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.

La Farm Bakery & Cafe (Cary, NC)

croissant image courtesy of flickr

La Farm is one of the Triangle’s premier bakeries, and one of only a very few that make good artisanal loaves of bread (Loaf, Rue Cler’s Bakery, Guglhupf, and Chicken Bridge Bakery are a few others that come to mind).  So this is one of the best places to come – and folks throughout the Triangle  do – to get a good baguette, a loaf of crusty ciabatta, or a croissant.  Or, of course, for one of many delightful treats.

Despite the linguistically hybridized name, this is a thoroughly French boulangerie.  And, though it’s set in a typical Cary strip mall (seemingly far from everything), it actually manages to evoke that small Parisian cafe feel.  It’s charming inside, with delicious looking baked goods all around, and a recently expanded cafe section that spills over onto the narrow sidewalk out front.  Even if the bread wasn’t worth the trip, you’d want to come back.

But enough about the bread for now.  The cafe is tempting in its own right, with breakfast and light lunch/dinner fare on offer.  The menu features a number of sandwiches, salads, and egg dishes – nothing unexpected really, but solid choices, and a superb value for most selections.  You can get a large sandwich with a side of chips for just $6.95, and kids meals are just $2.25.  I’ve had several of the sandwiches, and, it must be said, while the bread is great, the sandwiches are merely average.  I recently had one with smoked turkey/homemade creamy slaw/peach-chipotle bbq sauce (one of this summer’s special menu additions) that was rather boring.  There just wasn’t much flavor.  My wife was similarly underwhelmed with her “Mediterraneo” (fresh mozzeralla/roasted tomatoes/basil/balsamic vinaigrette (+added chicken, $1.95) on foccacia).  Sandwiches are served with a side of homemade hearth-baked potato chips, which are crunchy but a bit lifeless; they are greatly improved by dipping in the accompanying buttermilk ranch dressing.

I’ve yet to try the egg-based or breakfast dishes, but many of them sound appealing.  Then again, if I were here for breakfast, I might just choose a buttery croissant or one of their outstanding white chocolate-cinnamon scones (I’m not a fan of the triple berry variety).  Speaking of white chocolate, everyone seems to love La Farm’s white chocolate mini-baguette, and I am no exception.  So even if you’re a little disappointed by your meal, pick up a pastry or loaf to go, and you won’t be let down.

Note that La Farm also sells at the Raleigh farmer’s market on the weekends.

Bull Street Gourmet & Market (Durham, NC)

Hope Valley Square was once was a no-mans land shopping center south of Durham but is now home to some great tenants: Only Burger, Pop’s Backdoor South, Tonali, and Bull Street Gourmet & Market to name a few. The latter is the most recent to open, and is an offshoot of the venture’s original location in Charleston, SC.  It features a small but well-stocked grocery section and a casual eatery.  In the grocery you can find all manner of local and hyper-local staples (peanut butters, jams, relishes, cheeses, plus a few meats and some tempting ice cream sandwiches), as well as, somewhat incongruously, a decent selection of mass market candies. Otherwise, you can get breakfast here, or a pastry, or even a quick pre-made dinner-to-go, but the main culinary focus seems to be soups, salads, and sandwiches. These feature gourmet ingredients in classic pairings, and are priced accordingly.  The atmosphere is completely casual; just place your order at the counter and take a seat at one of the mix-and-match tables, or at one of the stools that run along the counter.

I chose a club sandwich (ham, smoked turkey, bacon, cucumber, lettuce, $8.99) and my wife opted for the “Chappy” salad (romaine/green apple/shaved red onion/walnuts/feta, $7.99). Our orders were brought out promptly by the very friendly staff.  Although the sandwich didn’t come with any sides, it was definitely big enough to be a full meal.  It was served in a small basket, and cut in half, but it was nearly impossible to eat thanks to some insubstantial focaccia and a massive amount of dressing. On the menu description, this was a dijon mayonnaise, but in the sandwich I got it was a horseradish mayo – pretty disappointing for a person who doesn’t love horseradish. The bread itself was very good (tomato-parmesan focaccia from Guglhupf) but, being very soft and thinly cut, it simply could not hold the sandwich together.  I almost resorted to a fork and knife, which probably would have been a wiser choice than amassing a pile of about 20 napkins.  I thought the ham was outstanding, the bacon and white cheddar unremarkable.  Overall, it was a decent sandwich, but I would probably order something different next time.  My wife’s salad was excellent, and very refreshing with a light lemon poppy seed dressing, but it probably could have used some more walnuts, and I felt like it should have been a dollar or two cheaper.  It came with a sweet roll that tasted just fine but seemed doughy and undercooked.

I’ve said this many times before, but I wish there were more places like this throughout the Triangle, and in Raleigh in particular.  But for now, Hope Valley Square is shaping up as a pretty decent foodie destination, so you can bet I’ll be back for more.

Toast (Durham, NC)

image courtesy of Mark Petko @ SpoonfedRaleigh

It seems I’m always promoting Durham in these pages, and this post will be no exception.  Toast is to Durham as Neal’s Deli is to Carrboro – a great little sandwich counter.  Raleigh’s lack of such an establishment remains a mystery, and reason enough to search the wider Triangle, as above, for a better sandwich experience.

Toast is an Italian style café serving panini, salads, and soups.  The restaurant occupies a narrow space in the city’s downtown, with small tables inside plus a few more spilling out onto the sidewalk in front.  It’s coffee-shop casual, and, if necessary, you can be in and out very quickly, but it’s charming enough to make it a nice spot to linger and chat.  Just order at the counter and help yourself to a drink.

The menu features plenty of classic Italian flavors.  It also does not appear to have changed much, if any, in the few years since the restaurant opened.  I selected the rapini/sweet Italian sausage/roasted garlic/asiago fresca panino ($6.50) and a cup of the daily soup – spicy lentil with peppers ($2).  My wife chose three crostini + salad ($8.75).  For this price you get two of each of the crostini, which are cut from a baguette into thin slices, toasted, and piled with the toppings.  Her choices were warm goat cheese/local honey/cracked black pepper, pesto/mozzarella/roasted tomato, and garlicky mushrooms/thyme/gorgonzola.  Our food came out promptly.  To sum it up: it was a little disappointing.  Perhaps my expectations were too high; we’d had great food here before.  This time, though, my sandwich was not terribly flavorful.  I couldn’t make out the roasted garlic, the sausage was too mild, and, if such a thing can be said, there was too much cheese.  The bread was nicely crisp and buttery though, and the soup was rich, hearty, and satisfying.  My wife’s crostini had sort of the opposite problem: the flavors were too strong, and there was too much salt.  The clear winner for her was the creamy goat cheese one.  She did report her salad to be deliciously bright, herby, and fresh.

So while we weren’t wowed by Toast this time around, we’ll be back for more.  And here’s hoping for a sandwich spot like this in Raleigh.  For it’s places like these that help make Durham a vibrant community, and that’s why I’ll continue to visit – and celebrate – the Bull City.

Neal’s Deli (Carrboro, NC)

images courtesy of This Paper Ship

Neal’s Deli in Carrboro is the perfect little lunch counter, and one of the best places for a sandwich in the Triangle.  While particularly well regarded for their classic deli sandwiches that incorporate their house made pastrami and corned beef, Neal’s also offers a range of other lunch and breakfast options, including biscuits that I’ve heard are delicious.

It’s a tiny place, better suited for take-out than a sit-down meal, although there are a handful of tables and bar stools at the window.  A small deli case showcases seasonal side dishes, like a roasted beet salad, but the main attraction here is the sandwiches.

I went with the smoked turkey ($7.50) and my wife chose the reuben ($8.50).  My sandwich featured some wonderfully citrusy crushed avocado and nice crispy bacon.  It was a winning combination despite some unremarkable, unsmoky sliced turkey meat.  The reuben was the better choice.  It was hot, juicy, and sweet, and piled high with excellent corned beef.

Neal’s offers simple sandwiches done right.  You wouldn’t think that would be such a hard thing to find, would you?  Durham, of course, has Toast, with its great panini, but Raleigh could really use a great little sandwich shop like these.  One can always hope.

Review: Sandwhich (Chapel Hill, NC)

image courtesy of taylortakesataste.com

You can get a sandwich at a lot of restaurants, but an excellent spot that features sandwiches can be hard to come by.  Leaving out for the time being delis and sub shops (though those have their merits), I’m thinking here of those gourmet cafes that feature fabulous crusty breads, fine meats, cheeses, and produce, and interesting and tasty side items.  Chapel Hill’s Sandwhich is one place that aims to fit this bill.

Situated next to the McDonald’s on Franklin Street, the space is surprisingly sleek and refined on the inside, with dark wood tables and subtle lighting.  Open shelves are stacked neatly with chunky white plates and fancy Moroccan-looking teapots.  It’s a sophisticated feel for a casual restaurant.  After you place your order at the counter and help yourself to a drink, the unfailingly friendly staff will bring it to your table.  Each sandwich is served on a small jelly-roll pan covered with a sheet of parchment, with side items presented in diverse ways: roasted beets in an elegant porcelain cup, fries in a red-and-white checkered paper cone, chips in their own little bag.

The Moroccan theme carries over in subtle ways on the menu – the house special iced tea (with mint and sage), spicy harissa ketchup, a carrot salad garnish.  Other than that, the hot and cold sandwich offerings range from the straightforward (burgers) to the inventive (corn, cremini, bacon, and blue cheese on sourdough).  These are accompanied by a nice selection of side items, priced a la carte.

I ordered the “GMC” (grilled chicken, almond pesto, peppers and onions, and provolone, $8.50) with a side of their hand-cut, twice-cooked fries ($3), and my wife ordered a “Mr. Crunch” (prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, lettuce, mint/lemon oil, $9.25) as a combo with their chips and tea (an extra $3).  Both sandwiches were served on crusty but unremarkable bread – mine on a toasted hoagie roll and my wife’s on a crispy baguette.  Both were good, but neither sandwich really had enough flavor.  Mine suffered from a lack of pesto punch; my wife’s may have benefited from a bit more of that prosciutto (i.e. more fat and salt) and/or a nice juicy tomato, although the fresh mint on her sandwich was a nice touch.  A side of the roasted beets ($3) was also a little too plain.  The opposite was true for the chips, which were dusted with fresh herbs, heavy on the salt, and a bit oily.  Each sandwich also came with a few sliced, quick-marinated pickles, which were sweet and refreshing.  The fries were really just average, but I did like the spicy, smoky ketchup.  The iced tea ($2.50 if purchased a la carte) was quite strongly flavored but I enjoyed it (though my wife – the tea aficionado – did not), and it’s nice that you can sweeten it to your liking with some simple syrup.

I don’t want to make it sound like a bad meal; it wasn’t.  Everything was satisfying enough, but there was just nothing to get excited about.  The prices at Sandwhich, while reflective of the scratch preparations, quality ingredients (real prosciutto de parma, fresh mozzarella) and care in execution, are definitely on the high side.  Portion sizes are reasonable (e.g. not insanely huge), but $10-12 is still a lot to pay for a sandwich and a side item.  For comparison, a sandwich at the La Farm Bakery Café in Cary (featuring their amazing bread) costs about $7, including a side of chips, or a panino from Durham’s excellent Toast, with a side of soup or salad, runs about $8.50.   In the end, Sandwhich holds a lot of promise as a gourmet destination, and it’s a nice place to have a meal, but there are better values to be had – and indeed better sandwiches – elsewhere in the Triangle.

Bavarian Brathaus Truck (Cary, NC)

I like sausage as much as the next guy, or maybe I don’t, because I’ve never been a big bratwurst fan.  I think it’s because I’m wary of eating huge portions of fatty meat in one sitting.  I like sausage occasionally, and in smaller quantities – sprinkled on a pizza, say, or in a taco or omelette – rather than as a bulky inflated hot dog.  I do love biscuits with sausage gravy, but a biscuit with a big sausage patty is usually just about all that I  can handle.

Still, when I met my wife over at the Cary Whole Foods for lunch one day recently, I was drawn to the Bavarian Brathaus truck parked outside.  They were offering homemade bratwurst on a pretzel roll with mustard and sauerkraut for just $5.  They also had goulash and potato salad for sale, but I figured (correctly) that the sandwich alone would be enough to fill me up, making for a cheap lunch.

The good news was that the sausage itself was not fatty at all; in fact it was surprisingly light.   It reminded me somewhat of a chicken or a turkey sausage, and I wish now that I had inquired about the types of meat(s) in it.  The bad news was that the overall experience was a bit lifeless.  The meat was remarkably mild and flavorless, and the bun was fresh but lacked some essential pretzel-ness.  The sauerkraut was similarly dull; really the only thing that brought flavor to the sandwich was the zingy horseradish-mustard (a flavor that I don’t particularly care for).  I don’t know how they do bratwurst in Germany, and this one wasn’t bad, but it was a little disappointing.  About 2/3 of the way through the sandwich, I removed the sausage and substituted some of my wife’s peppery chicken (from the Whole Foods hot bar).  Not being a huge sausage guy, it was more satisfying that way.

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?