Review: Panciuto (Hillsborough, NC)

Hillsborough is a charming little town, a place my wife and I frequently imagine ourselves living in.  It’s small and quaint, but hip enough to boast its own LocoPops and WholeFoods outposts.  A bit more stately than similarly funky Pittsboro, Hillsborough is home to some good restaurants, including at least one outstanding one: Panciuto.

Situated right on the town’s main street, the restaurant is distinguished modestly by a small black awning above the entrance.  Inside, it’s very warm and cozy.  The dining area is rather small, and, together with the diminutive bar (just a few stools) and a long-abandoned fireplace, as well as plenty of white Christmas lights, it makes for an intimate experience.  This is an upscale restaurant, and the space feels elegant, but simple wooden tables and a few light-hearted prints along an exposed brick wall keep the place from seeming too fancy or stuffy.  Even though the tables against the wall are arranged quite closely together, this is a great restaurant for a date or special occasion.  Tiny fluted glasses of prosecco brought to the table shortly after seating reinforce this celebratory sentiment.

The menu generally represents a sort of hybrid of Italian and Southern American cooking.  The restaurant is completely devoted to local ingredients; a box on one side of the menu shows you where just about every component of your meal comes from and the distance it has traveled.  Impressively, these range from about walking distance (herbs) to no more than a couple hundred miles (NC seafood).

Panciuto is only open for dinner, Wednesday – Saturday, from 5:30pm – 8:30pm.  On Wednesdays and Thursdays, small plates are the order of the evening.  Our waiter informed us that, in general, these were appetizer sized portions, and suggested ordering two selections per person.  Noticing the large plates around us, we were skeptical and went with the following 3 items:

  •     Ricotta gnocchi en crema with baby beet greens, sunny duck egg, vincotto, and asparagus ($12)
  •     Pappardelle with grilled pulled pork, shiitake mushrooms, arugula, mustard butter, and parmesan ($17)
  •     Grilled pork chop with buttered polenta, fried green tomatoes, and green-garlic tomato gravy ($16)

While we waited, a small bread selection arrived at the table.  It featured a very slender slice of focaccia (fine) and a super-buttery soft and flaky parker house roll (better).  But these were both trumped by a wedge of something whose composition most closely approximated that of a muffin, although it was sliced as though from a thin tea cake.  The flavor was lemon poppy seed with just the right amount of rosemary.  It was soft, delicate, and heavenly.

Thoughtfully, the waiter offered to bring us the first dish as an “appetizer” followed by the other dishes.  This worked out perfectly.  The gnocchi dish was beautifully presented, with tiny thimble-sized soft pillows of ricotta arranged around the egg, adorned with the cute microgreens.  This was indeed a small dish – there weren’t more than two or three asparagus tips on the whole plate, but the balance of flavors was lovely.  The vincotto brought a complex and subtle sweetness, and the egg contributed a luxurious richness.  We were off to a great start.

The next two dishes were much more substantial, with the pasta in particular being enough to fill a hungry diner.  The pork chop (an ossabaw heritage breed) represented the apotheosis of grilling.  It was maybe a little overdone, but the flavor was exemplary.  It sat on a small bed of gnocchi-shaped polenta balls and was topped by a few thin slices of excellent fried green tomato.  A small amount of fresh tasting tomato sauce tied it all together beautifully.  Almost as good was the pasta dish.  As with the pork chop, the pulled pork in this dish had a terrific smokiness, but in this case the meat could have been just a little more tender.  There was certainly plenty of it, and plenty of rich cheese as well – combined with the excellent homemade noodles, it made for wonderful comfort food on a cool night.  I felt that the shiitake mushrooms, which were barely cooked, didn’t contribute much to the dish.  I did like that the mustard butter and arugula lent a subtle lemony edge, but it wasn’t quite enough to balance out the cheesy creaminess of the dish.  Still, it was delicious, even if the overall flavor profile wasn’t as sophisticated as that of the pork chop entrée.

For dessert, we opted for the “crema di cogne with sugar dusted cornmeal zeppole and soft whipped cream” ($6).  This was basically two doughnuts with sort of a soft chocolate pudding/mousse accompaniment – another great value as it was perfect for two people.  For me, the zeppole were rather average – light and airy, yes, but just fried dough.  The cornmeal wasn’t lost in the dish, but didn’t really elevate it, either.  The crema di cogne was rich and silky, and I really enjoyed the chocolate flavor with what seemed to be just a hint of liquor.

Overall, our dinner at Panciuto was one of the best meals we’ve had in the Triangle, and it’s easy to see why chef Aaron Vandemark was a James Beard award finalist for best chef in the Southeast.  His restaurant delivers superb flavor in a lovely setting (and outstanding value for certain dishes).  So while Hillsborough itself is worth a drive to check out, Panciuto makes the town all the more special.

Little Hen (Holly Springs, NC)

Little Hen is a new restaurant in Holly Springs that looks very promising.  According to this post over at LunchBoySays, the chefs are bringing a true farm-to-table approach to the food, featuring local, sustainable meats and produce almost exclusively.  The menu will change frequently, and they plan to start a Sunday brunch service in the near future.  For now, it’s dinner only (Tuesday – Saturday).

I’m very excited to try it out!

 

Review: Bull City Burger & Brewery (Durham, NC)

Perhaps no other area restaurant in recent memory has been as eagerly anticipated as Durham’s Bull City Burger & Brewery (BCBB henceforth).  Since well before their late March opening, people have been talking this place up as the next great thing.  With such lofty expectations, perhaps the restaurant was bound to disappoint some.  Indeed, reports of a shaky start cropped up immediately after the place finally opened its doors.  Waits were too long, portions were too small, prices too high.  After reading all of the pre and post-opening comments, I finally got the chance to try it myself yesterday.

BCBB is situated in a rather vast space right in the heart of downtown Durham.  It’s in an old building with high ceilings, but the feel of the place is modern, casual, and welcoming.  There’s an attractive bar, an Enomatic wine dispenser, and a small kid’s play area tucked away in one corner.  Rows and rows of communal seating fills the majority of the floor space, but there are some smaller, more private tables available as well, in addition to a handful of outdoor picnic tables.  Just place your order and pick your seat, and the friendly staff will bring your food right to you.

Much of the hype surrounding BCBB stems from their farm-to-table approach and their dedication to crafting everything in-house, from the buns down to the condiments.  This homey approach is slightly skewered by the “Five Guys” style industrial size boxes of flour and frying oil sitting right beside the order counter.  The menu is straightforward – burgers, dogs, and fries – but offers quite a bit of choice for personalization.  I ordered a “Green Monster” (gruyere, roasted poblanos, shaved raw red onion, $8) and my wife opted for a custom burger with cheddar, mushrooms, and “BCBB sauce”, which turned out to be a tarragon mayonnaise.  With cheese and mushrooms at $1 each, her burger also totaled $8.  Fries are separate, and BCBB offers either “Dirty Fries” (hand-cut, skin-on, peanut oil, $2) or “Duck Frites” (shoestring, finished with duck fat, fresh rosemary, and fleur de sel, $3).  The former were very good, but he latter are the way to go.  The lovely fresh rosemary and perfect seasoning made for some amazing fries.  As for the burgers, both were perfectly pink and very juicy.  The tarragon mayo on my wife’s burger was incredible.  Although mine was also very good, I thought it could have benefited from a little salt and the roasted peppers contributed surprisingly little flavor.  The substantial homemade buns were perhaps a little dense but complemented the juicy patties nicely.  The whole experience was completely satisfying – the best burger and fries we’ve had in the Triangle.

I didn’t try any of the home brews, but BCBB does offer a Boylan soda fountain instead of the usual Coke-Pepsi HFCS-containing selections.  Beverages are served in hefty glass mason jars.  Score two more points for BCBB.

To address some comments I’ve seen: our orders came out promptly, and the portions were huge – I left completely stuffed.  I regard $10 or $11 as a great price for a fantastic burger and fry experience, and I will be gladly coming back as soon as possible.  Next time, I look forward to trying the pretzel-crusted fried pickles and the bacon “bull” peanuts.

 

Saxapahaw General Store (Revisited)

Saturday evening we drove back out to Saxapahaw.  It was a perfect day for a lovely drive in the country.  The gas station/general store/restaurant was bustling when we arrived around 6pm.  They had a great menu scrawled on the chalkboard – coconut braised pork shoulder with fried bananas, braised local short ribs with mashed potatoes, local beef & pork meatloaf, walnut-crusted trout, and so on.  It’s true farm-to-table eating, as everything is sourced locally and sustainably, and just about everything is made in-house in the tiny kitchen behind the counter.  After surveying the menu, we walked up the sidewalk to the new sit-down restaurant and bar adjacent to the gas station.  It’s called The Eddy.  A massive wooden door leads you into a beautiful sun-lit space.  It’s small but cozy and very inviting – all rustic wood tables and chairs, complete with a bar and nice patio.  I perused the menu, which offered similarly delicious-sounding items and prices (roughly $12-18), with a few additions like pork carnitas.  The looks of the fresh bread on the tables and the promise of full table service were tempting, but it was crowded, and we walked back down to the gas station and placed our orders down there.  I went with a rock shrimp “pad thai” and my wife chose a duxelle stuffed chicken dish with mashed potatoes and green beans (both $12).  As we experienced on our previous visit (see post here), it can take a long time to get your food.  My wife’s arrived as a giant chicken leg with a delectable mushroom mixture tucked up under the golden skin, all resting on a bed of the potatoes and some brown gravy.  Mine was a much simpler bowl of noodles, but it was loaded with shrimp and topped with sesame seeds and peanuts.  It was spicy and filling, and the noodles were nicely cooked, but the dish probably could have benefited from more cilantro.  The chicken dish was also very good but wasn’t served hot enough.  That was kind of surprising considering how long we had to wait for the food.  As I observed on our first visit, everything was flawlessly seasoned.  In the end, it was richly satisfying food and a superb value considering the quality of the ingredients and the execution.  We ate it all up and vowed to return again.