Mandolin (Raleigh, NC)

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The corner of Fairview and Oberlin Rds in Raleigh would seem to be a prime business location right in the heart of the upscale Five Points neighborhood. But while a small Chinese restaurant endures there, the spot next to it has had a handful of tenants come and go over the years, from Bellini to Mangia/Eat to EVOO and on back. Fortunately, that space is now occupied by Mandolin, a lovely farm-to-spot that, based on my recent experience, deserves more attention in the Raleigh (and broader Triangle) dining scene.

The space is gorgeous, subtle, and refined, with brick floors and light grey walls. Accented by nice lighting, ample use of wood, and pops of freshly picked flowers, it shows a meticulous attention to detail. This is a white tablecloth and white leather chair kind of place – it’s definitely more fancy than casual. But it doesn’t feel too stuffy, and there’s a small bar at the rear of the space, complete with a TV for watching the game. At a recent Sunday brunch, the place was nearly vacant at 10:30, save for a few well-heeled Raleighites and a young hipster couple.

The brunch menu is inviting, and generally covers the modern Southern repertoire. Many of the ingredients are sourced locally, and so the menu purports to change frequently, but many of the dishes I’ve seen listed online occasionally were available.  After studying the menu for a few minutes, we were informed that the biscuits were still baking, but would be out soon. This quickly dissuaded me from ordering the biscuits and gravy. When they arrived, however, they were two well-browned dinner rolls, served piping hot with some honey butter. They were perfectly delicious, even if I wouldn’t describe these yeasty delights as “biscuits”. I ordered the pork madame (pulled pork, fried egg, and gruyere on sourdough, $12) and my wife ordered the Ham benedict (country ham, poached eggs, hollandaise, smoked paprika, $12). It was a monstrous sandwich, with the egg and cheese melted on top. The vinegary-ness of the pork was a pleasant surprise, and the bread was excellent, even if there was a bit too much of it. The dish really worked well. It was served with a tiny green salad and some home fries, the latter of which were one of the best renditions of had – exquisitely crusty and crunchy and well seasoned. My wife was almost as happy with her dish, although country ham can sometimes be a bit overpowering for her.

The service at Mandolin was attentive and excellent, though it would have been nice to be informed early on about the complimentary “biscuits”. I look forward to going back for another brunch or for dinner, but do note that entree prices for dinner are generally $20-$30. To me, Mandolin is quietly one of the best restaurants in Raleigh, so here’s hoping it stays around for a long time to come.

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.

Lilly’s Pizza (Raleigh, NC)

Lilly’s Pizza is a Raleigh institution, a place where loud rock music, yuppies, hipsters, and great pizza converge in a tiny restaurant in the city’s five points neighborhood.  Everything about the place is loud, from the conversation-limiting rock and roll, to the outlandish décor (including mannequins, wild paint, and backgammon-style table tops), to the waiters forced to yell your name when your pizza is ready, to the full-flavored pies that the scruffy-looking staff turns out.

The place is small and a line builds quickly in the evenings, making tables scarce and maneuvering room even more so.  After placing your order, you grab your own paper plates and utensils, but the place is not without its charms.  In warm weather, the tiny patio out front is a wonderful spot for dining and people watching.  And of course the pizzas themselves are superb.  Lilly’s focuses on natural and local ingredients.  Their thick crusts have a mysterious, subtle sweetness that is not unwelcome, and the range of toppings and specialty pizzas is extensive.  My personal favorite is the “Buddha” – spinach, zucchini, tomatoes, white cheddar, feta, and olives.  Lilly’s also offers a good range of salads, and you can purchase their pizza dough too.