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.

Coquette (Raleigh, NC)

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image courtesy of Kaitelug.wordpress.com

After several years, I finally got a chance to try Coquette, the French restaurant in Raleigh’s North Hills.  Perhaps the main draw of this place is the atmosphere – it’s lovely.  Coquette deliberately intends to recreate that quintessential French brasserie, and comes damn close with the look and feel – black and white flooring, marble surfaces, cafe tables and chairs, nice lighting, etc.  It’s elegant and refined, and, even if it’s little vast to feel entirely cozy, it’s a beautiful place to come eat.  The only place I know in the Triangle that’s even more wonderfully French is Durham’s Vin Rouge.

Unfortunately, the food I tried did not live up to the setting.  We went for a late lunch one day, and I was hungry.  The menu runs the gamut of French standards – steak frites, moules frites, quiches, crepes, soups, you name it.  There are a handful of sandwiches as well, including a $10-$12 hamburger.  I started with the gruyere and potato croquettes ($5).  These arrived as 2 or 3 oblong balls in a cute tiny pewter-looking chalise.  They suffered principally from a very thick fried coating similar to what you’d expect on a cheap frozen fried mozzeralla stick, and were a little overcooked.  My wife thought the accompanying garlic aioli tasted like straight up butter.  We didn’t finish them.  I moved on to a “frisee aux lardons” salad (curly endive, brioche croutons, cider grain mustard vinaigrette, $7).  No complaints there.  Finally I had the “Parisian Gnocchi” (chicken confit, butternut squash, dried cranberries, spinach, $8.5).  This was listed as under  “les petits plats” (small dishes), and it wasn’t huge, but, with a salad, was definitely enough for a full meal.  The problem was it just wasn’t very good.  The gnocchi were a bit dense, but, more than that, it was a rather unappealing, uninspired combination.  My wife ordered a croque madame ($8.5), which featured a very runny egg, and came with a huge mountain of slim french fries.  She was happy enough with her meal.  I tried the fries, and they were ok.

Would I return to Coquette?  Yes, for the atmosphere, professional service, and the hopes of a good brunch perhaps.  And you feel like you’re in France.  But for outstanding French food, I’d probably head elsewhere.  My top choice in the area would be Durham’s Rue Cler.

Joule (Raleigh, NC)

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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.

Review: Trophy Brewing Co. (Raleigh, NC)

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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: Soo Cafe (Raleigh, NC)

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image courtesy of flickr

My experience with this place dates back to the super bowl (sorry), but I encourage you to get over to this place soon and get some Korean fried chicken.  The crust is shatteringly crisp (the result of some rice flour and double frying(?)), and the pieces are bathed in your choice of sticky deliciousness: spicy, soy-garlic, or sweet.  I’ve tried the latter two, and prefer the sweet.  Note that this place has a miniscule, inconquerable parking lot and, perhaps more importantly, that it takes some time for your order to be prepared.  Calling ahead is a fine idea.  Best of all, the pieces don’t really suffer on the way home or overnight.  Their menu has other choices, but I wouldn’t choose take-out (or dine in) wings from anywhere else in the area.

Quick Bites: Guasaca (Raleigh, NC)

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image courtesy of flickr

Everybody’s been going here and writing about it, and I’d say it lived up to the hype.  The comparisons to Chipotle are apt, if inevitable, but the food here is fresher and more vibrant.  My wife liked the pork with beans arepa, while my favorite, surprisingly, was the steak with caramelized onions (not always a fan of the steak in these kinds of dishes).  The fish/plantains special was my least favorite.  Next time I’ll create my own arepa.  I loved the arepas themselves – think thick, moist corn tortillas.  The sauce for each is served on the side, which is nice but a little confusing: do you pour it on?  dip it?.  The house “guasaca” sauce (somewhat like a chunky guacamole/pico de gallo hybrid) is delicious.  The place is super clean and the staff is friendly.  I’m eager to go back for more.

Kindred – Kickstarter Campaign

My wife, the inimitable Michelle Smith, is helping establish Kindred, a boutique and retail incubator in downtown Raleigh that will feature the work of emerging North Carolina designers.  It’s going to be awesome, and Michelle has been working super hard at it, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.  Michelle has a vision for a beautiful store, and, to achieve that, Kindred is raising money through a new Kickstarter campaign for the upfit of the space.  With your help, the space will feature really cool modular shelving, nice lighting (to replace the low-hanging fluorescents), and lovely signage.  So check out the link to the campaign at the right and help bring something really cool to the Triangle. The goal is to be able to open the store by the end of October.

As this is a food blog, note that one of the rewards for your donation of a certain amount is a sampler pack of 3 nut butters from Big Spoon Roasters.  Let me tell you, their stuff is delicious!

AND, on another food related note, on Friday October 5th, from 6pm-9pm, there will be a cool event at Kindred featuring some local products for sale, including Sweet Water Ice, Slingshot Coffee, and, last but not least, 100 free donuts from Rise Biscuits & Donuts!!

Backyard Bistro (Raleigh, NC)

Backyard Bistro is the closest restaurant to the PNC center in Raleigh, and it’s adjacent to a large hotel.  From these facts alone you might surmise that the menu features burgers, wings, and beer, and that the ambiance caters to those who desire the the closest approximation to being in the stadium for a sporting event, without having to actually purchase tickets.  You’d be correct.  For some, tailgating is the event.

The restaurant was sparsely populated on a recent event-free night at the stadium.  We were seated at a huge booth that was angled for better viewing of an enormous wall of TVs, each tuned to a variety of – you guessed it – sports programming.  In fact, scarcely a free surface in the place remains untouched by sports theming or memorabilia.  With the lights dimmed, the experience felt more like being in a theater than in a restaurant.  Backyard Bistro does have an appealing, and big, outdoor tented area, a large bar, and a section of tables a little farther removed from the wall of sports TVs.  But they clearly know their audience: the game comes first; food is more of an afterthought.

The menu is expansive and includes pretty much all of what you’d usually find at a large suburban American restaurant.  I ordered a bbq sandwich with regular fries.  My wife ordered a taco salad ($9).  In keeping with the nature of the restaurant, and the general status quo of such establishments, the portions were enormous.  My dinner in particular was a great value at only $7.  Sandwiches are served on light, airy La Farm brioche buns, which is a nice touch.  The meat part of my dish was fine, tender and moist, but the vinegary slaw and odd sauce (served in a little plastic cup on the side) were really underwhelming.  That said, the worst part of my meal were the fries, which were soggy and seemed almost uncooked.  I couldn’t eat them.  My wife reported her entree to be pretty run-of-the mill.

It’s just one visit, to be sure.  The fries might have been an aberration, and the guys over at The Straight Beef liked their burgers just fine.  Still, I doubt that I’d return, even if I had a nearby event to attend.

The Pit (Raleigh, NC)

image courtesy of flickr

Raleigh’s The Pit has received so much attention over the years that you’d think it was some kind of legendary establishment – the kind of place that makes Raleigh.  In fact, the place is more of a curiosity, in terms of ambiance and popularity, and, unfortunately, not terribly exciting in terms of food.  It’s about as far as you can get from Allen & Son’s – a little shack lost between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough, where the meat cooks over wood for most of the night – and still be called a North Carolina barbecue restaurant.

The interior of The Pit is moderately swanky, mostly as a result of the building’s previous incarnation as an upscale steakhouse, but partly, one suspects, as a deliberate branding angle.  It’s not a white tablecloth affair, but the wait staff does wear all black and shuffles to and fro discreetly.  It’s certainly a far cry from your average no-frills bbq joint.  There’s a large bar area with plenty of high tables near the front door, and a couple of more stately dining areas.  The place is huge, but it gets packed, always.  You can take a date here, or your family, but it seems best suited to a business meal.

On a recent lunch visit, I ordered the chopped bbq plate ($7.99), which comes with two sides, a biscuit, and a couple of hushpuppies.  The plate is a much better value than the bbq sandwich, which comes with only one side (and no biscuits or hushpuppies), but costs only $0.40 less.  At dinnertime, the cost of the plate entrée jumps up 50% to $11.99, so beware.  The barbecue itself was rather flavorless, even with a liberal application of sauce at the table.  It lacked smokiness but at least it wasn’t mushy.  I chose collards and cole slaw as my side items.  The collards were pretty bad – too vinegary and not tender enough; the cole slaw was average.  My biscuit was also lackluster.  It was soft and buttery, but it seemed like a frozen biscuit rather than a scratch-made creation.  The Pit does have good sweet potato fries, and some regular fries I tried were also pretty tasty.  But the best part of my meal was the excellent hushpuppies.  I would have traded all of my side items for a basket full of those.

In the end, it was an uninspiring and forgettable meal.  While the value at lunchtime is good – you get a lot of food – I’m not really eager to return.  I have heard that the ribs are very good, but I’ve yet to try them in several visits.  [Although former head chef and NC bbq icon Ed Mitchell defeated Bobby Flay in a rib “throwdown” a couple years ago, he is no longer associated with the restaurant].  So, even with a general lack of good bbq restaurants in Raleigh, The Pit doesn’t really stand out.  I’d rather drive a little ways out to the aforementioned Allen & Son’s, or perhaps to Stephenson’s (near Benson), or The Pig (Chapel Hill) for a more rewarding bbq experience.

Battistella’s (Raleigh, NC)

I’ve been quite excited to try out Battistella’s, the new(ish) Cajun restaurant in downtown Raleigh.  I’d heard great things about their former location (out near Crabtree Mall), and the menu looks enticing.  I finally had the chance for brunch on a recent lazy Sunday morning.

The restaurant is located in Raleigh’s City Market, a historic area that has charm but has seemed to me to have always struggled to fulfill its potential.  The cobblestone streets are lovely, sure, but, until recently, the lack of exciting tenants has rendered the area more of a curiosity than a destination.  In the past few years, the additions of the Epona & Oak boutique, Benelux Cafe, Troy Mezze Lounge, and now Battistella’s offers hope for revitalization.

The inside of the restaurant is divided into two spaces – one primarily occupied by the bar, the other by the small dining area.  Despite its size, the ambience was not especially cozy, though I imagine at night it could be rather charming.  The restaurant is clearly aiming to capture the mystique of New Orleans, with large pictures of that city along the artfully decrepit walls, blues music on the radio, and an interesting chandelier lending intrigue to the space.  There are a few cafe tables out on the sidewalk as well.  At 12:30pm, there weren’t many people in the place, and it oddly felt as if lunch service was wrapping up.

The menu for brunch was a bit different than what’s posted on their website.  The choices that day were much more limited, with quite a few of the starters and entrees, and all of the side items, missing or different.  The prices were also off by a dollar here and there.  A chalkboard lists the day’s specials, and another one shows off an impressive list of local farms that provide many of the restaurant’s ingredients.  I ordered the pain perdu ($10) and my wife chose the “Blount St. Benedict” ($12).  Both were very nicely presented.  Mine was an elegant stack of four large bread slices, a large hunk of split andouille sausage, and a dollop of cinnamon whipped cream.  It was good french toast, if not excellent.  The sausage was very good, although spicier in some spots than others.  I loved the use of cane syrup.  This was my first experience with it, and with luck not my last.  It offered a darker, more complex flavor than maple syrup – like a cross between that and molasses.  Unfortunately there was just too much of it, and the whole dish was too sweet as a result.  I didn’t try much of my wife’s eggs benedict dish, except for a few bites of outstanding tasso ham.

While it wasn’t the most exciting meal ever, and it might not be my first choice for Sunday brunch in Raleigh, I definitely want to return and try more of the menu.  The biscuits in particular looked fabulous, and I’ve got to try a poboy or some beignets.   Battistella’s certainly fills a void in Raleigh’s dining scene, and brings some upscale flavor to City Market, so here’s wishing them great success.