Review: Flying Biscuit Cafe (Raleigh, NC)

I try to do some research on restaurants before I try them, and I generally avoid chains, so I don’t know exactly how we ended up at the Flying Biscuit Café one night several months ago.  It’s a regional empire with a handful of locations across Georgia and North Carolina.  Unfortunately, it merits a review because for all the wrong reasons.  You can’t always win, but sometimes you wish you could have that time and money back.

To begin with, the place, which is nestled in Cameron Village, is much larger on the inside than I suspected.  The décor is bold or gaudy, depending on your viewpoint – bright orange, purple, and green walls, with vinyl fruit-and-vegetable cartoon tablecloths that echo the wall colors (only louder).  In the style of Cracker Barrel, there are knickknacks and kitschy items everywhere.  We were seated in a purple and lime green booth.

The menu is extensive – offering breakfast all day (a good thing in my mind), salads, sandwiches, and a range of entrees, including a number of vegetarian options.  After we ordered, a small plate of three big biscuits was brought to our table.  They were fluffy and warm but a little bland.  My wife said they were too sweet; I didn’t detect much flavor.  They were served with a side of apple butter that was heavy on the cinnamon.

I ordered a fried green tomato BLT, which was described as having, beyond the namesake ingredients, goat cheese and a cashew relish.  I opted for roasted potatoes on the side, described mysteriously on the menu as “moon-dusted”.  I don’t recall the reasoning, but apparently this refers to the use of rosemary.  In fact, the potatoes were like those sad hotel breakfast buffet potatoes.  The sandwich was absolutely no better.  It was served on toasted plain white bread, the fried green tomatoes were too densely breaded – almost impenetrable, really, and the goat cheese was not distributed at all.  It was clumped in one little spot, so that I tasted it in maybe one or two of the bites that I took.  The cashew relish was similarly indiscernible, and may not have added much anyway considering the crunch of the fried tomatoes.  Although I can’t recall now which sandwich my wife ordered, she was equally unenthusiastic about her meal.

There were other negative aspects of our visit as well.  First, there were three or four flies flitting about our table the whole evening, and we were sitting inside [there are a handful of tables out front along the sidewalk].  Second, our daughter’s kid’s pancake was 1) too big for the plate it was on, making syrup application a tricky proposition, and 2) served on a piping hot plate (presumably just out of the dishwasher).  Who serves a meal to a 3 year old on a scalding plate?

When we were finished – it didn’t take long, since we only ate 1/2 of our food, at most – the waitress brought us the wrong check.  An honest mistake, to be sure, but one that just confirmed what I had already decided: I don’t plan to return.

Review: Bella Mia (Cary, NC)

Several weeks ago, I had some friends in town from Washington, DC.  We were making plans to go out for dinner, and I was asked where we could get good pizza in the area.  “There’s really not any great pizza in the Triangle,” I replied.  That was before I knew about Bella Mia, which, with its ultra-hot coal-fired oven, has been hailed as the long-awaited arrival of “real” pizza in the Triangle.  A recent visit confirmed this for me.

Upon entering the restaurant, I felt a little under-dressed in shorts and sneakers, but the space is nicely balanced between the casual and the upscale, save for perhaps the outdated dance music playing on the radio.  The interior is sleek, with dark wood tables and an open kitchen.  It’s a fine place for a nice date or for bringing a 2 ½ year old (as we did).

We ordered a margherita pizza ($9.50) and a “Canal St” calzone ($11), which was stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella, and sausage.  I understand that good pizza is primarily about a good crust, and this crust was delightful, but it must be said that the toppings were what kept this pizza from being extraordinary.  They were actually too sparse: there was a very limited amount of sauce, which was perfectly fine, but the mozzarella slices were alarmingly thin – borderline paltry – and there were only a few small basil leaves on the whole pie.  Furthermore, there was a lot of vacant space between the toppings and the edge of the pie. As a result, all I could really taste was the crust.  Flecked with char spots from the coal-fired oven, it did have a great flavor and texture.  It was poofy on the edges and quite thin, but not crispy, in the middle.

The calzone, on the other hand, was phenomenal.  The ricotta was creamy, the sausage was cut into nice big chunks, and it was stuffed to the edges in the same great crust as the pizza.  Served with a judicious amount of tomato sauce, it was addictive – one of the best things I’ve eaten in the Triangle in quite a while.  The one improvement that could have been made was the plating: the calzone was crudely cut into three large pieces, with a little tomato sauce strewn on the middle section.

The rest of the menu was tempting too.  Bell Mia offers house-made pastas (the lasagna special almost won me over, but I was there, like many I suspect, to try the pizza), and I’ve heard good things about their lemon-rosemary roasted chicken wings, stuffed mushrooms, and nutella dessert pizza.

A note on ordering: the pizzas are about 12” in diameter, but, being thin and not overloaded with toppings, might leave you a bit hungry if split in half.  Most people I observed were ordering individual pies.  The calzone was decidedly more substantial and could probably serve two.  But don’t worry about it too much: any leftovers are not going to go to waste.

In the end, like many other recent commenters, I’m thrilled to have Bella Mia in the Triangle.  Now I know exactly where to go for good pizza.

Rating:  * * * *

Review: Lucky 32 (Cary, NC)

Some restaurants try so hard and come up just short.  Lucky 32 is one of these places.

The interior is nicely appointed, with an understated, sophisticated feel, and there is a pleasant outdoor patio, but the size of the place is off-putting: it is enormous.  You kind of feel like you’re in the most elegant Ruby Tuesday’s you’ve ever seen.  Unfortunately, the food, despite its focus on local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients, reinforces this impression.

The menu is nice, if a bit extensive, with a center section that changes seasonally.  On a recent lunch visit, the choices were appetizing: grilled peaches with chevre and country ham, local grass-fed burger, cornmeal crusted Carolina catfish (for the alliteration-minded), and a host of other traditional southern classics.  It must be noted here that the phrase “voodoo glaze” was associated with a disconcerting number of dishes (six) on the current menu.  In fact, the restaurant, which has a sister campus in Greensboro, has always focused on regional southern American fare, with a bent towards Cajun cuisine; this was made official with the recent name change to Lucky 32: Southern Kitchen.

The problem is that while the food is respectable, it never goes beyond that.  I have dined at the restaurant a handful of times over the past few years, and I have to say that there has been nothing memorable about any of the dishes I’ve tried. Among the dishes I can recall, I’ve had a nice fried green tomato appetizer and a very pedestrian “Russian River” chicken (with seemingly frozen vegetables).  Most recently, a dish of shrimp and grits was well seasoned and had a perfect level of spiciness to it, but the shrimp were better suited for popcorn frying, the andouille sausage was mediocre, and the grits were swamped by too much sauce.  I wondered how different it tasted than the restaurant’s rendition of jambalaya.  The prices for lunch were generally reasonable, although the burger was priced at a substantial $11.  The shrimp and grits, $12 at lunch, jumps up to $19 for dinner with the addition of one side item.  While the portions are significantly over-sized, the relatively high costs are unfortunately not reflected in the quality of the dishes.

Speaking of over-sized, beware of ordering desserts at Lucky 32 – they are gigantic.  A slice of chocolate peanut butter pie was absurdly large, and a “miniature” complimentary birthday brownie was almost as big.  Each of these was easily enough to feed an entire party of four.  A simple vanilla ice cream dish was more reasonable with three smallish scoops, and while the fudge sauce was good, I did not care for the ice cream itself (from Homeland Creamery in Julian, NC), which suffered from poor texture.

On the plus side, the wait staff is very well trained, with good knowledge of the menu and a seemingly genuine interest in food.  In the end, however, I’d prefer to take my money elsewhere.  Yes, the food and experience are far superior to any Ruby Tuesday, but they also fall well short of a place like Watts Grocery in Durham, where this kind of cuisine (at similar prices) is executed superbly.

Rating:  * * *

Review: Cantina 18 (Raleigh, NC)

Since Greg Cox is issuing his review of Cantina 18 this weekend, I thought I would too.  However, a disclaimer is warranted: I visited this restaurant around 3 weeks after its opening, and this restaurant, perhaps more than others, apparently had some kinks to iron out at its inception.  But on to the review:

I was excited to try this new place in Cameron Village, and could not have been more disappointed.  An off-shoot of 18 Seaboard, a restaurant which I visited once and did not especially love, Cantina 18 is a more casual affair that aims generally, but wildly, at southwestern inspired fare.  There are tacos, yes, but they tend to have exotic fillings like duck confit-pineapple-asiago, or chicken-apple-cranberry-goat cheese.  In fact, all of the flavors profiles seem badly construed.

To start with, there were chips and salsa.  The salsa was virtually saltless.  We ordered guacamole, which turned out to be a big mistake.  It was nearly inedible, with a mayonnaise-like consistency (and taste!).  The tacos didn’t sound that great to me, and I wanted french fries, so both my wife and I wound up ordering sandwiches – an avocado BLT for her, and a pressed shredded pork one for me.  You’d think the avocado BLT would be an easy win – how can you go wrong? – but the avocado was mysteriously similar to the guacamole.  The sandwich was awful.  Perhaps worse still was mine, with a kind of pickled cabbage slaw and finely shredded pork.  The pepper jack cheese and lime crema were components of the sandwich that I could scarcely distinguish.  It just tasted bad.  The fries were no better, as the lemon zest and seasoning were again off the mark.  We did not want finish our meals.

A few positive notes: the service was generally attentive, the the chips were limitless, and the outdoor patio seating is a nice option.  But overall, based on our experience, I’m glad I didn’t try the crazy sounding tacos, and I’m not so sure that I ever will.

Rating:  *

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:  * * * *

Review: Buku (Raleigh, NC)

We went on a recent Saturday night around 6 pm.  The restaurant is located on the bottom floor of the Progress Energy building in downtown Raleigh, and, in a way, this fact – more even than the food itself – wound up defining our experience there.  Based on the location and the likely day-to-day clientele, I understand why it is this way, but Buku felt too corporate to be a truly special experience.  And, for me, the food didn”t quite overcome this.

To begin with, the outdoor patio is a nice option, but is not charming in any way.  With cold concrete block surroundings, simple black iron tables and chairs, and no barrier to the loud traffic, the pleasures of being in the city are lost.  At this price point, I don’t want to feel like I’m just sitting on the sidewalk.  I did walk through the interior as well, and, while sleek and elegant, it didn’t feel particularly inviting either.  But on to the food.

The premise of Buku is “global street food”, and the menu ventures, quite literally, all over the place.  The chef is William D’Auvray,(formerly of Fins, which occupied the same location), and based on his background, there’s a strong showing of southeast Asian and Indian offerings.  But, in the name of true globetrotting, there are also Latin American and Mediterranean inspired dishes too, among others.  Most of the dishes are small plates that are meant to be shared, but there are a few entree size options on the menu as well.  A far-flung array of sauces and condiments are also available to pair with your food.  Making our selection was difficult as everything looked delicious.  Sampling a large variety of things was quite tempting.

We shared the Columbian arepa, the pierogies, the Viet crispy crepe, and the beef tataki.  We were told the dishes would come out as they became ready, which was fine with me.  Instead, however,  they all arrived simultaneously, very shortly after we ordered.  This resulted in a very crowded table.  The arepa was not more than the sum of its ingredients – just a big disk of moist, dense cornbread, with some queso fresco on top and a little green salsa.  The portion size was large, and the flavor fine, but unremarkable.  The pierogies were puffed in brown butter, which I love, but the chicken filling was quite bland.  The crispy crepe was delicious – a perfectly crunchy shell with sprouts, nicely cooked shrimp, and mushrooms.  The beef tataki was also excellent, piled high with greens and tossed in yummy soy dressing.  All of the portion sizes were good, and 4 “tapas” was just about right for two hungry people.  For dessert, we ordered sorbet (choice of 3).  We chose coconut, pineapple, and raspberry.  The coconut was almost too milky, the pineapple was excellent, and the raspberry was just average.  We paid $42 total (including tip), but we had only water to drink.  The service was competent and unobtrusive; I had no complaints there.

Overall I just had the feeling of being in a hotel that was trying really hard to be fancy.  Everything felt a little slick and there was just no warmth, from the decor to the flatware and silverware, and even to the food, which, though well prepared, didn’t really satisfy me completely.  That said, it’s a nice option for Raleigh, and I’d go back to give it another shot.

Rating:  * * * 1/2

Review: Market Restaurant (Raleigh, NC)

We were excited this weekend to try out the newest addition to Raleigh’s dining scene, Market Restaurant, tucked away on N. Blount St. in the Mordecai neighborhood (and next to the fabulous Escazu chocolates).  It’s a small, cozy space with an open kitchen and a gigantic garage door which can be opened onto the similarly small patio.  Out front, all manner of herbs are cultivated in small planters, giving the first indication of the restaurant’s mission to provide fresh, local food.  In fact, the menu claims to be “West Coast inspired”, which, one imagines, entails fresh produce, fish, and maybe some offbeat selections.

To begin with, water is served with a refreshing slice of cucumber – perfect for the fast-approaching summer heat.  Each table gets a handsome glass carafe for refills, which our waitress employed repeatedly.  Although attentive service is nice, and she was very friendly, I would have preferred to refill our own glasses – it feels more convivial, or something.  For lunch, I chose the pressed cilantro chicken sandwich ($9), and my wife opted for the fish tacos (also $9).  The waitress let on that the sandwich was one of their most popular items – it seemed to be the safest choice on the menu – and as we waited I began to feel a little sorry for the chef.  It seemed that the sandwiches were the only thing he was making.  Other items on the menu were more unconvential, if no less tempting – turkey/spinach burger, pina-colada chicken salad, kale chips, tempeh meatballs on the kids’ menu.

We also ordered “crack fries”, so named for their presumed addictiveness.  The menu described them as hand cut potatoes with truffle oil, parmesan, and fresh herbs.  In fact, they were roasted, not fried, and though well seasoned, were a little limp.  I wouldn’t say they were addictive.  And although the serving size was ample, at $7 I’d probably skip them next time around.  The homemade ketchup was a nice touch.  It made me wonder why you don’t see that more often.  Why is it that the industrial bottled variety is ketchup?

The chicken sandwich was surprisingly large, but that was mostly on account of the bread, which may have been the thickest sliced bread I’ve ever seen.  It was almost an inch thick on each side!  I thought the sandwich was tasty, but I would have liked a bit more of the smoked tomato salsa and cotija cheese.  The proportions were just a little off.  The accompanying roasted corn and black bean salad was just right.  The fish tacos were the better lunch – pan fried tilapia with salsa and cabbage slaw.  They were terrific served on crispy flour tortillas.  These came with an orange & fennel salad, which might have benefited from a little more orange.

Overall, the food at Market tasted like something you’d make at home.  Real food, good ingredients, well prepared, healthy and satisfying.  And that’s a great thing.

Rating:  * * * 1/2