Joule (Raleigh, NC)

joule

Ashley Christensen has introduced a lot of good food to Raleigh over the years.  While I wouldn’t necessarily say that her expansive empire has lent Raleigh a truly unique culinary identity, for me it has begun to dominate the city’s dining scene in the following way: her restaurants are often the first thing that come to mind when I’m asked “what’s good to eat in Raleigh?”    Her latest venture to open, Joule, is not far from two of her other restaurants, Chuck’s and Beasley’s, and takes the place of the old Wilmoore Cafe on Wilmington St.  Each one of these establishments has a distinct focus – burgers at Chuck’s, fried chicken at Beasley’s, and, at Joule, coffee.  Fortunately for me (not a coffee drinker), there’s food to be had at Joule too, and from what I’ve tasted the quality is right on par with the excellent standards for which Ms. Christensen is known.

The Joule space is decidedly more cozy than the austere restaurants down the block.  The warmth comes from the low lighting and the rich color palette (orange/deep turquoise), as well as from the long wooden communal table down the center of the space (an element it has in common with Beasley’s).  There’s also great bar seating along the inside of the deep windows leading to the front door.  This is a great spot for solo diners or laptop warriors.  Finally, there is a very small patio that looks out over the alleyway to the bus station.  In the evening, Joule is more hushed and dark than boisterous.  This is not your average coffee shop – there’s a hostess and full table service, but I’m pretty sure you can get a to-go cup of coffee straight from the counter.  There’s an extensive coffee menu (obviously), some breakfast items, an “all day” menu (lunch and dinner) and, to top it off, a great brunch service on the weekends (replacing that which used to be offered at Ashley’s other downtown institution, Poole’s Diner).  The “all day” menu includes some salads and a soup or two, as well as about 8 sandwich options.

I went with a pork sandwich ($9.75) and my wife had the BLT ($8.75).  We each added some excellent house-made “salt and pepper” potato chips for $2 apiece.  My sandwich featured red curry braised pork shoulder, NC peanuts, house-made yogurt, and a spicy cucumber/red onion/cilantro garnish.  Served on a house-made hoagie roll/baguette hybrid, it was terrific.  But the BLT may have been even better.  If featured some outstanding thick-cut tomatoes, malt aioli, and some great bacon.  This was served on toasted sourdough (also house-made).  My one complaint was that it was exceptionally messy, and the romaine’s crunch was drowned out by all the tomato juices and aioli.  But, really, it was superb.

Ms. Christensen has another winner with Joule.  I really look forward to trying the weekend brunch at Joule, and to whatever comes next from this talented chef/entrepreneur.

Weekend Round-Up: Some of the Triangle’s Best

This weekend I had the chance to visit several Triangle restaurants that just plain rock – these are some of the best the area has to offer:

Thursday night:
Poole’s diner (Raleigh)
Sweet potato soup with burgundy-thyme honey, braised short ribs over smoky collard greens, an excellent baguette with butter, and their renowned macaroni gratin.  I could eat at Poole’s every day.

Friday night:
Carrburritos (Carrboro)
Carnitas mejor burrito – massive, loaded with juicy meat, no rice filler, and deliciously fresh.  Although I’ve always liked this place, I hadn’t been here in quite a while.  I’ll be coming back soon – the burrito was outstanding.

Sunday night:
Chuck’s (Raleigh)
8oz “Spirit Animal” burger – cream cheese, roasted poblanos, grilled tomato, tortilla dust.  A little too much cream cheese, a little too little tomato, and virtually no tortilla dust(?) – but nevertheless sensational.  The best burgers in the Triangle are at Chuck’s.  I wasn’t wowed by the fries on my first visit, but this time they were incredible.

Review: Chuck’s (Raleigh, NC)

Last week I wrote about Beasley’s, Ashley Christensen’s new fried chicken place in downtown Raleigh. Christensen’s ambitious plans for the corner of Wilmington and Martin Streets have now come to fruition with the additional openings of Chuck’s and Fox Liquor Bar, both of which are directly adjacent to Beasley’s.

Like Beasley’s, Chuck’s is devoted to just one classic American meal. In the case of Chuck’s, it’s the hamburger and fries. And just like at Beasley’s and Poole’s Diner, Christensen elevates this simple cuisine through distinctive ambience, quality ingredients, and, most rewardingly, excellent cooking.

The interior of Chuck’s is bare bones but chic, with a simple palette of white, black, and bright red. To emphasize the restaurant’s main culinary attraction, a large image of a cow adorns the front window (complete with hash marks highlighting the shoulder – source of the ground chuck) and several imposing black bull heads are mounted along one interior wall. Despite the huge communal table at Beasley’s, Chuck’s is the more casual spot, thanks in part to the brighter lighting and lack of table service. But whereas Bull City Burger & Brewery in Durham exudes conviviality and a certain charm, Chuck’s hews closer to the no-frills ambience of a Five Guys. It’s more refined (by a huge margin), but it’s a little cold.

This is not a restaurant for vegetarians: your only options are about a half-dozen specialty burgers ($9 each) and a 1/2 lb of Belgian fries (cooked in duck fat, $4). As far as I know, you can’t create your own burger, as you can at BCBB (or most any other burger joint for that matter), but the choices are all quite tempting. My wife opted for the “The Big House” (cheddar, sorghum-dijon, thyme-caramelized shallots) and I went for the “Spirit Animal” (cream cheese, grilled tomato, roasted poblanos, tortilla dust). With your fries, which are meant to be shared by two people, you get your choice of about 7 different dipping sauces, ranging from green-peppercorn Dijon to the mysterious “comeback sauce”. We went with the roasted garlic aioli, and they’ll give you a side of ketchup as well, if you like. The burgers came out quickly, each wrapped in paper. The fries are cutely presented in Chinese take-out style box. When my burger turned out to be the same as my wife’s (not what I ordered), the staff was exceedingly gracious, and offered me a free milkshake to compensate for their error.

The burgers were amazing. While I prefer the heartier bun at BCBB, the patty at Chuck’s was irreproachable: thick with slight charring on the outside, pink and very juicy on the inside. It simultaneously combined the best attributes of burgers from Only Burger and BCBB. It just doesn’t get much better. The fries were also very good, if not the best in the area. Maybe I’m just not a fan of thick-cut fries, but I prefer the shoestring duck fat frites with rosemary at BCBB. Even the regular ones there, or at Only Burger, or – dare I say-  at Five Guys, are about as satisfying as the fries at Chuck’s. The burgers at Chuck’s are big, but not excessively so, and, while 1/2 lb of fries sounds like an awful lot, it’s about right for two people.

Chuck’s also offers a tempting array of dessert-like milkshakes. I’ve tried both their salted peanut butter/roasted banana and pumpkin latte varities ($5 each). Both were excellent, if a bit more vanilla-y than I expected; I’m not sure I would order another.

Chuck’s fits in right at the top of area burger establishments, along with BCBB and Only Burger, and, like Beasley’s, provides a huge lift to Raleigh’s restaurant scene. But perhaps even more so than with Beasley’s, I have to wonder whether Chuck’s strikes the right note for Raleigh. The ambience is not especially inviting. The menu is extremely limited, and the gourmet burgers sound rather exotic, so a lack of customizability may drive away some customers. When I was there on a recent Saturday evening, it was not particularly crowded, and a group of two or three large guys wandered in, perused the menu, and left. The prices at Chuck’s are a little higher than those at BCBB, but I’d say they’re reasonable for one of the best burger experiences in the entire Triangle. I look forward to going back for more.

 Update (10/28/11): You can now get any burger as a 5oz “little chuck” for $6.75, and a side of fries for $2.50.  I believe they are now offering veggie burgers as well.

Capital Club 16 (Raleigh, NC)

image courtesy of flickr

When my wife and I lived downtown, more than 5 years ago, there wasn’t much going on. Walking around the city at night, we wouldn’t see too many people; it was rather bleak.  This was before Fayetteville St. was transformed from a desolate concrete stretch to an open boulevard and before places like the Raleigh Times existed to draw people away from the entertainment hub of Glenwood South.  A lot has changed since then, but one of the most notable and welcome developments is the opening of some good restaurants downtown.  I’m thinking of places like, among others, Poole’s Diner, The Pit, Dos Taquitos Centro, Sitti, the Busy Bee Cafe,  and, very recently, Beasley’s Chicken & Honey.  Another place that figures squarely in downtown Raleigh’s renaissance is Capital Club 16, a restaurant that, even if it’s culinary star doesn’t shine quite as bright as some of the other places mentioned above, has nevertheless become a hip urban nightlife destination.

The restaurant is housed in a lovely, grand space on the corner of Martin and Salisbury Streets.  It’s inviting and feels sophisticated, even a little luxurious, while retaining it’s pitch-perfect of-the-moment coolness.  Part of what makes it work is the gorgeous furniture – all beautiful rustic dark wood and marble tables along with stately but sleek vintage chairs.  The dark browns and black contrast nicely with the white walls.  It’s as nice of a place to take a date as it is to conduct a lunch time business meeting.

The menu is small and has a bit of a German bent to it, with schnitzel sandwiches and various sausages on offer.  I ordered one of the night’s specials, a “Chicago-style beef” sub with fries ($10), and my wife ordered the burger with pimiento cheese ($9).  Despite arriving au jus, mine was closer to a Philly cheesesteak than to a French dip.  Regardless, it was one of the better renditions of either I’ve had in a while, with a bit of a salty and wine-tinged bite.  The extra jus was completely unnecessary.  Unfortunately, the hoagie roll was a bit weak for the job, and became rather mushy during the course of the meal.  The fries were decent, pleasantly airy and crispy, but nothing memorable.  My entree also came with a very small cup of vegetables in vinegar.  I didn’t care for it, but it wasn’t much to discard: one little crinkle-cut carrot coin, a tomato fragment, a celery sliver.  I also thought the plating could use a little improvement, as my pickle spear was buried under a mountain of fries, along with a few other mysterious pieces of cooked celery.  Service was attentive and professional.  It was a solid meal, but nothing to get too excited about.

Although I’d go back to Capital Club 16, I don’t feel inclined to hurry back, and it wouldn’t be at the top of my list of downtown eateries.  There are too many other good choices now, with even more on the horizon.  Still, thanks in part to places like this, things are looking up for downtown Raleigh,

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.

Review: Poole’s Downtown Diner (Raleigh, NC)

Despite it’s name, Poole’s can only be loosely characterized as a diner; the top-notch ingredients (all local and sustainable) and high end cooking ensure that the restaurant goes far beyond any run-of-the-mill greasy spoon joint.  That said, the elements of a diner that are retained are some of the best: the inviting counter seating, the easy informality, the simplest of platings, and the loud bustling ambience.  Indeed, it is a dark, small space that fills up quickly.  If I had to liken Poole’s to any other triangle restaurants, they would have to be Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill (for the elevation of simple American cooking) and Lilly’s Pizza in Raleigh (for the rollicking atmosphere).

The menu at Poole’s is scrawled on chalkboards that line the upper reaches of one side of the restaurant.  Depending on where you’re seated, you may be able to study it easily, or you may have to get up and find a better vantage point.  Everything is a la carte, but side dishes are large and meant to be shared.  Service can be slow at Poole’s, but the food is worth the wait.

To begin with, the bread that came out first was heavenly.  A salad with pomegranate seeds was nicely dressed and refreshing.  My chicken and mashed potatoes dinner entree was starkly simple but perfectly executed.  And what of the restaurant’s famed macaroni and cheese?  It was creamy and decadent – borderline sublime.  I can’t recall better iteration of these classic comfort foods.  Similarly magnificent was the royale with cheese – a squashed tennis-ball size open face burger on brioche.

If dinner was nearly perfect and reasonably priced (although I can’t recall the exact figures), a recent brunch visit was a small step down and downright expensive.  I ordered a pimento cheese BLT ($12) and my wife opted for an omelette with squash, chevre, and basil ($11).  We ordered hash browns on the side for $4.  A blueberry hotcake looked extraordinary (complete with a giant pat of butter), but for $12?  A biscuit with blueberry jam for $5?  To be fair, my sandwich was enormous.  It was stacked about 6 inches high, primarily on account of two half-inch thick tomato slices.  And it was undeniably delicious, although I felt the cheese/bacon ratio was too far in favor of the cheese, which  was verging on overwhelming with its very strong taste.  Moreover, the sandwich was not served on challah bread as the menu described, but on simple toasted white bread.  The omelette was also quite good but relatively unremarkable.  The hash browns were fabulous as chunks of softened pan-fried potatoes with a nice charry, smoky note.

Since moving on from the excellent Enoteca Vin, chef Ashley Christensen has garnered widespread acclaim and growing stardom, and found even greater success with Poole’s.  It’s the best restaurant in Raleigh, in my opinion, and one of the top handful in the entire Triangle.

Note: seating is limited, and Poole’s does not take reservations.  The menu changes frequently and therefore is not posted on the restaurant’s website.

Rating:  * * * * 1/2

Review: Piedmont (Durham, NC)

Piedmont is a restaurant of a type that, though imperfect, I wish could be found more readily in the Triangle, and especially in Raleigh.  For me it’s similar to the former Enoteca Vin, a sophisticated place with excellent, locally sourced ingredients and good preparation.  But unlike that restaurant (whose chef, Ashley Christensen, went on to perhaps greater success at the more raucous Poole’s Diner), Piedmont suffers a bit more from a lack of consistency, and, more importantly, from a menu that has some winners and losers.  I wish Piedmont delivered top-notch choices at every turn.

The space is modern, warm, and inviting, with an open, airy ambience.  It’s much more cozy than, say, Humble Pie in Raleigh, whose expansive space feels only hangar-like.  The lighting at Piedmont is dim but contrasts nicely with the dark polished concrete floor on the entry level.  There’s a small upper level for dining as well, which is made much more appealing by the addition of two sklylights.  It’s nice place to have a meal, and the feel of the place is well matched to the food.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve dined at Piedmont numerous times.  What I’ve found is an overall high level of quality, but a need for greater attention to detail, a bit of inconsistency, and most importantly, a lack of brilliance carrying through the entire menu.  Although some dishes have been exceptional, some have not.  For example, I recently had an amazing ½ poulet rouge with creamy mashed potatoes – simple, elegant comfort food that was as good as a similar dish at Poole’s.  This dish had me believing that Piedmont was a top 5 Triangle area restaurant.  But I’ve also had a crispy leg of duck confit that was not crispy, a bit greasy, and accompanied by heavily over-salted pan-fried potatoes.  The worst part about this particular dish was that my wife ordered the same thing, and we received two different plates.  While hers was artfully presented with braised greens (as described in the menu), mine was clearly just tossed on the plate haphazardly.  The duck was off to one side, barely resting on the potatoes, and there were no greens at all.  Although the waitress did bring me a side of the greens upon request, the lapse and the shoddy plating irked.

In addition to these dishes, I’ve also eaten respectable, though underseasoned, pomme frites with terrific aioli (an outstanding value at $5 for a gigantic bowl of fries), lackluster raviolis that overpowered with creamy cheesiness (a lack of nuance), unremarkable arancini, delicious first course cheeses with very nice grilled fruit-nut bread, and a good rendition of shrimp and grits for brunch.  Speaking of bread, the bread served at the beginning of each meal is not my favorite – salty focaccia chunks and baguette-like slices that I prefer to be less soft and more crusty.

In the end, I’d recommend Piedmont for brunch or lunch over dinner, and, if you go for dinner, you might stick with the meats and potatoes over the pastas and risottos.  I must say that I have not tried any of their fish dishes, or any of their tempting house-made sausages.  Dinner entrees hover close to the $20 range, and, though portion sizes are large, a better value can probably be had at the other meal times as well.

Rating:  * * * *