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.

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:  * * *