Review: Cypress on the Hill (Chapel Hill, NC)

I have not dined at many of the area’s priciest restaurants – I can’t afford to – but sometimes I get as much joy out of a cheap meal at a local haunt than I do from a top-dollar feast at the most upscale of establishments.  For me, Cypress on the Hill is one place that fits into such a conundrum: I enjoyed an excellent – even  outstanding –  meal there, and it was memorable, but it just didn’t leave me itching to go back.

The atmosphere of the restaurant is refined and tasteful, if a bit sterile.  The dining room is punctuated by a couple of circular booths which offer alluring privacy.  It’s a matter of personal taste, but I like an expensive restaurant to be dimmer, warmer, cozier.   Instead, although Cypress is the kind of place where you could propose to your fiancee, it seems better suited as the place you bring her parents, or as a fancy pre-theater dinner spot.  But maybe it’s just me.  Perhaps my disconnect stems from unfamiliarity – like I said above, I’m just not accustomed to fine dining.  Having a tight budget, and especially having a three year old, means eating out is most often a casual affair.  Regardless, there’s something to be said for eating experiences that satisfy completely.

We began with a salad and some fried calamari.  Like everything on the menu, the salad was expensive, at $11, but featured some lovely wine-poached pears and a large disk of local goat cheese.  The poached pears brought a Christmas-y flavor to the dish, and the honey vinaigrette had a pleasant sweetness without mellowing the surprisingly bold flavor of the salad.  Equally striking was the calamari ($9), which had a thin crispy rice coating, and was piled up in a mountain of peppers, napa cabbage, cilantro, and a slightly spicy sauce.   I thought the calamari was the better of the two appetizers.

The bread brought to the table was respectable, but not memorable.  We each received a thin slice of crusty baguette and a small triangle of a crispy focaccia.  I much preferred the baguette, and it was nice to be offered more of my choice later during the meal.

For entrees, I ordered a whole NC snapper ($29) and my wife went with the braised short ribs ($26).  According to the waiter, the former dish was his favorite, while the latter was the restaurant’s most popular.  The presentation of the fish was a bit over-the-top, as it came on a ludicrously oversized oblong plate.  No kidding, the plate was probably 2” wide.  It struck me as less dazzling than showy.  The flash fried fish was propped up vertically, and elegantly curved around a small bed of soba noodles with tomatoes and a sambal butter sauce.  I liked that since the fish was large, the accompaniments, including some excellent green beans, were very reasonably portioned.  The snapper itself was expertly cooked, and, while not utterly distinctive, married well enough with the other ingredients to make a delicious dish.  The braised short ribs were somehow cut into a perfect rectangular block of meat and set upon a bed of winter vegetables and greens, along with tiny, unremarkable cornmeal spaetzle.  I thought the beef itself, though incredibly tender, was rather bland.  For my money, the veggies and greens were the best part of the dish, but my wife enjoyed it thoroughly.

Desserts were magnificent, both in presentation and flavor.  I ordered a chocolate pound cake with stout ice cream and my wife opted for an apple tart (each $7.50).  The menu didn’t make clear what exactly to expect from my dish, so I anticipated a slice of cake with accompanying ice cream.  What I received instead was a small disk of cake as a base for a beautifully molded cylinder of ice cream.  The whole thing was surrounded by a moat of light chocolate sauce, complete with exquisite dark chocolate swirls.  To top it off and add some color, there was a delicate lattice of carefully arranged crispy matchstick sweet potatoes.  Even if it was a superfluous touch, it made for a gorgeous dish.  Though the cake itself was a little dense, the beer flavor of the ice cream was fantastic.  It all came together very nicely, even if the ice cream was just the slightest bit icy.  Even after a big meal, I ate all of it.  The apple tart was a nice departure from the typical as well.  It was served as diced apples and cranberries in crème anglaise, all together in an elegant pastry crust cup.  I only had one small bite, but my wife loved it.

The pace of the meal was surprisingly quick, especially considering the refinement of the dishes and careful presentation of each course.  In particular, I felt a little rushed to go ahead and order, even though, at 6:30 on a Friday evening, we were one of only a handful of patrons.  Other than that, service was exceptionally professional and deferential.

To sum it up, this kind of fine dining has its place and its occasions.  I’d have to put the cooking at Cypress right up there with the top places in the Triangle.  It is expert.  But if it doesn’t quite live up to the Magnolia Grill (former home of Cypress chef Alex Gallis) it might be because the food, while superb, is just not incredibly exciting.  For me, the creativity and intimacy of the Magnolia Grill keep it at the top of my list of the area’s best restaurants.

The calculation of whether to return to these kinds of restaurants is complicated by their expensive nature, but, if money were no object, there are a handful of other area restaurants I’d like to try before returning to Cypress on the Hill.  The sentiment alone suggests the possibility of something even more rewarding.

Rating: * * * *