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.

Review: Lucky 32 (Cary, NC)

Some restaurants try so hard and come up just short.  Lucky 32 is one of these places.

The interior is nicely appointed, with an understated, sophisticated feel, and there is a pleasant outdoor patio, but the size of the place is off-putting: it is enormous.  You kind of feel like you’re in the most elegant Ruby Tuesday’s you’ve ever seen.  Unfortunately, the food, despite its focus on local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients, reinforces this impression.

The menu is nice, if a bit extensive, with a center section that changes seasonally.  On a recent lunch visit, the choices were appetizing: grilled peaches with chevre and country ham, local grass-fed burger, cornmeal crusted Carolina catfish (for the alliteration-minded), and a host of other traditional southern classics.  It must be noted here that the phrase “voodoo glaze” was associated with a disconcerting number of dishes (six) on the current menu.  In fact, the restaurant, which has a sister campus in Greensboro, has always focused on regional southern American fare, with a bent towards Cajun cuisine; this was made official with the recent name change to Lucky 32: Southern Kitchen.

The problem is that while the food is respectable, it never goes beyond that.  I have dined at the restaurant a handful of times over the past few years, and I have to say that there has been nothing memorable about any of the dishes I’ve tried. Among the dishes I can recall, I’ve had a nice fried green tomato appetizer and a very pedestrian “Russian River” chicken (with seemingly frozen vegetables).  Most recently, a dish of shrimp and grits was well seasoned and had a perfect level of spiciness to it, but the shrimp were better suited for popcorn frying, the andouille sausage was mediocre, and the grits were swamped by too much sauce.  I wondered how different it tasted than the restaurant’s rendition of jambalaya.  The prices for lunch were generally reasonable, although the burger was priced at a substantial $11.  The shrimp and grits, $12 at lunch, jumps up to $19 for dinner with the addition of one side item.  While the portions are significantly over-sized, the relatively high costs are unfortunately not reflected in the quality of the dishes.

Speaking of over-sized, beware of ordering desserts at Lucky 32 – they are gigantic.  A slice of chocolate peanut butter pie was absurdly large, and a “miniature” complimentary birthday brownie was almost as big.  Each of these was easily enough to feed an entire party of four.  A simple vanilla ice cream dish was more reasonable with three smallish scoops, and while the fudge sauce was good, I did not care for the ice cream itself (from Homeland Creamery in Julian, NC), which suffered from poor texture.

On the plus side, the wait staff is very well trained, with good knowledge of the menu and a seemingly genuine interest in food.  In the end, however, I’d prefer to take my money elsewhere.  Yes, the food and experience are far superior to any Ruby Tuesday, but they also fall well short of a place like Watts Grocery in Durham, where this kind of cuisine (at similar prices) is executed superbly.

Rating:  * * *