Once again, it's time for journalists of every stripe to take a retrospective look at the year past.
Certainly, the restaurant scene was as hot last year as the ice storm was cold. In spite of a lagging economy (like a dithering chef, the stock market couldn't seem to make up its mind whether to serve bull or bear), new eateries continued to open across the Triangle at a bewildering clip. In fact, an impressive six of this year's top 10 list are newcomers. Seven, if you count Maximillians, which arose from the ashes to return to life, bigger and better than ever, in Cary.
And these aren't your mainstream-trendy establishments serving market-researched new American fare, either. They represent a variety of cuisines, from "Indianized" Chinese (Pao Lim) to Turkish with a side of Israeli (Europa Turka). In a strong comeback showing for la belle cuisine, the French category is represented by not one but two flavors: Paris bistro (Vin Rouge) and romantic country inn (Provence). Then there's The Barbecue Joint, whose smoky fare ranges from Carolina barbecue to smoked duck hash, defying categorization but tasting uniformly superb.
Without question, it's an impressive crop of newcomers. But my vote for Rookie of the Year goes to Lantern, whose sparkling pan-Asian fare raises the bar for midprice restaurants, regardless of cuisine.
Joining these new restaurants on the top 10 list is a trio of old favorites. Each rises above the cliche of new American cuisine by giving its own distinctive accent to the genre: Mediterranean at Mo's Diner, French at Butterflies and Southern at the supremely elegant Fearrington House.
Geographically, the creme de la creme rose evenly all over the Triangle. Raleigh, Cary, Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Pittsboro are all represented on the list, meaning that there's at least one first-rate restaurant near you regardless of which part of the Triangle you live in. There's a restaurant for every pocketbook, too, from The Barbecue Joint ($) to Fearrington House ($$$$). So what are you waiting for?
Note: This list does NOT represent my selection of the top 10 of all restaurants in the Triangle, but the best 10 I reviewed in 2002. Descriptions are of some of the most memorable and enjoyable dishes that I sampled when I reviewed the restaurants. Not all of these will still be available on current menus. Restaurants are listed in alphabetical order.
The Barbecue Joint
630 Weaver Dairy Road, Chapel Hill. 932-7504.
Cuisine: barbecue, bistro.
The Barbecue Joint doesn't score any points for atmosphere, unless you count the smoky aromas that frequently permeate the air at this counter-service eatery. But who needs atmosphere when you're eating barbecue? Especially when it's some of the best around -- coarse, deeply smoky and succulent with a vinegar-based Eastern Carolina style sauce. Other options, such as smoked duck hash, peppered trout or a woodland mixed grill of venison, quail and truffled wild boar sausage, may seem to call for a more romantic setting. Just close your eyes when you bite in, and you're there.
Sutton Square, 6325 Falls of the Neuse Road, Raleigh. 878-2020.
Cuisine: new American.
You might not guess from the decor -- upscale casual with a colorful butterfly motif -- that one of the Triangle's premier chefs, Sarig Agasi, is running the show. Once you've sampled his fare, though, you'll have no doubts. Since nearly everything Agasi puts on a plate is as satisfying as it is inventive, the only hard part is deciding what to order. Do you start with the bay scallop seviche or the lobster with blueberry sauce? And then what for an entree -- crispy Alaskan halibut or rack of lamb, or maybe Moroccan spiced free-range chicken? Why not just make a reservation for the chef's tasting menu, and let him give you a sampling of them all?
708 W. Rosemary St., Carrboro. 933-0590.
Cuisine: Turkish, Middle Eastern.
The location, in the no-man's-land between Chapel Hill and Carrboro, is anything but prime. But make no mistake, this modest little eatery is a worthy destination in its own right. The chief attraction is the native Turkish cuisine of owner Tolga Celikkanat, including kebabs (especially recommended are lamb and kofta) served on rice with grilled vegetables, or Turkish style over yogurt and pita fried in olive oil. Also worth a drive are pita dips from familiar hummus and baba ghanoush to Turkish specialties such as acili ezme (chopped walnuts, peppers and onions in tomato sauce) and patlican salata, a variation on baba ghanoush featuring smoked eggplant and dill.
2000 Fearrington Village Center, Pittsboro. 542-2121.
Cuisine: new Southern.
With his inventive but well-grounded mastery of the flavors of the South, chef Warren Stephens is a worthy heir to a Fearrington House pantheon that includes such culinary demigods as Bill Neal, Ben and Karen Barker and Edna Lewis. Just about every item on the menu demonstrates that mastery, from foie gras with scuppernong jelly to tempura lobster with squid ink-dyed black grits to slow-roasted pork shoulder with black truffle macaroni and cheese. The elegant fare is matched by a Wine Spectator Award-winning cellar and served by one of the area's most polished wait staffs in one of its most elegant settings (a plantation-style Southern country mansion). After more than two decades, Fearrington House still offers the most complete dining experience in the Triangle.
423 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. 969-8846.
Simply put, Lantern isn't just the best new restaurant on the Triangle dining scene, or even the best Asian restaurant. It's one of the very best of all restaurants in the area, period. The brother-and-sister team of Andrea and Brendan Reusing have combined their considerable talents to produce a menu of contemporary pan-Asian fare, which changes with inspiration and the market but which never fails to impress. You certainly can't go wrong with the crackling calamari salad. Or, for that matter, the steamed sea bass or red-cooked pork or tea- and spice-smoked chicken or -- you get the idea. Serving such food at reasonable prices by a well-trained staff in a casual-chic setting, Lantern's light should be an inspiration to other restaurants, regardless of cuisine.
8314 Chapel Hill Road, Cary. 465-2455.
Cuisine: new American, fusion.
If Maximillians was very good the first time around, before a fire closed it in 1998, it's even better now. The dining room at the new location is certainly larger, with a snazzy contemporary look and a full bar (with an excellent wine list). Service, once notoriously quirky, is smoother. And owner chef Michael Schiffer's new American and fusion cuisine is as wildly inventive -- and as rewarding -- as ever. The grilled Caesar is more than just a salad; it deserves its own category. Other winners, many of them branded with Schiffer's trademark spiciness, include sauteed calamari, antipasto platter, Wildfire rib-eye, spice-crusted scallops, cioppino and Fire Pan Voodoo tuna. But it's hard to go wrong. Just bring an appetite and a sense of adventure, and enjoy the ride.
306 E. Hargett St., Raleigh. 856-9938.
Don't let the blue collar name --or, for that matter, the whimsically painted exterior of Mo's Diner -- fool you. Once you step inside, you enter a world of fine dining, served in cozy rooms decorated with lace curtains, dried flower arrangements and teacups on the mantelpieces. Chef/proprietor Hamid Mohajer consistently impresses, whether he's working with humble chicken livers or luxurious rack of lamb. Baked oysters, a loose interpretation of oysters Rockefeller, are superior to most renditions that bear that name. And the chef's seafood stew is a most satisfying way to stave off the chill of a winter night.
2505 Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham. 419-1771.
It's immediately clear from the decor -- an artful contemporary blend of East and West -- that Pao Lim is not your ordinary Chinese restaurant. In fact, the self-billed "Asian bistro and bar" offers a culinary tour of Asia from India to Vietnam. The specialty, however, is "Indianized Chinese," a spicy fusion of those two cuisines: Manchurian chicken, for instance, with chilies in a garlicky, cilantro-flecked sauce, or Darjeeling noodles, a peppery take on lo mein. Occasionally, you may opt for a taste of Thai green papaya salad or Vietnamese mint rolls or Chinese steamed fish. But once you've tried it here, you'll always come back to the Indianized Chinese.
203 W. Weaver St., Carrboro. 967-5008.
Chef/proprietor Felix Roux came out of retirement to open Provence last year, and it's clear that he hasn't lost his touch since his Carmel, Calif., restaurant garnered praise from Gourmet magazine a quarter century ago. His instincts for seafood are certainly as "unerring" as Gourmet's critic pronounced them, and his mussels are still "plump, succulent and well flavored with herbs." Escargots, baked with garlic and a licorice whisper of pastis, are superb, as are buttery salmon terrine and rich, earthy duck leg confit in a loosely translated "cassoulet" of lima beans, chorizo and whole garlic cloves. Service is attentive and the French country inn setting is just right -- romantic, but not at all stuffy.
2010 Hillsborough Road, Durham. 416-0406.
Giorgios Bakatsias has done it again. This time, the local restaurateur, known for his flair for dramatic decor and for the Mediterranean emphasis of his menus, turned his attention to France. And Vin Rouge delivers big time, with a dining room setting that transports you to a Paris bistro, and a menu to match. A tarragon-tinged oyster gratin makes a superb starter, as does a salad of butter lettuce, avocados, grilled jumbo shrimp and hearts of palm. To follow, you can't go wrong with grilled veal loin with a wild mushroom cream sauce, or salmon over lentils in a mint- and orange-tinged red wine broth. Crab cakes aren't particularly French, but they're among the best around. If it's French bistro fare you're craving, the kitchen does a mean steak frites, too.
Greg Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.