of pretentiousness.  The charming space features some closely packed small tables (in the European style) and a blonde slat-wood wall adorned with beautifully printed maps of the wine regions of France.  It’s a lively spot that feels as though it could thrive in the most cosmopolitan of cities.  Without even mentioning the food, the overall vibe and ambience are so nice that you’ll want return.

Rue Cler does a wonderful brunch (featuring excellent crepes and beignets), and an even better dinner.  To top it off, a small bakery/café is attached next door where you can pick up a pastry, a loaf of bread, or a light lunch.  They’ll also sell you some excellent pizza dough if you ask.  The bakery is one of the best in the Triangle, in my opinion, and is worth seeking out on its own.

For dinner, Rue Cler offers a prix fixe menu (3-course, $30) along with a small selection of a la carte entrees and sides.  It’s a French restaurant, so the usual suspects are there – steak frites, coq au vin, pommes dauphinois – but the prix fixe menu, which changes frequently, is hard to bypass on account of its array of tempting options.  On a recent Saturday evening, my wife and I both started with the frisee salad.  Featuring candied pecans, dried cherries, and a honey vinaigrette, it was delicious and rather sweet, an effect that was not quite offset by some crumbled mild bleu cheese.  Still, it was a light and refreshing start to the meal.  For seconds, my wife opted for the shrimp crepe (spinach, leek, sauce mornay), and I went with the beef/pork/gruyere dumplings with browned butter.  Both were very good, but the crepe was augmented a little too much of the creamy, thick sauce.  My dumplings were essentially pierogies, blackened on one side, and filled with a meat mixture that approximated breakfast sausage in the best possible way.  The sage browned butter only added to the decadence and richness, but the dish was perfectly portioned, and so good that I was reluctant to share.  Lastly, for our third course, my wife chose the grilled leg of lamb with sauce Robert, herbed spaetzle, and caramelized onions, and I selected the B-line snapper with eggplant/zucchini/field pea ragout and lemon-herb crema.  The lamb was nicely cooked and carved, and boasted a very strong wine-mustard flavor.  This made the subtle herbed spaetzle, which was served as a substantial amount, a necessary complement.  My fish dish was just exquisite.  It went beautifully and delicately with the vegetables and thin sauce, and didn’t really need the crema (which, to my surprise, resembled a small dollop of lightly whipped cream that broke down immediately on contact).  Although both entrees were good, the fish dish, being more well-rounded, was the more exceptional of the two.  I savored each and every bite.

To sum it up, the three courses together made up one of the best meals I’ve eaten in the Triangle.  Everything was expertly cooked, seasoned, and portioned.  The plating was simple but elegant enough.  I don’t usually care about service either way, but I must say that in our case it too was perfect.  The pacing of the meal was just right, and the waitress was unobtrusive, efficient, and gracious.  It’s rare that a restaurant hits all of the right points and leaves you thrilled, but our dinner at Rue Cler was almost flawless.  I’m eager to return.