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.

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.

Piedmont Farm Tour

This Saturday and Sunday is the 16th annual piedmont farm tour – billed as “America’s largest farm tour”.  It’s a great way to learn about the Triangle’s local and organic farm & food scene.  You’ll get to meet local farmers & tour their farms!

With 6 new farms and 40 farms in all, the 2011 Piedmont Farm Tour has something for everyone! We are pleased to add to the tour this year, beautiful Lindale Organic Dairy, a 5th generation farm, an exciting new permaculture-style farm up in Hillsborough  –  Ever Laughter Farm, and Cozi Farm, which is raising animals near downtown Saxapahaw!  And, Suki Roth will be opening up her Herb Haven!  These farms, plus lots of your favorites, will make a great tour!

Load up a car with your friends and family , choose the farms on the map you’d like to visit and get out in the countryside! The tour is self-guided and farms and sites are located throughout the Triangle in Alamance, Chatham, Durham, Orange, and Person counties.. Visit any farm in any order. And, don’t forget to take a cooler so that you can take home some of the farm fresh products for sale at many farms!

Advance tickets are $25/car.  On the days of the tour, tickets will be $30.  The farms will be open from 1pm – 5pm each day.  For more information, maps, and tickets, visit http://carolinafarmstewards.org/pft2011.shtml

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.

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: * * * *

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:  * *

Weekend in Charlottesville

Boasting gorgeous mountain scenery, a beautiful college campus, distinguished history, and a wonderful small-town feel, Charlottesville (VA) is a great vacation destination.  The home to the University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is situated near the blue-ridge parkway, and is a short 3-4 hour drive from the Triangle.  It makes for a fabulous weekend getaway, especially at this time of year.  The ride up is lovely, passing through Danville and Lynchburg and by countless weathered barns and a handful of road-side antique shops where you can spend hours combing through mountains of junk, or gems, depending on your disposition and luck.

My wife and I recently went for a short weekend jaunt, with one of our goals being to explore the city’s great foodie/locavore culture.  Our first meal was lunch at Feast!, a gourmet grocery in the city’s awesome Main St. Market.  Home to an organic butcher, a florist, a seafood vendor, an excellent bakery, a cooking supply store, and a restaurant or two (in addition to the gourmet grocery), the market is a true foodie mecca, the likes of which would be a perfect addition to the Triangle culinary scene (Raleigh in particular).  Sure, we have a Southern Season, but the neighborhood feel of Charlottesville’s Market, combined with the florist, butcher, and bakery, set it apart as someplace you’d want to go all the time.  Feast! is like a tiny, fancier Whole Foods, with prices to match.  A small 3oz (?) tub of local pumpkin chevre (incredible, by the way) set us back over $7.  It’s little café serves up fantastic sandwiches and sides: my wife tried a turkey, cheddar, and fig chutney on ciabatta, and I had the local prosciutto, tomato, mozzarella, and basil on a beautiful baguette.  A small cup of butternut squash-lentil soup was equally as satisfying.

Later that afternoon, we headed to the Vintage Virginia apple festival, about 15 miles outside of town.  Here I tried Winesap, Gold Rush, Pippin, Rome, and many other varieties of the delicious fruit, and came away with a few pounds worth for home.  The highlight of this adventure, though, was the apple cider donut from the Carpe Donut truck.  Warm, fluffy, and not overly sweet, it was certainly one of the best donuts I’ve ever had.

Dinner that night was terrific as well.  The Local, as the name implies, serves up a delightful modern menu of pastas and mains prepared with regional ingredients (witness the “60 mile salad”, in which all components are sourced from within that radius).  Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, it’s a small restaurant with lots of charm.  To begin with, we were served perfect crusty baguette slices with herb butter.  My wife and I both opted for the chicken dish – stuffed with goat cheese and VA country ham, and served with some sort of brandy-apple-cream sauce over a roasted potato medley.  Although the chicken was a bit overcooked and the potatoes were truly miniscule, the creamy sauce was sensational and the price ($15) was great considering the quality of ingredients used.  I thought asparagus was an odd choice for a seasonal vegetable accompaniment, but I didn’t ask about it.

The next day, we met friends for a late brunch at L’Etoile.  This restaurant is located on two floors of a small, cute downtown building.  The effect is residential, French, and seductive.  For lack of a better description, it is ridiculously charming.  Despite the Frenchiness, the brunch menu features the staples of upscale Southern American brunches: biscuits, shrimp and grits, eggs, and so on.  I opted for the “3 star breakfast” which included a biscuit with sausage gravy (very nice), scrambled eggs (good), bacon (poor), and hash browns (worse).  My wife had a hollandaise-english muffin kind of thing, which featured some very runny eggs.  The shrimp and grits looked nice but the portion size was tiny.  And a chicken salad sandwich looked very average.  We all loved the space, but the meal was a bit disappointing.  On top of that, the service, including the hostess, was best described as bewildered.  I’d try somewhere else next time.

Before heading out of town, we picked up dinner (for the road) at the Greenwood Grocery and Gourmet Market, about 10 miles west of town.  The place was like a country store/Feast! hybrid, with all manner of local groceries and a little counter serving prepared foods.  Unfortunately, being Sunday evening, the sandwiches were not available, though they sounded oh-so tempting (think house made local beef meatballs with homemade marinara and provolone on ciabatta).  We ended up with some curry chicken salad (good but underseasoned), a loaf of local sourdough (excellent), and some regional potato chips and root beers (respectable).  As we ate in the car on the way home, passing right by McDonalds and Wendy’s, we thought: when are we coming back?

Eastern Triangle Farm Tour

Photo by Molly Hayes

The 5th Annual Eastern Triangle Farm Tour is coming up on Sat. & Sun. Sept 18 & 19, from 1 to 5 PM.  This is a great way to learn about regional agriculture in general, and in particular about where some of the best local food comes from.

From the organizers: This year there are a record twenty-four sites on the tour, including eight new farms!  We will be showcasing ten farms with sustainable and humane livestock operations, getting the word out about healthy, local meat options.  Several are Animal Welfare Approved and all have beautiful animals!

On the urban scene, we are happy to welcome an urban mini-farm in Durham (Two Ton Farm sponsored by Bountiful Backyards) and the farm of the Inter Faith Food Shuttle in Raleigh.  These farms, along with the SEEDS Garden in Durham, highlight how to grow a lot on small acreage in the city and how youth can be engaged in the movement.

Another newcomer to the tour this year is Durham County’s newest goat dairy; located in Bahama, Prodigal Farm has 65 goats and a brand new milking parlor and cheesemaking building.  We will have mushrooms again (Spain Farm) and honeybees for the first time (Betsey’s Bee Farm.)  And, of course, the tour includes a strong collection of vegetable, flower and fruit producers, where foodies and growers can learn about organic and sustainable horticulture practices.

Buttons are $25 per carload in advance and $30 the day of the tour.  Single farms are $10 per carload. More information, including the tour brochure, an interactive Google map of all the farms and ticket information are available at the following website:

www.carolinafarmstewards.org/etft2010.shtml

Saxapahaw General Store

The aisles are lined with STP motor oil and Seventh Generation soaps.  The coolers are stocked with Gatorades and Goat Lady Dairy’s local organic cheeses.  The freezers are full of frozen Snickers ice-cream bars and Cane Creek Farm grass-fed meat.  The shelves offer Starburst candies and The Accidental Baker’s artisan crackers and granolas.  This is the Saxapahaw General Store, the gas-station gourmet food mart and restaurant that is generating lots of buzz in the Triangle food world and beyond.

Located in the tiny town of Saxapahaw, on the banks of the scenic Haw River, this might be the greatest gas station a hungry traveler could ever stumble upon.  Off of Highway 54 well south of Graham, NC, it’s about an hour drive from Raleigh, or less than 30 minutes from Chapel Hill.  But it’s a worthwhile foodie destination, and I’m looking forward to my next visit.

We went on a recent Saturday for lunch.  Scrawled on a chalkboard sign were the day’s specials – meatloaf sandwich, crabcake on croissant.  I opted for the brisket sandwich on ciabatta, with lemon-garlic aioli, swiss cheese, and caramelized onions ($8).  While we waited, I strolled around the sun-filled store and browsed the wide array of local, organic food offerings, nestled among the usual suspects of a gas station convenience store, without regard for incongruity.

The store has an extensive menu, ranging from delicious sounding breakfasts (“house-made biscuits with cane creek farm sausage and homemade gravy”) to southern brunch staples (shrimp and grits, which looked fantastic on a neighboring table) to homemade pizzas (on homemade dough, with homemade sauce) to a wide array of sandwiches, including local goat and local beef burgers.  From what I’ve read, the dinner specials are likely to feature whatever’s fresh and on hand, and generally comprise a menu that you’d be more likely to find in a high-end city restaurant such as Piedmont, Watt’s Grocery, or Poole’s Diner.

It took quite a while to get our food, but it was worth the wait.  The sandwich appeared to be served on grilled focaccia, not ciabatta (either way it appeared to be homemade), but that proved to be irrelevant.  It was exquisite, with tender, falling-apart beef and perfect proportions.  Duck fat fries ($3) on the side were not as expected – they were “home-style” fries – but they were undeniably delicious and perfectly seasoned with very coarsely ground pepper.

Also available at the front counter were a variety of homemade pastries, cookies, and other desserts.  The pastries looked great – everything from a blackberry turnover to lemon ginger scones to cranberry-white chocolate cookies.  A chocolate-pecan pie ($4/slice), on the other hand, looked a little sad, and, I confirmed later, tasted rather unremarkable.  I also sampled a chocolate chip cookie ($1.50) and the blackberry turnover ($4), both of which were respectable, if not brilliant.

Still, this place is a real gem.  Your meal can be taken inside, at a decidedly unglamorous booth, or outside on nice patio (as charming as can be, considering it’s situated 20 feet from some gas pumps).  Prices are generally on the higher side, but reflective of the top-notch ingredients employed, and worth every penny.

Rating: * * * *

Note: see their facebook page for more information

Scratch Bakery (Durham, NC)

Phoebe Lawless is the baker behind Scratch, a Durham start-up that is garnering widespread attention (see recent mention and recipe in Bon Appetit magazine).  And deservedly so, as she creates some amazing pies, pastries, and treats.  Last week, Lawless opened her highly anticipated retail location on a quiet, leafy side street in downtown Durham.  It’s an immensely charming space, with a clean, modern feel.  The glass store-front, high ceilings, and exposed brick walls give an airy, casual ambience. The tables are heavily lacquered turquoise wood, the floor is a nice smooth tile, and the remaining walls are brightly colored without being overbearing.  A smattering of outdoor tables lends a nice European café feel and makes you want to linger.

Back inside, a glass-fronted counter showcases all manner of tempting creations, with little chalkboard signs describing the offerings and their prices.  A recent visit confounded with choices like local lamb & rice empanada, pesto & farmers cheese stromboli, zucchini crostata, some kind of bruschetta involving a giant wedge of cheese, and, of course, donut muffins – dense, cake-like muffins rolled in immense quantities of sugar.  But that was not all.  As we sat eating, more goodies arrived, notably slices of pizza, with topping like guanciale/garlic scape/asiago or new potato/broccoli/ricotta.  Further down the counter, a glass case featured more of the sweeter creations, such as a crumb cake, a blueberry pie, and some cheesecake squares, among others.  Still further down the counter, another glass case featured some vegetable side dishes and cold salad items, such that you could really put together a nice lunch.  Without exception, everything looked beautifully crafted and delicious.

Where Scratch really excels, I think, is with the execution of its crusts and crostatas.  But it’s not just the extraordinary crusts, it’s the fillings too.  The zucchini/sautéed onion/cheese crostata we tried was fabulous.  In the past, I’ve had a butternut squash/chorizo empanada and a dark chocolate/sea salt pie that were among the best pastries I’ve ever eaten.  By constrast, the pesto stromboli was definitely yummy, but I found the dough to be too soft and fluffy-pillow like, and I felt there was not enough of the filling.  A simple sticky bun was nicely nuanced but a touch dry.  And the lemon shaker pie I tried, while beautifully executed, was difficult to eat.  I felt it needed a bit more sugar to counter the dominating taste of the lemon slices.

In the end, Scratch is a terrific addition to the Triangle dining scene.  It’s the kind of place you’d expect to find in a much bigger city.  The bakery fosters a wonderful link to the area’s farmers by featuring local organic ingredients almost exclusively.  To be sure, the top-notch ingredients and excellent craftsmanship are reflected in the bakery’s prices – at $4 for slice of pizza, $5 for a small crostata or slice of pie, or $6 for a (fairly large) empanada, you can run up a big bill quickly.  But the quality of the food is well worth it.  When we were there the place was packed, and I hope it stays that way.

P.S. Scratch also sells at the Durham farmer’s market on Saturdays and, for the truly converted, (all it takes is one bite), through her pie-a-week subscription plan.  Check out their website (under construction) at:

http://www.piefantasy.com