La Farm Bakery & Cafe (Cary, NC)

croissant image courtesy of flickr

La Farm is one of the Triangle’s premier bakeries, and one of only a very few that make good artisanal loaves of bread (Loaf, Rue Cler’s Bakery, Guglhupf, and Chicken Bridge Bakery are a few others that come to mind).  So this is one of the best places to come – and folks throughout the Triangle  do – to get a good baguette, a loaf of crusty ciabatta, or a croissant.  Or, of course, for one of many delightful treats.

Despite the linguistically hybridized name, this is a thoroughly French boulangerie.  And, though it’s set in a typical Cary strip mall (seemingly far from everything), it actually manages to evoke that small Parisian cafe feel.  It’s charming inside, with delicious looking baked goods all around, and a recently expanded cafe section that spills over onto the narrow sidewalk out front.  Even if the bread wasn’t worth the trip, you’d want to come back.

But enough about the bread for now.  The cafe is tempting in its own right, with breakfast and light lunch/dinner fare on offer.  The menu features a number of sandwiches, salads, and egg dishes – nothing unexpected really, but solid choices, and a superb value for most selections.  You can get a large sandwich with a side of chips for just $6.95, and kids meals are just $2.25.  I’ve had several of the sandwiches, and, it must be said, while the bread is great, the sandwiches are merely average.  I recently had one with smoked turkey/homemade creamy slaw/peach-chipotle bbq sauce (one of this summer’s special menu additions) that was rather boring.  There just wasn’t much flavor.  My wife was similarly underwhelmed with her “Mediterraneo” (fresh mozzeralla/roasted tomatoes/basil/balsamic vinaigrette (+added chicken, $1.95) on foccacia).  Sandwiches are served with a side of homemade hearth-baked potato chips, which are crunchy but a bit lifeless; they are greatly improved by dipping in the accompanying buttermilk ranch dressing.

I’ve yet to try the egg-based or breakfast dishes, but many of them sound appealing.  Then again, if I were here for breakfast, I might just choose a buttery croissant or one of their outstanding white chocolate-cinnamon scones (I’m not a fan of the triple berry variety).  Speaking of white chocolate, everyone seems to love La Farm’s white chocolate mini-baguette, and I am no exception.  So even if you’re a little disappointed by your meal, pick up a pastry or loaf to go, and you won’t be let down.

Note that La Farm also sells at the Raleigh farmer’s market on the weekends.

Foster’s Market (Durham, NC)

image courtesy of mapandmenu.com

If Bull Street Gourmet is the promising young rookie of market/cafes, Foster’s Market is certainly the steady old veteran.  Established in 1990, Foster’s remains a fixture in the Triangle’s dining scene.  The Durham location is fairly sprawling and expansive, with loads of outdoor seating on the shaded porches and picnic tables.  Inside, it has the feel of a giant coffee shop.  I wouldn’t say it’s cozy, but it’s very casual, and it’s the kind of place where you could easily linger with a group of friends for a few hours.  Indeed, it almost seems deliberately designed as the ideal meeting spot for a university study group.

Navigating your experience at Foster’s can be a little bewildering the first time.  Entering the space, you pass by the cash registers to find shelves and racks of pantry items, gourmet groceries, and such.  Turn around, and you are confronted by their enormous menus overhead as well as display cases of prepared foods and baked goods (of which there are many).  Menu additions and daily specials are posted in various spots; it’s hard to know where to look.  The staff is friendly but not especially helpful in figuring out the ordering process.  You won’t be able to see everything from where you stand (there are just so many options), so it’s probably best to browse around a bit first.  Anyway, once you figure what you want, they’ll record it on a little notepad, and you can go find a seat.  They’ll bring your food out to you, and you bring your receipt (along with any groceries) up to the register to pay when you’re finished.

The menu is extensive and covers all manner of breakfast and lunch options (soups, salads, wraps, sandwiches, entrees, and even pizzas at the Chapel Hill location).  It’s hard to conceive of how they can reliably keep that many ingredients on hand, but, amazingly, everything generally tastes fresh.  I ordered a BBQ turkey sandwich (pulled turkey breast with Foster’s West Tennessee BBQ Sauce, Carolina cole slaw, house-made bread & butter pickles on a brioche bun,  $7.95).  I enjoyed it well enough, but there was no contrast in the dish.  The cole slaw did not offset the meat (they were sauced similarly, a la Lexington style BBQ), and together with the lackluster bread (which resembled a supermarket potato bun), the whole thing tasted of a plain generic one-ness.  My wife ordered “The Cubano” (pulled mojo pork, ham, Swiss, pickles, lettuce, mayo and yellow mustard on grilled soft baguette, $8.95).  Again, I was unimpressed with the bread, but this was the better sandwich.  The pork had good flavor and was well seasoned, and there was just the right amount of the bright mustard.  For side dishes, we had a a summer succotash (corn, lima beans, cherry tomatoes, priced by the pound) that was lovely with a delicate vinaigrette.  A side of lime-marinated raw veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, squash, red onion, grated carrot) was fine if uninspiring.  Resisting the baked goods is nearly impossible, as there is such a variety, and they all look delicious.  I took home a large piece of what I thought was coconut cake ($4.50 if I recall correctly), which turned out to be a key lime cake.  It wasn’t bad, but it was too sweet, and I definitely could not eat all of the frosting.

To sum it up, Foster’s Market is a good place for a relaxing meal with friends or to pick up a quick baked goodie.   They also offer pre-made dinners to go and catering services.  It might not dazzle you, but it’s unlikely to really disappoint you either.  So I’m sure Foster’s will be around for years to come, regardless of whatever newcomers join the scene.

Toast (Durham, NC)

image courtesy of Mark Petko @ SpoonfedRaleigh

It seems I’m always promoting Durham in these pages, and this post will be no exception.  Toast is to Durham as Neal’s Deli is to Carrboro – a great little sandwich counter.  Raleigh’s lack of such an establishment remains a mystery, and reason enough to search the wider Triangle, as above, for a better sandwich experience.

Toast is an Italian style café serving panini, salads, and soups.  The restaurant occupies a narrow space in the city’s downtown, with small tables inside plus a few more spilling out onto the sidewalk in front.  It’s coffee-shop casual, and, if necessary, you can be in and out very quickly, but it’s charming enough to make it a nice spot to linger and chat.  Just order at the counter and help yourself to a drink.

The menu features plenty of classic Italian flavors.  It also does not appear to have changed much, if any, in the few years since the restaurant opened.  I selected the rapini/sweet Italian sausage/roasted garlic/asiago fresca panino ($6.50) and a cup of the daily soup – spicy lentil with peppers ($2).  My wife chose three crostini + salad ($8.75).  For this price you get two of each of the crostini, which are cut from a baguette into thin slices, toasted, and piled with the toppings.  Her choices were warm goat cheese/local honey/cracked black pepper, pesto/mozzarella/roasted tomato, and garlicky mushrooms/thyme/gorgonzola.  Our food came out promptly.  To sum it up: it was a little disappointing.  Perhaps my expectations were too high; we’d had great food here before.  This time, though, my sandwich was not terribly flavorful.  I couldn’t make out the roasted garlic, the sausage was too mild, and, if such a thing can be said, there was too much cheese.  The bread was nicely crisp and buttery though, and the soup was rich, hearty, and satisfying.  My wife’s crostini had sort of the opposite problem: the flavors were too strong, and there was too much salt.  The clear winner for her was the creamy goat cheese one.  She did report her salad to be deliciously bright, herby, and fresh.

So while we weren’t wowed by Toast this time around, we’ll be back for more.  And here’s hoping for a sandwich spot like this in Raleigh.  For it’s places like these that help make Durham a vibrant community, and that’s why I’ll continue to visit – and celebrate – the Bull City.

Review: Sandwhich (Chapel Hill, NC)

image courtesy of taylortakesataste.com

You can get a sandwich at a lot of restaurants, but an excellent spot that features sandwiches can be hard to come by.  Leaving out for the time being delis and sub shops (though those have their merits), I’m thinking here of those gourmet cafes that feature fabulous crusty breads, fine meats, cheeses, and produce, and interesting and tasty side items.  Chapel Hill’s Sandwhich is one place that aims to fit this bill.

Situated next to the McDonald’s on Franklin Street, the space is surprisingly sleek and refined on the inside, with dark wood tables and subtle lighting.  Open shelves are stacked neatly with chunky white plates and fancy Moroccan-looking teapots.  It’s a sophisticated feel for a casual restaurant.  After you place your order at the counter and help yourself to a drink, the unfailingly friendly staff will bring it to your table.  Each sandwich is served on a small jelly-roll pan covered with a sheet of parchment, with side items presented in diverse ways: roasted beets in an elegant porcelain cup, fries in a red-and-white checkered paper cone, chips in their own little bag.

The Moroccan theme carries over in subtle ways on the menu – the house special iced tea (with mint and sage), spicy harissa ketchup, a carrot salad garnish.  Other than that, the hot and cold sandwich offerings range from the straightforward (burgers) to the inventive (corn, cremini, bacon, and blue cheese on sourdough).  These are accompanied by a nice selection of side items, priced a la carte.

I ordered the “GMC” (grilled chicken, almond pesto, peppers and onions, and provolone, $8.50) with a side of their hand-cut, twice-cooked fries ($3), and my wife ordered a “Mr. Crunch” (prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, lettuce, mint/lemon oil, $9.25) as a combo with their chips and tea (an extra $3).  Both sandwiches were served on crusty but unremarkable bread – mine on a toasted hoagie roll and my wife’s on a crispy baguette.  Both were good, but neither sandwich really had enough flavor.  Mine suffered from a lack of pesto punch; my wife’s may have benefited from a bit more of that prosciutto (i.e. more fat and salt) and/or a nice juicy tomato, although the fresh mint on her sandwich was a nice touch.  A side of the roasted beets ($3) was also a little too plain.  The opposite was true for the chips, which were dusted with fresh herbs, heavy on the salt, and a bit oily.  Each sandwich also came with a few sliced, quick-marinated pickles, which were sweet and refreshing.  The fries were really just average, but I did like the spicy, smoky ketchup.  The iced tea ($2.50 if purchased a la carte) was quite strongly flavored but I enjoyed it (though my wife – the tea aficionado – did not), and it’s nice that you can sweeten it to your liking with some simple syrup.

I don’t want to make it sound like a bad meal; it wasn’t.  Everything was satisfying enough, but there was just nothing to get excited about.  The prices at Sandwhich, while reflective of the scratch preparations, quality ingredients (real prosciutto de parma, fresh mozzarella) and care in execution, are definitely on the high side.  Portion sizes are reasonable (e.g. not insanely huge), but $10-12 is still a lot to pay for a sandwich and a side item.  For comparison, a sandwich at the La Farm Bakery Café in Cary (featuring their amazing bread) costs about $7, including a side of chips, or a panino from Durham’s excellent Toast, with a side of soup or salad, runs about $8.50.   In the end, Sandwhich holds a lot of promise as a gourmet destination, and it’s a nice place to have a meal, but there are better values to be had – and indeed better sandwiches – elsewhere in the Triangle.

Spize Cafe (Raleigh, NC)

image from Spize Cafe website

Spize Café had been near the top of my list of places to try for quite a long time.  Their eclectic Asian menu appealed to me, and I’d heard lots of good things about their baguette (banh mi) sandwiches.  Having finally tried it, I can’t wait to go back.

It’s not the most exciting place to eat; though the décor is sleekly modern and minimalist, and large plate glass windows line one side of the space, the restaurant’s location on Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh marks it as more of a take-out lunch spot for the masses of office workers and state employees.  Indeed, on a recent Friday evening, the place was virtually deserted save for a couple of extremely friendly staffers.

I ordered a lemongrass pork baguette ($7.95) and my wife opted for the shrimp version (also $7.95).  They were cheerfully brought to us after a brief wait.  The sandwiches were gorgeous and overflowing.  Mine was stuffed with thin slabs of grilled meat, lettuce, cucumber, carrots, mayo, jalapenos, and cilantro, and served on a delightfully crunchy, crusty baguette.  It was excellent.  Even with a few jalapeno slices, and despite the restaurant’s name, the sandwich was not particularly spicy.  The one knock I would give Spize Café is a paucity of side items.  The sandwiches aren’t small, but it’s nice to have something to go with them.  Mine came with one sweet-spicy pickle, which was delicious, but it was about the size of my thumb.  I’d much rather have a small bowl of those than resort to a little bag of potato chips.  Regardless, I hope to come back again and again for some of the best sandwiches in Raleigh.

Weekend in Charleston

image via Flickr

We spent the past weekend in Charleston, SC for a friend’s wedding.  While there wasn’t much time for culinary expeditions, we did manage to have two good meals out.  The first was a dinner at the famed Hominy Grill.  Located in a nice old building on the North end of town, with a lovely patio, the restaurant is a mostly successful mash-up of the down-home and the moderately upscale.  The food is respectable, if not great.  I had a southern-fried chicken breast, which was succulent and moist, ensconced in a thin crispy fried shell.  It was supposed to come with a country-ham gravy, but this element was nearly absent and added nothing to the nicely executed chicken.  The accompanying mac & cheese was just ok, but the mashed sweet potatoes were so pasty as to be borderline inedible.  My wife had the “big nasty biscuit” – a monstrous fried chicken biscuit with cheddar and sausage gravy.  It suffered a bit from a shortage of sausage, and the cheddar was actually pimiento cheese in the gravy, but still it tasted pretty good.  A side dish of tomato pudding – described by the waiter as “tomatoes, cornbread, and sugar – baked” was addictive.  My dad had one of the “house specialties”: shrimp & grits.  While this is undoubtedly a famous South Carolina dish, and our expectations were high, I’ve had better renditions at Crook’s Corner and Piedmont.  For dessert, we shared a fantastic peach pudding – a sort of cobbler/bread pudding hybrid, and a lighter than expected slice of chocolate-pecan-caramel cake.

Better still was our lunch the next day, at the Cru Café.  The restaurant is tucked away in a beautiful old house on a quiet street near where seemingly all of the city’s hordes of horses make their home.  If the outside is charming with its lovely front porch, the inside of the restaurant is equally as gorgeous – wood floors, old fireplaces, ultra-high ceilings, cozy seating.  I had a difficult time choosing from the menu, but eventually settled on a beef brisket sandwich.  It arrived as a hamburger bun piled high with thin sheets of ultra-tender beef, slathered in a delicious, mildly spicy orange bbq sauce.  I didn’t care much for the accompanying coleslaw, but I don’t care much for any coleslaw.  The sandwich was fantastic.  My wife had the French dip, which was nicely done if a little bland and mushy.  She reported that her side salad was excellently dressed.  My mom had the shrimp BLT, a dreamy combination of its namesake components with pepper jack cheese on rustic bread.  It was superb, and big enough to easily feed two people.  Combined with the food, the setting and ambience make this gem a perfect neighborhood café.

If you haven’t been, get thee to Charleston and delight in the city’s beautiful architecture and terrific food scene.