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.

Mateo (Durham, NC)

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It seems there are plenty of tapas places these days, but a lot of them take the small plates concept and apply it to whatever cuisine they want.  While that’s fine, it’s nice to have a new place in Durham that aims to come a little closer to what you might find in Spain (not that I’ve been).  And while Mateo is not strictly Spanish food, it offers some unique options  – and it’s damn good.

Apart from the basic glass store-front facade, which doesn’t really match the decor, stepping in to Mateo makes you feel like you’re in a big city.  It’s very dim, with elegant pendant lighting.  Huge tarnished mirrors line one wall above a maroon leather banquet.  A nice wooden bar runs along the opposite wall.  It’s all about dark rich materials, industrial metal stools, and exposed wood.  You might say the look is becoming a little cliche, with hefty rustic wooden clipboards that hold the wine lists and exposed decaying brickwork in the bathroom, but, overall, it feels nice and luxurious.  An elegant staircase toward the back of the space and a semi-open kitchen gives you the impression of being in a grand old house, in the same way as at chef Matt Kelly’s other restaurant, Vin Rouge.  Mateo, though (chef Kelly’s first solo venture), subtracts some of Vin Rouge’s formality in favor of a more laid back atmosphere, complete with rock music on the radio.   Unfortunately, although they spent several minutes “preparing our table”, some crumbs on the seats and a stained, sticky, and fraying menu detracted a little bit from the upscale experience.  Still, this is a great date spot.  Keep in mind that it’s a cavernous space, and I’d bet it gets pretty loud when completely filled out.

The menu is pretty extensive, and it’s hard to narrow your selection because everything sounds good.  The restaurant’s own website describes the food as “Spanish with a Southern inflection”.  Here’s what we tried (note that these items/descriptions/prices are slightly different than the online menu):

• Croqueta (nightly special) – chicken and mahon cheese with sweet potato aioli ($4).  Three mini golf balls of fried goodness.  The sweet potato aioli was an unappealing pukey-brown color, and wasn’t really necessary, but these were tasty.  They had a bit of smoky chipotle flavor.
• Huevo Diablo – “Spanish” deviled egg wrapped in chorizo ($4).  You get two halves (1 egg), each egg half resting improbably in a little sausage “boat”.  I liked them fine but my wife loved them, saying they somehow evoked the flavor of a loaded baked potato.
• Bocadillo – bbq pork, piquillo pepper, cheese, pickled cabbage ($4).  Two mini-sliders on nice buns sprinkled with coarse salt.  Think gourmet/exotic Carolina bbq sandwich.  The pork was not super tender, and I didn’t really notice the cheese, but the overall effect was quite good.
• Pan con tomate – Bread with tomatoes ($3, small order).  So simple but oh so good.  Two slabs of warm crusty bread loaded with garlic, olive oil, and crushed tomatoes.  They’ll bring you regular bread upon request, but you won’t want it after eating this.
• Ensalada de Manzana e Manchego – bibb or butter lettuce, honeycrisp apple, almonds, shaved manchego, orange, sherry-membrillo vinaigrette ($7.50).  This was probably the least exciting thing we ate.  It just was not memorable, being mostly lettuce with sparse accoutrements.
• Chicharrones – chicken fried chicken skin, piquillo chow chow ($6).  Super crispy crusty bits of fried crunchiness.  Not great by themselves, but very very good with the chow chow and creamy dressing on the plate. 
• Costillas Cortas – braised short rib, sofrito, Carolina rice grits, rioja ($14 I believe).  Extremely tender meat in a delicate smoky tomato-y broth, with creamy grits.  This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.
• Churros – Three long cinnamon fried-dough “donuts” ($6).  These were really light and airy, and came out piping hot.  They are served with a little cup of some thick hot chocolate for dipping.  Excelente!

All of the food was good, but I was most impressed by the balance and marriage of flavors.  The components on each plate were nicely proportioned and, with just a couple exceptions, all contributed something valuable to the dish.  I thought it showed a great attention to detail, even if I would have welcomed a bit more spiciness in certain plates (especially the deviled egg and bbq pork).

So, regardless of authenticity, I’d venture to say Mateo has got to be one of the best tapas places in the Triangle.  I’m looking forward to my next visit!

Vin Rouge (Durham, NC)

Years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a little time in France.  One of the most fond memories I have, as you might guess, is of the excellent food.   If one restaurant in the Triangle comes closest to recreating that overall experience, it has got to be Durham’s Vin Rouge.  An institution in the Triangle, this place has served up consistently good food for many years.  But the appeal of Vin Rouge is not just about the food.  The restaurant is quintessentially French, really capturing the je ne sais quo – charm, let’s say – of a classic European eatery.

The inside is set-up rather like a home, with a sort of rambling layout of large but discreet dining rooms.  Lovely wooden tables (covered in white tablecloths), huge mirrors, and low lighting combine with a semi-open kitchen to establish a sense of unfussy elegance.  With beautiful wood floors, chandeliers, and candles on the tables in the evening, the space is warmly seductive, but it manages to achieve an easy conviviality that keeps it from being overly fancy.  Also boasting one of the most attractive patios in the Triangle, Vin Rouge is a fantastic spot for a romantic date or special occasion.

The food is strictly French, with a narrow, focused menu of bistro classics.  Although there are nightly specials, the menu doesn’t change much.  I’ve yet to try any of the fruits de mer (seafood) at Vin Rouge, but they do claim that as a specialty of the house.  Either way, you’re started off with some crusty bread served in a small metal pail.  The bread is really thinly cut, and can be too crusty.  At brunch time it’s accompanied by butter, while for the dinner service you get a small dish of excellent olive oil/olive paste for dipping.  I’ve been for brunch a number of times over the past few years, and the meals have been solid but not spectacular.  I recently ordered an omelette with mushrooms and gruyere ($9.95).  It was a huge omelette, and it came with an even larger mountain of skinny french fries, but overall it was a bit unexciting.  My wife has always been happy with their eggs Benedictine or eggs Florentine. 

But dinner has been better.  I’ve tried their decadent macaroni and cheese, and it may come closest in the Triangle to rivaling Ashley Christensen’s wonderful rendition at Poole’s.  Most recently, I ordered steak frites (hanger steak, $19.95) and a salad with lardons, blue cheese, apples, and pecans ($7.95).  The salad was tremendous – best split with another person, and very good, with just the right amount of delicate vinaigrette.  The steak was a bit chewy, though it was cooked to a very nice medium.   It was kind of over-run by the accompanying blue cheese butter and dressing from the tiny green salad on the plate.  Once again, the french fries were way too numerous but perfectly adequate.  My wife made the better entree selection – a pork chop with braised cabbage, mashed potatoes, and cider jus ($18.95).  The pork could have been a little more tender, and the sauce was close to too sweet, but really this was just plain delicious.  For dessert, we opted for the chocolate mousse, which is delivered to your table in a large serving dish, out of which the waiter scoops three little dollops into each of your bowls.  The mousse was surprisingly thick, I thought, but supremely rich and not terribly sweet. 

At Vin Rouge you can really feel like you’re in the middle of France, and you’ll get a very good meal in a gorgeous setting.  Still, when comparing Vin Rouge to Rue Cler (downtown Durham’s other upscale French restaurant), I’d have to confess a slight preference for the latter.  Rue Cler’s ambiance is not as warm as that at Vin Rouge – it’s more modern – but it’s very inviting nonetheless.  And while Vin Rouge does bistro classics very well, the food at Rue Cler is a bit more adventurous and can be stellar (see my review here), and, for brunch, at Rue Cler you have the option of some heavenly beignets.  Either way, you may not feel the need to travel all the way to France.  So let me know what you think and bon appetit!