Notes from Cary, NC

• Baker’s Dozen Donut shop (at South Hills mall) – This place has no website or facebook page, and the sign out front simply reads “Donuts”.  They had a pretty big selection, and prices were cheap if I recall correctly – only 8 or 9 bucks for a dozen, and huge apple fritters for a lot less than $2.  Donuts are pretty run-of the mill from my very limited sampling.  Very sweet, no surprises.    It looks like they stay open until 7 or 8 some evenings.
• La Casa De Las Enchiladas – Kind of a house-like ambience.  Very good salsa to start off with, along with freshly fried chips.  The quesadilla huitlacoche (corn fungus – apparently a Mexican delicacy but a rarity around here) was good enough, but I probably wouldn’t order it again.  The mole poblano was fine, other enchiladas were good and decidedly more spicy than most places (a plus for me).  The torta cubana was massive and contains seemingly every single meat/ingredient they have.  It’s a huge round sandwich that overflows with fillings.  It’s good, and could easily feed two.  There’s also a nice salsa/condiments bar.  I’d definitely go back.
• Lucky 32– We went back again but I have to say I’m consistently underwhelmed.  The menu always sounds great though.  I Finally tried the voodoo pig bread – pulled pork, red onion, chevre, cilantro, voodoo sauce on ciabatta (+ some melted mozzarellla I think).  It was fine but not worth going out of your way for.  The service at this place has always been excellent though.
•  Bella Mia – We finally went back after a long hiatus (and after their change in ownership a while back).  We went with the calzone with ricotta and sausage, which had so wowed us previously.  It was very similar, but somehow not quite as amazingly delicious.  Still really good.  The roasted chicken wings to start were the exact same – very nice!

Review: Trophy Brewing Co. (Raleigh, NC)

trophy

Trophy Brewing & Pizza Co. is a new spot in Raleigh that brings a bit of Durham cool to this side of the Triangle.  This place is the epitome of hip: it’s stylish without feeling forced.  Located on a overlooked stretch of Morgan St. heading into downtown, it has promptly become a place to see and be seen, but it functions equally well as just a nice place to hang out with your friends.  Inside, it’s small – almost too small.  It’s tough to even walk behind the bar on account of a couple rustic barrels that line the glass-fronted space.  Sure, there are handful of patio tables, and you can get full service at the lovely, expansively deep bar, but the bottom line is this: expect a crowd.    The decor is well executed in yellow ochres and browns.  A cadre of trophies lines a high shelf towards the back – it would be cool if these belonged to the owners (also of downtown’s “Busy Bee“) or to the chefs, but I didn’t inquire.

There is a small menu of pizzas and salads.  The pie toppings here are gourmet in the style of Durham’s Pizzeria Toro, but don’t sound quite as inviting (you can create your own too).  You can order a personal size (9″) or a large (18″).  I went with a small “Most Loyal” (basil pesto, chicken, mozzarella blend, tomato, honey, $10) and my wife chose a small “Most Outgoing” (mushrooms, caramelized onions, brie, mozzarella blend, tomato sauce, arugula, also $10).  The crusts here are Lilly’s style, thick and doughy, but perhaps not quite as good.  The amount of bread means though that even a 9″ pie is probably enough for most folks – neither of us were able to finish an entire one.  Overall, I found the pizzas fairly average, even a touch bland.  My wife liked hers a good bit, while I went back and forth on which was better.  I rather liked the honey on mine, which was just a hint but added some needed complexity.  Hers was piled high with fresh arugula and contained some nicely cooked onions, but I kind of missed the brie in there.  Not being much of a drinker, I didn’t try the beer, but it’s well regarded from what I hear.

Trophy kind of reminds me of Durham’s Fullsteam (minus the hangar-like space, and the games, and plus the food).  It’s got the laid-back vibe, the friendly staff, and the cool factor: it’s an easy place to have a good time.  The pizza may not be stellar, or even the best in Raleigh, but this is definitely a place to which I’d return.

Quick Bites: Durham and Hillsborough

Parlour:
Another little “European” charm place (see also Mateo, Toro, …) for Durham.  Irresistibly cute shop with fantastic ice creams.  The also offer indulgent sundae combinations.  I got the malted milk chocolate and it was smooth, rich, creamy – superb!

Return visits to Mateo and Pizzeria Toro:
Intial impressions of greatness confirmed!  Mateo has got to be one of the top restaurants in the Triangle.  And, after visiting Curate in Asheville, I’d say this place is just as good, or even better.  We tried a whole host of different things.  Standouts were the tortilla espanola, a think quiche-like concoction with tender thick-cut potato slices, some very nice meatballs in a tomato sauce, and a chicken/sherry/shallots/lemon/thyme/grits affair that I will be trying in vain to re-create at home.  As for Toro, the mushroom pizza is another winner.  Just the right amount of oil and coarse sea salt on a blistery crust, some fine cheese, flavorful local shrooms, and herbs.  Perfecto!

Hillsborough BBQ Company:
Well they can’t all be winners.  I had been excited to try this place, which cooks over wood.  But the BBQ was pretty lifeless and kind of dry.  The corn pudding on the side was undersalted.  It’s nice that they have three kinds of coleslaw (regular, western, and mustard), but the “regular” was nothing to write home about.  The ribs were better, although I didn’t love the ketchupy sauce.  The best thing was the hushpuppies, little balls of fried goodness.

Pizzeria Toro (Durham, NC)

5937

Recently I wrote about Durham’s Mateo and how it made that city feel ever more cosmopolitan.  While Mateo brings Spanish flair to the Bull City, just down the block Pizzeria Toro bolsters the European vibe with Italian charm and elegance.  It’s not an upscale restaurant, per se, but Toro offers a beautifully simple style, and, more importantly, excellent food.  I’d say it rivals Bella Mia as the best pizza in the Triangle, in a much more attractive setting (for me).  It fits perfectly in Durham, whose restaurant scene continues to evolve with more and more high quality, big-city caliber joints.

Toro occupies a small space that is dominated by a circular wood-fired oven towards the rear of the restaurant.  Actually, the restaurant is shaped like an “L”, with entrances on two adjoining streets: one door to the narrow bar, another (main) door to the dining room.  The space achieves an effortless chic with minimalist decor, but they have clearly put plenty of thought into details like the lighting (spotlights on the wood logs that fuel the oven), flatware, and “hand-towel” napkins.  There’s a communal table in the middle, and high tables along the sides, along with a few window counter seats.  Although the high tables and stools are not really ideal for small kids, the restaurant appears to be adaptable: witness the very small child I saw recently suspended in a basket-like contraption clamped to the side of the table – I’d never seen anything like it.   This place gets crowded, so come early.

The menu is limited in the best way.  A few apps, a few salads, a selection of fine hams (similar to Mateo) and more than enough pizzas to choose from.  The problem is choosing one.  Divided into “red” and “white” categories, they all sound fabulous, many with exotic toppings like spicy lamb meatballs, brussel sprouts, or clams.  Note that the menu changes frequently to feature local seasonal ingredients.  My wife assured me that one pie was enough for both of us, so we chose the onion/taleggio/pistachio (white) pie ($13).  It arrived looking great, with a slightly charred, lightly oiled crust sprinkled with sea salt, hunks of melty tallegio, and plenty of onions.  Indeed, this pie was loaded with raw red and white onions, which was fine by me.  The crust was mildly sweet, and not really as ethereal as that at Bella Mia, but almost as good in its own way.  The toppings were more substantial than I’ve had at Bella Mia.  Overall, the pie tasted great, with perfect seasoning, but I’d be eager to try out a different one next time.  Really minor quibbles would be uneven distribution of toppings and fairly un-crunchy pistachios.  My wife, as usual, was right – the one pie was plenty to fill us both up.

As Durham’s restaurant scene continues to expand in exciting ways, Mateo and Pizzeria Toro are helping to fill some of the Triangle’s bigger culinary voids (excellent tapas and gourmet pizza, respectively).  Judging by the meals I’ve had at each and their initial popularity, here’s hoping these restaurants are mainstays for years to come.  And though I probably won’t mistake myself for being in Barcelona or Florence, I’m thankful that the comparison is even possible.

Trip to Chicago

Last week I was in Chicago for some training for work.  My wife was able to come along for a few days, and we were really lucky to have nice warm weather and the chance to eat some great food:

Sunday brunch:
Nellcote – The dining room is heavily stylized in a borderline gaudy French/New Orleans/flamboyant kind of way.  Think plenty of chandeliers, elaborate wallpapers, and French bistro chairs, mixed with glossy white/orange bar stools, pop artwork, and maybe a sofa or two.  You wouldn’t expect them to have a mill in the basement that’s used to grind their own flour, but they do.  A plate of tiny accoutrements came out first (included with the prix fixe deal).  It included some breads (ok), cheeses (fine), poached figs (good), prosciutto (good, obviously).  House-made apple jam and butter were fine, but the lemon curd dip was excellent.  I ordered the pain perdu and my wife got the quiche lorraine.  Again, the plates were highly stylized.  My dish was three parallel rectangular blocks of fried bread, each with a hefty dollop of creme chantilly on top, plus a bunch of diced apples and some maple syrup.  There wasn’t enough syrup and the whole thing was actually rather bland.  I used the remnants of the lemon curd to liven up the dish.  My wife’s quiche was a super-thick individual pie, but it too was nothing to get excited about.  Overall: neat space, mediocre food.

Sunday dinner:
Giordano’s – “Chicago Classic” stuffed pizza, with pepperoni, green peppers, onions, and mushrooms.  Ridiculously thick and cheesy, decadent and delicious.

Monday breakfast:
Vanille Patisserie (French Market) – Two stuffed croissants: spinach/ricotta and sweet cream.  The latter was the clear winner here, but both were good thanks to the excellent flaky pastry.

Monday lunch:
Wishbone – Our training course instructor took us to this Southern soul food joint.  The cornbread to start off with had good flavor, but was a bit dense.  The beef brisket in my sandwich was superbly tender, but I kept having to add more and more of their dark red bbq sauce.  I didn’t care much for the vinegary coleslaw.

Monday dinner:
Avec – A small precious wooden cube of a restaurant.  Yes, the stools were uncomfortable and it was crowded and loud, but the food was top-notch.  Of course I had to get their signature dish – chorizo-stuffed bacon-wrapped dates with roasted piquillo pepper-tomato sauce.  These were incredible, with an impeccable balance of flavors.  The sausage stuffing was amazing.   We also got the “deluxe” focaccia, another of their standard items.  This was a large flatbread, kind of smoky and charred, filled with a soft creamy mixture of cheeses (taleggio, ricotta), plus truffle oil and herbs.  It was excellent.  Next, marinated chicken thighs, with rice, squash, and apples.  Again, very good, if not quite as exciting, but by this point we were getting a little full.  And finally, warm burrata with grilled eggplant, smoked salt, and lobster mushrooms.  This was not the way we would have chosen to end the meal, and we were really too full to eat much of it.  It was very good, but I wouldn’t order it again.  Still, overall it was an excellent dinner.

Tuesday dinner:
Frontera Grill – This topped Avec.  It was really stellar.  The chips and guacamole were simply exquisite.  My wife and I both thought that the chips were the best we’d had, and the two small accompanying salsas were also nice.  This appetizer is expensive at almost $10, but it was a lot of food for just the two of us.  The menu at Frontera is large and it was very very difficult for me to make a selection.  I went with the “street food trio”, which included potosinas, tlacoyos, and sopes.  The dish came out as three very artfully plated appetizer-sized portions.  I can’t recall all of the details, but they were all delicious.  My wife ordered the pork tacos al carbon.  This came with some outstanding tortillas.  The meat was bathed in a rich sauce that kept me coming back for more.  We also shared a side order of the stewed mushrooms, which come served in a tiny cast iron skillet.  These were creamy, spicy, and delicious.  Wow! – a great meal.

Wednesday dinner:
Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba – not my choice, but it was good.  I went with a large group from my training course, so we ordered a lot (!) of tapas.  Some of them were very good, like the steak with bleu cheese and homemade potato chips, the bacon-wrapped dates (again!!) with apples, the empanadas, the grilled octopus with roasted tomatoes, the tomato sauce/goat cheese dip (served with good crusty bread).  Others were not amazing but competently prepared: a potato/onion omelette/quiche-like thing, fried calamari, shrimp with lemon and garlic, short ribs and mashed potatoes.  The croquetas were too cheesy; they reminded me of a fried mozzarella stick.

Thursday breakfast:
Glazed and Infused – some of the best donuts I’ve ever had.  The maple-bacon long john (seemingly a new standard in the world of gourmet donuts) was great.  It was rivalled by a perfect old-fashioned pumpkin spice donut.  Finally, the salted caramel was also very good, but was covered in an overwhelming amount of chopped peanuts.

Thursday dinner:
Au Cheval – Another small, crowded restaurant, but with a very different feel than Avec.  This place was super dark and richly appointed – sort of a decadent swanky diner that features an unapologetically hedonistic menu.  It almost felt like a bar first, restaurant second, but the quality of the meal left little doubt that this place takes food preparation seriously.  I went with the fried bologna sandwich (pictured above, and which I had seen gloriously depicted on a magazine cover as the “best sandwich in Chicago”).  Did I want a fried egg piled on there too?  I demurred.  Nonetheless, the sandwich was huge – of course – and awesome.  Salty, fatty, cheesy, messy.  It was a very memorable sandwich, and one I’d like to eat often if it could be made about 1000 times healthier.  I also got to try the fried chicken, which incorporated honey to achieve a sesame-chicken kind of effect, and some grilled tomatoes, which had a nice sprinkling of coarse salt on top.

Friday lunch:
Grange Hall Burger Bar – Whereas Au Cheval captured the current fad for rich heavy food, Grange Hall aimed squarely for the bearded hipster vibe.  This place was all about vintage finds, rustic wooden tables, heavily tarnished silverware, flannel plaid shirts, cool music, and “down home, old fashioned” food and friendliness.  I mean, they’ve got hay bales out front to cordon off the small outdoor dining area.  Both restaurants had a studied and deliberate aesthetic, to be sure, but, thankfully, in both cases the food really worked.  I ordered a burger with white cheddar and caramelized onions.  Oddly, it came piled high with plenty of raw red onion as well (easily removed).  While not over-the-top great, it was spot on – juicy and very satisfying.  The fries were awesome – super extra crispy thin wedges of russet potatoes.  I also tried the onion rings, which were astonishingly light and feathery.  The desserts were certainly tempting (homemade pies and ice cream), but not so good.  The pie crusts were way too thick.  My slice of pumpkin pie was slightly chunky – clearly not made from canned pumpkin.  That’s a nice touch, but it didn’t make for a better pie.

I feel so fortunate to have experienced an awesome week of eating like a king in Chicago, both with my wife and with the nice folks I met in my training course.  I did a lot of research on the culinary scene of the city before I went, and my high hopes were fully realized.  Whatever pounds I packed on during the week were definitely worth it!

Enrigo Italian Bistro (Cary, NC)

Cary’s updated Waverly Place shopping center has a lot of nice features – lovely fountains, movies and concerts on the lawn, a small children’s playground, a Whole Foods outpost that is not insanely crowded like Raleigh’s Wade Ave. branch – but it’s a work in progress, and it what it really needs are some great tenants to bring excitement (and people) to the area.  A few decent restaurants and shopping options would help the developers realize their purported goal of emulating the success of Raleigh’s North Hills.

One of the first handful of tenants that is in place is Enrigo Italian Bistro.  It occupies one of the prime spots in the shopping center, with a flowing, expansive, indoor-outdoor setting that allows diners a pleasant view of the courtyard’s grassy field and fountains.  Large glass panel doors that almost always remain wide open mean that the restaurant is really half inside, half out.  The decor is semi-upscale, and the waiters wear all black, but it’s more of a family restaurant than a romantic date spot.

The menu features Italian classics with few, if any, suprises: pastas, pizzas, and panini.  Prices are on the high side, especially for appetizers (for example, fried calamari/shrimp for $12.99).  My wife and I recently split a margherita pizza ($10.99) and a spinach salad ($5.99).  First, there was house-made bread to start off with.  It had a great crumb and was nice and soft, but could have used a touch more salt.  The accompanying olive oil/balsamic vinegar dip was insipid.  The spinach salad was disappointing.  It featured thinly sliced red onions, roasted red peppers (just a few thin strips), and “shaved” parmesan.  The cheese was plentiful, but it was more like little crumbs and tidbits.  The whole thing was brought down by a watery, flavorless balsamic vinaigrette dressing.  The pizza was big, probably around 14″ in diameter, and very thin.  It would be too much food for one person, but not quite enough for two.  The crust was sort of a feathery light crackery-crisp affair that was pleasant enough, but the rest of the ingredients were nothing to get excited about.  The cheese reminded me more of the pre-shredded variety than delicate fresh mozzarella, and the amount of basil on the pie could not have added up to even one leaf.  My wife says the pizza has changed dramatically since Enrigo first opened a few months ago; then, she was thrilled by it, but not this time.

I’d be willing to give Enrigo another shot, because it offers such a pleasant setting, and to try one of their pasta dishes.  And for sure I’ll be back to Waverly Place, especially if they can attract some more good businesses and restaurants.

Salvio’s Pizzeria (Cary, NC)

Salvio’s in Cary appears, in nearly all respects, to be a prototypical (e.g. boring) strip-mall pizza joint.  It’s all there – the nondescript signage, the incongruous burger+fries or wings specials, the bare bones interior.  But it just takes one taste of the pies and to know this is someplace special.

The inside features a number of large booths, a few tables, and a couple of large TVs tuned to ESPN.  A recent remodeling has added a tasteful air to the simple accommodations: fresh black paint and new marble table tops are a step up from the old plain wooden booths.  It’s still a counter service restaurant where you get your own drink, so it’s best for take-out or a quick lunch.

The menu covers all of the standards – pizzas, subs, wings, Italian classics.  Since it’s pretty close to where I work, I’ve had the pleasure of dining at Salvio’s numerous times, but I’ve only tried the pies.  For a quick meal, you can order pre-made “gourmet” slices from the counter window display, of which there are generally a half-dozen or so choices.  On a recent visit I chose a slice of mozzarella/feta/spinach/tomatoes and a slice of ricotta/parsley, which, with a soda, came to just $5.75.   The slices are enormous – I can’t imagine eating more than two.  The friendly staff pops them back into the oven, and, a few minutes later, you’ve got piping hot pizza delivered to you (on paper plates).

Salvio’s crust is exceptional – thin and super crisp, you can just about pick up a whole piece without it collapsing.  The crust gives a satisfyingly shatter-like crack, and the crumb still has a nice chew to it.  Toppings are generous but don’t stand out for exceptional quality, the way they do at, say, Bella Mia.  Both pieces were very good, but the winner was the one with soft mounds of delicious ricotta.  It was a fantastic lunch.

Among NY style pizza in the area, Salvio’s stands head and shoulders above a place like Fuhgeddaboutit.  In fact, Salvio’s comes in behind only the aforementioned Bella Mia in my Triangle pizza hierarchy.  And compared to your average strip-mall pizza place, it is awesome.

Best Pizza in the Triangle?

I obviously still have a lot of places to try (see below), but here are my thoughts on some of the places I have been to.  What are your favorites?  What other places do I need to try?

1.        Bella Mia

2.       Pizzeria Toro

3.       Salvio’s

4.        Lilly’s

5.        Klausie’s

6.        Bocci

7.        Brixx

8.        Fuhgeddaboutit

9.        Maximillian’s Pizza Kitchen

10.        Moonlight Pizza

11.        Pop’s Backdoor South

12.        Cinelli’s

13.        Z Pizza

Still to try: Al Dente, Pie Pushers, Randy’s, Pizza Italia, Schiano’s, Vivace, Marilyn’s, Piola, Rosati’s, IP3, Capital Creations, Paparazzi

Bella Mia Pizza (Cary, NC) – revisited

Our second visit to Bella Mia Pizza in Cary confirmed what we experienced the first time around: if you haven’t been yet, you need to go. Their pizza blows other Triangle pizzas right out of the water (or oven). The crust, charred from the coal-fired oven, is incredible. We ordered a “Houston St.” pie ($12) and a “Canal St.” calzone ($11). The pie had smoked mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and basil. It tasted excellent, but suffered a little on the following two counts. First, the crust, though crispy on the edges, was super thin and soggy in the center of the pie. This made it very difficult to eat, because I couldn’t even quite pick it up without the toppings sliding off. Second, there’s a lot of extra crust space where it’s just bread. On the other hand, the calzone might be my choice from now on.  As I noted after our first trip to Bella Mia several months ago, it is amazing – one of the finest things I’ve eaten in the Triangle – and for only $11!  Stuffed simply but amply with sausage and ricotta, you just can’t stop eating it. We also tried the lemon-rosemary roasted chicken wings ($8 for a small order of about 6-8 wings). These were also delicious, served with some very sweet caramelized onions.

To summarize, you can get other good pizzas in the Triangle, but this is the only great pizza I’ve had in the area.  I look forward to many future visits.

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.