Joule (Raleigh, NC)

joule

Ashley Christensen has introduced a lot of good food to Raleigh over the years.  While I wouldn’t necessarily say that her expansive empire has lent Raleigh a truly unique culinary identity, for me it has begun to dominate the city’s dining scene in the following way: her restaurants are often the first thing that come to mind when I’m asked “what’s good to eat in Raleigh?”    Her latest venture to open, Joule, is not far from two of her other restaurants, Chuck’s and Beasley’s, and takes the place of the old Wilmoore Cafe on Wilmington St.  Each one of these establishments has a distinct focus – burgers at Chuck’s, fried chicken at Beasley’s, and, at Joule, coffee.  Fortunately for me (not a coffee drinker), there’s food to be had at Joule too, and from what I’ve tasted the quality is right on par with the excellent standards for which Ms. Christensen is known.

The Joule space is decidedly more cozy than the austere restaurants down the block.  The warmth comes from the low lighting and the rich color palette (orange/deep turquoise), as well as from the long wooden communal table down the center of the space (an element it has in common with Beasley’s).  There’s also great bar seating along the inside of the deep windows leading to the front door.  This is a great spot for solo diners or laptop warriors.  Finally, there is a very small patio that looks out over the alleyway to the bus station.  In the evening, Joule is more hushed and dark than boisterous.  This is not your average coffee shop – there’s a hostess and full table service, but I’m pretty sure you can get a to-go cup of coffee straight from the counter.  There’s an extensive coffee menu (obviously), some breakfast items, an “all day” menu (lunch and dinner) and, to top it off, a great brunch service on the weekends (replacing that which used to be offered at Ashley’s other downtown institution, Poole’s Diner).  The “all day” menu includes some salads and a soup or two, as well as about 8 sandwich options.

I went with a pork sandwich ($9.75) and my wife had the BLT ($8.75).  We each added some excellent house-made “salt and pepper” potato chips for $2 apiece.  My sandwich featured red curry braised pork shoulder, NC peanuts, house-made yogurt, and a spicy cucumber/red onion/cilantro garnish.  Served on a house-made hoagie roll/baguette hybrid, it was terrific.  But the BLT may have been even better.  If featured some outstanding thick-cut tomatoes, malt aioli, and some great bacon.  This was served on toasted sourdough (also house-made).  My one complaint was that it was exceptionally messy, and the romaine’s crunch was drowned out by all the tomato juices and aioli.  But, really, it was superb.

Ms. Christensen has another winner with Joule.  I really look forward to trying the weekend brunch at Joule, and to whatever comes next from this talented chef/entrepreneur.

Weekend Round-Up: Some of the Triangle’s Best

This weekend I had the chance to visit several Triangle restaurants that just plain rock – these are some of the best the area has to offer:

Thursday night:
Poole’s diner (Raleigh)
Sweet potato soup with burgundy-thyme honey, braised short ribs over smoky collard greens, an excellent baguette with butter, and their renowned macaroni gratin.  I could eat at Poole’s every day.

Friday night:
Carrburritos (Carrboro)
Carnitas mejor burrito – massive, loaded with juicy meat, no rice filler, and deliciously fresh.  Although I’ve always liked this place, I hadn’t been here in quite a while.  I’ll be coming back soon – the burrito was outstanding.

Sunday night:
Chuck’s (Raleigh)
8oz “Spirit Animal” burger – cream cheese, roasted poblanos, grilled tomato, tortilla dust.  A little too much cream cheese, a little too little tomato, and virtually no tortilla dust(?) – but nevertheless sensational.  The best burgers in the Triangle are at Chuck’s.  I wasn’t wowed by the fries on my first visit, but this time they were incredible.

Review: Chuck’s (Raleigh, NC)

Last week I wrote about Beasley’s, Ashley Christensen’s new fried chicken place in downtown Raleigh. Christensen’s ambitious plans for the corner of Wilmington and Martin Streets have now come to fruition with the additional openings of Chuck’s and Fox Liquor Bar, both of which are directly adjacent to Beasley’s.

Like Beasley’s, Chuck’s is devoted to just one classic American meal. In the case of Chuck’s, it’s the hamburger and fries. And just like at Beasley’s and Poole’s Diner, Christensen elevates this simple cuisine through distinctive ambience, quality ingredients, and, most rewardingly, excellent cooking.

The interior of Chuck’s is bare bones but chic, with a simple palette of white, black, and bright red. To emphasize the restaurant’s main culinary attraction, a large image of a cow adorns the front window (complete with hash marks highlighting the shoulder – source of the ground chuck) and several imposing black bull heads are mounted along one interior wall. Despite the huge communal table at Beasley’s, Chuck’s is the more casual spot, thanks in part to the brighter lighting and lack of table service. But whereas Bull City Burger & Brewery in Durham exudes conviviality and a certain charm, Chuck’s hews closer to the no-frills ambience of a Five Guys. It’s more refined (by a huge margin), but it’s a little cold.

This is not a restaurant for vegetarians: your only options are about a half-dozen specialty burgers ($9 each) and a 1/2 lb of Belgian fries (cooked in duck fat, $4). As far as I know, you can’t create your own burger, as you can at BCBB (or most any other burger joint for that matter), but the choices are all quite tempting. My wife opted for the “The Big House” (cheddar, sorghum-dijon, thyme-caramelized shallots) and I went for the “Spirit Animal” (cream cheese, grilled tomato, roasted poblanos, tortilla dust). With your fries, which are meant to be shared by two people, you get your choice of about 7 different dipping sauces, ranging from green-peppercorn Dijon to the mysterious “comeback sauce”. We went with the roasted garlic aioli, and they’ll give you a side of ketchup as well, if you like. The burgers came out quickly, each wrapped in paper. The fries are cutely presented in Chinese take-out style box. When my burger turned out to be the same as my wife’s (not what I ordered), the staff was exceedingly gracious, and offered me a free milkshake to compensate for their error.

The burgers were amazing. While I prefer the heartier bun at BCBB, the patty at Chuck’s was irreproachable: thick with slight charring on the outside, pink and very juicy on the inside. It simultaneously combined the best attributes of burgers from Only Burger and BCBB. It just doesn’t get much better. The fries were also very good, if not the best in the area. Maybe I’m just not a fan of thick-cut fries, but I prefer the shoestring duck fat frites with rosemary at BCBB. Even the regular ones there, or at Only Burger, or – dare I say-  at Five Guys, are about as satisfying as the fries at Chuck’s. The burgers at Chuck’s are big, but not excessively so, and, while 1/2 lb of fries sounds like an awful lot, it’s about right for two people.

Chuck’s also offers a tempting array of dessert-like milkshakes. I’ve tried both their salted peanut butter/roasted banana and pumpkin latte varities ($5 each). Both were excellent, if a bit more vanilla-y than I expected; I’m not sure I would order another.

Chuck’s fits in right at the top of area burger establishments, along with BCBB and Only Burger, and, like Beasley’s, provides a huge lift to Raleigh’s restaurant scene. But perhaps even more so than with Beasley’s, I have to wonder whether Chuck’s strikes the right note for Raleigh. The ambience is not especially inviting. The menu is extremely limited, and the gourmet burgers sound rather exotic, so a lack of customizability may drive away some customers. When I was there on a recent Saturday evening, it was not particularly crowded, and a group of two or three large guys wandered in, perused the menu, and left. The prices at Chuck’s are a little higher than those at BCBB, but I’d say they’re reasonable for one of the best burger experiences in the entire Triangle. I look forward to going back for more.

 Update (10/28/11): You can now get any burger as a 5oz “little chuck” for $6.75, and a side of fries for $2.50.  I believe they are now offering veggie burgers as well.

Review: Beasley’s Chicken & Honey (Raleigh, NC)

image courtesy of raleighcitizen.com

Although I’ve lived in Raleigh for years and enjoy it, I used to consider it’s downtown restaurant scene to be the least appealing of the Triangle’s three cities.    Chapel Hill has a vibrancy, courtesy of the university, that Raleigh lacks, and downtown Durham is both more architecturally interesting and more gastronomically exciting than the capitol city.  But things are starting to change a bit in Raleigh, thanks in no small part to the efforts of one woman, Ashley Christensen.

Poole’s Diner, her flagship restaurant, has for quite some time been one of the top restaurants in the entire Triangle, and now Christensen has opened two new restaurants (and a liquor bar) on Wilmington St. in downtown Raleigh.  Beasley’s Chicken & Honey and Chuck’s share a clean, modern look, a kitchen, and a commitment to the most straightforward of menus: fried chicken at Beasley’s, burgers and fries at Chuck’s.  Their recent openings generated a lot of buzz and instantly boosted Raleigh’s culinary cachet, and I have been eager to try both.

We almost flipped a coin to pick which one to try first, but ended up going with Beasley’s based on the warmer, more inviting lighting on a recent Friday evening.  The space is clean and modern, with one very long communal table running down the middle of the room as well as numerous smaller tables.  You’re seated on a sturdy metal stool.  The aesthetic is rigorous and austere, with a consistent palette of reds, silvers, and blacks, but the quality of the appointments lends a sophisticated urban feel.  At night, small votive candles on each table give a touch of elegance to the space; I imagine that during the day the space is flooded with sunlight from the huge plate glass windows.  Either way, Beasley’s seems better suited to a casual lunch than to a romantic dinner.

As is the case at Poole’s (and Chuck’s), the menu is displayed on a large chalkboard above the bar.  If it seems as though you’re struggling to read it, they’ll bring you a small card describing your choices.  As mentioned, there aren’t many – the menu is extraordinarily simple: you choose between fried chicken or a chicken biscuit (chicken & waffles being a third option, available only for brunch or late at night).  When we were there, the waitress also offered one special, a spicy chicken salad biscuit.  My wife and I each chose the º chicken, dark meat ($7.50).  There are about seven or so side items to choose from, and they all sound fabulous, but it’s probably best to go with just one, as it’s likely to fill you up, and they are priced individually ($3.50).  I went with the “Kennedy biscuits with honey” and my wife chose the “big bad bacon yukon gold potato salad”.

Our food arrived alarmingly quickly.  In keeping with the overall feel of the place, presentation is starkly simple, with the chicken placed upon a bare bones industrial metal plate.  The skin was thin, dark, and very crispy, and the meat was beautifully moist.  For me, the slight drizzle of honey added almost nothing to the chicken; in fact I’d probably rather have chicken without honey.  Although it’s a reasonable portion – a drumstick and a thigh – my wife and I both picked the bones clean and wanted just a little bit more.  It was certainly delicious, if not incredibly flavorful or terribly exciting.  The side items, on the other hand, were brilliant.  The potato salad was heavy with smoky bacon-ness.  It really packed a punch without being overwhelming.  The biscuits, which were served as three very thick triangular wedges, were my favorite part of the meal.  Being partially soaked through with a liberal amount of honey, they were sweet, dense, moist, and addictive.  The honey did much more for the biscuits than it did for the chicken.  Both side dishes were ample portions, with the biscuits in particular being a lot for one person to finish.  It might be nice if Beasley’s offered just one biscuit, a la carte, to go with your chicken and another side dish.  Otherwise, I think the pricing is just right – $11 for high-quality chicken and a side seems like a good deal to me.

Beasley’s is a spot I would absolutely return to for a casual meal.  The restaurant’s take on traditional Southern fare is comforting enough to keep you coming back, but tweaked enough to make it modern and interesting.  With it’s refined aesthetic and prices to match, Beasley’s is  perhaps a curious fit for Raleigh, but one that certainly enhances the appeal of the city.  After all, this is one of the aspects that’s wonderful about Durham, for instance: ambitious restaurateurs serving great food in neat spaces.  In the case of Beasley’s, the communal seating, friendly service, and a lack of pretentiousness soften the edges enough to capture some of the warmth of a classic Southern joint; if people take to it like I hope they will, over time I could see Beasley’s becoming an institution.  Christensen appears to have another winner with Beasley’s, so here’s hoping that her empire, and indeed Raleigh as a whole, continues to flourish.

Exciting Times for Raleigh: New Restaurant Openings

If you love food and live in Raleigh, or indeed anywhere in the Triangle, the following are some exciting developments that will make the city an even more alluring dining destination.

  • The imminent openings of Ashley Christensen’s new ventures: Beasley’s Chicken & Honey (featuring fried chicken, set to open as early as this week), and Chuck’s (featuring burgers).  There’s also the Fox Liquor Bar, which will share a kitchen and taps with the other two joints.  Beasley’s promises to be awesome because, well, it’s fried chicken, and because the former pastry chef from Chapel Hill’s now-defunct Cypress on the Hill will surely craft some great desserts there.  And you can bet that Chuck’s will be great if you’ve ever had the Royale with cheese at Christensen’s flagship establishment, Poole’s Diner.  Check out the recent feature in the Independent weekly for more information (and some pictures of the restaurants’ interiors) or head over to ac-restaurants.com.
  • Word today that Allen & Son’s, the region’s marquee bbq joint, is planning an expansion to Raleigh’s Five Points area.  Not many details yet, but this is definitely an exciting development for bbq lovers who don’t get out to Hillsborough or Pittsboro that often.  Thanks to GoGoRaleigh for this tidbit.