Maximillian’s Pizza Kitchen (Cary, NC)

We don’t often eat pizza in a restaurant.  We prefer to get take out, to make our own, or to get the occasional delivery.  Sure, pizza is best piping hot, but sometimes there are other reasons for not dining in.  Maximillian’s Pizza Kitchen provides a perfect example of this.  To be blunt, the space is very dark and a bit dingy.  The cavernous ceilings and marble table tops offer no comfort.  Worse, the weathered dark wood paneled walls and especially the tables didn’t seem entirely clean.  The restaurant looks like it has seen better days.  Service was not really inviting either, and my wife’s order of hot tea was essentially forgotten.  Well, to clarify, a cup and teabag came to the table, but no hot water (until we reminded the waitress much later).

But on to the pies.  We ordered two individual pies, a “Bianca” (fontina, asiago, mozzarella, ricotta, $10.95) and a “Maximo” (sausage, pepperoni, peppers, mushrooms, olives, $11.95).  Each was just about big enough to split between two adults.  A note on the menu: many of the pies listed on the website (including some of the most tempting) were not on the menu.  In fact, while there are a handful of entrees to choose from, I felt that the array of menu choices was rather limited.

The Bianca was surprisingly delicate in flavor.  The ricotta was nice, but there was too much cheese, and not enough “sun-dried tomato/pesto drizzle”.  The latter was more like a few drops here and there.  The result was somewhat bland.  Moreover, the pie left an uncomfortably big puddle of oil on the serving platter.  The hand-tossed crust was pillowy and soft, but otherwise unremarkable.  The Maximo had a distinct sweet taste, which must have come from the sauce.  It was strewn with giant chunks of sausage, but the pepperoni and the mushrooms were quite flavorless.  I did like that the peppers were roasted.  I much preferred the thick crust on the Bianca to the thin crust that we opted for on this pie.  It was cracker-like on the edges but far too thin to support the toppings in the middle. In the end, neither pie was bad, but the Bianca was the better choice.

The dessert list is extensive, and includes a $9 (!) tiramisu.  We had a coupon that obliged us to spend a minimum of $30, so we opted for a slice of key lime pie ($5.95) to go.  It had an almond laced crust and was pretty good, but you can make a better version at home.

I had been to Maximillian’s once before, a couple of years ago, and recalled their distinctively flaky, pastry-like crust then.  Apparently the dough recipe has changed since then.  I got take-out that time, and, if I ever go back, I’ll get take-out again.

Review: Tribeca Tavern (Cary, NC)

The Tribeca Tavern in Cary is a huge place.  You can’t miss it from the road; it looks something like a castle.  Inside, a massive staircase leads you to believe there’s seating for hundreds.  The furnishings give it the look and feel of a tidy, mid-range hotel.  Countering this and striking a distinctly casual note are giant TVs everywhere and ludicrous oversized images of, for example, a man eating a slice of pizza, or two people chomping on a burger.

In fact, the first thing you see when you walk in is a 6 or 8 foot tall blow-up of a burger stacked impossibly high with toppings.  If this doesn’t signal the restaurant’s culinary intentions, the “Red Robin” style specialty burger menu certainly will.  They range from “Southern Lovin” (fried green tomatoes, bacon, goat cheese) to Jimmy the Greek (ground lamb, tzatziki, olives).  There are burgers with bbq on them, or fried onions, or a fried egg, you get the idea.  But that’s not all: if burgers aren’t your thing, the menu covers an immense range of options from shrimp and grits to fish tacos to pizzas.  That’s covering more culinary ground than your local Ruby Tuesdays does.    The waiter may give you a spiel about how nearly everything is made in-house and how many of the ingredients are sourced locally.  In fact, he indicated that just about the only things not made in-house are curly fries, pasta, and bread.  But considering the breadth of the menu and type of foods offered, that seemed highly unlikely.  You’ve got to be skeptical of restaurants that offer that kind of variety: there’s just no way that nearly everything is made in-house, or that the quality of every dish is at a high level.

Tribeca Tavern does use organic NC beef, which they grind in-house daily, allowing you to order your burger rare, if you so choose.  The cheeses offered are mostly local, but feel free to opt for Kraft American (from Illinois) or Gruyere (from Switzerland).  The choices of side items with your burger or sandwich are extensive (14 items!), from tater tots to mac & cheese to sweet potato casserole to soup or salad. Unfortunately, fries are one of the things not made in-house.    The “local” focus at Tribeca does extend to the beverage list, which features Fayetteville’s Mash House beers and root beer.  I tried the root beer, and it was pretty good.

I ordered the “All praise Holly Grove” burger, which was topped with Holly Grove Farms goat cheese, roasted red peppers, and “charred” onions.  It was cooked the way I requested (medium) and it was juicier than a burger from, say, Red Robin, but really it was just ok.  There just wasn’t much flavor – the patty needed some seasoning.  The “peppered” onion rings were atrocious.  They were very densely breaded, and, despite their name, vastly underseasoned: they just about ruined the entire meal.  The specialty burgers are very expensive (at $13 perhaps the most expensive burger I’ve ever ordered) but, to be fair, they are so massive that the first thing I did with mine was set aside half for another time.  On the plus side, the fried calamari was breaded with a very light hand and had a nice spiciness to it.  And guacamole was surprisingly acceptable, if a little undersalted.  The guacamole is supposedly made to order, but it came to our table within a few minutes of placing our order.  I did not get to try the cheesy puff appetizer (puff pastry, brie, cashews, bacon, raspberry dipping sauce), but that sounded like a little much anyway.

For dessert, I tried a brownie sundae, which was nice and warm but, oddly, not rich enough.  The brownie was homemade, but the whipped cream most certainly was not.  I also tried the banana crème brulee, but I would not recommend that to anyone.  There wasn’t much of any banana flavor to the crème part, and there was hardly any crustiness to the brulee part. It was actually much more like a pudding, and for some reason, all of the vanilla bean seeds were found at the bottom of the dish, rather than being distributed throughout the custard.

In the end, this place is equivalent to one of those “ale houses” in a nice shopping center.  The fact that they offer local ingredients is commendable, but does not a successful restaurant make, and doesn’t justify the high prices.  You can make a much better burger at home, and for a lot less money.  The restaurant needs to pare down the menu and cut their own fries to go with their gourmet burgers.  I’d think a small restaurant focusing on gourmet organic burgers and excellent fries could do really well.  For example, Durham has Only Burger and the forthcoming Bull City Burger and Brewery.  I wish the conversation about this kind of place was inverted: instead of  “WOW” they make everything in-house, it should be of course they do, and “WOW’ everything tastes great.

Rating:  * *

Review: Bella Mia (Cary, NC)

Several weeks ago, I had some friends in town from Washington, DC.  We were making plans to go out for dinner, and I was asked where we could get good pizza in the area.  “There’s really not any great pizza in the Triangle,” I replied.  That was before I knew about Bella Mia, which, with its ultra-hot coal-fired oven, has been hailed as the long-awaited arrival of “real” pizza in the Triangle.  A recent visit confirmed this for me.

Upon entering the restaurant, I felt a little under-dressed in shorts and sneakers, but the space is nicely balanced between the casual and the upscale, save for perhaps the outdated dance music playing on the radio.  The interior is sleek, with dark wood tables and an open kitchen.  It’s a fine place for a nice date or for bringing a 2 ½ year old (as we did).

We ordered a margherita pizza ($9.50) and a “Canal St” calzone ($11), which was stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella, and sausage.  I understand that good pizza is primarily about a good crust, and this crust was delightful, but it must be said that the toppings were what kept this pizza from being extraordinary.  They were actually too sparse: there was a very limited amount of sauce, which was perfectly fine, but the mozzarella slices were alarmingly thin – borderline paltry – and there were only a few small basil leaves on the whole pie.  Furthermore, there was a lot of vacant space between the toppings and the edge of the pie. As a result, all I could really taste was the crust.  Flecked with char spots from the coal-fired oven, it did have a great flavor and texture.  It was poofy on the edges and quite thin, but not crispy, in the middle.

The calzone, on the other hand, was phenomenal.  The ricotta was creamy, the sausage was cut into nice big chunks, and it was stuffed to the edges in the same great crust as the pizza.  Served with a judicious amount of tomato sauce, it was addictive – one of the best things I’ve eaten in the Triangle in quite a while.  The one improvement that could have been made was the plating: the calzone was crudely cut into three large pieces, with a little tomato sauce strewn on the middle section.

The rest of the menu was tempting too.  Bell Mia offers house-made pastas (the lasagna special almost won me over, but I was there, like many I suspect, to try the pizza), and I’ve heard good things about their lemon-rosemary roasted chicken wings, stuffed mushrooms, and nutella dessert pizza.

A note on ordering: the pizzas are about 12” in diameter, but, being thin and not overloaded with toppings, might leave you a bit hungry if split in half.  Most people I observed were ordering individual pies.  The calzone was decidedly more substantial and could probably serve two.  But don’t worry about it too much: any leftovers are not going to go to waste.

In the end, like many other recent commenters, I’m thrilled to have Bella Mia in the Triangle.  Now I know exactly where to go for good pizza.

Rating:  * * * *

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:  * * *