WAKE FOREST--As we left the bumper-to-bumper drag race of U.S. 1 behind us and began seeing the tidy bungalows and Queen Anne Victorians of Wake Forest, the stress of our 40-minute drive from Raleigh began to melt away. The furrows in our brows softened as we pulled into the historic downtown district and had no trouble parking on White Street, directly across from Burkenstock's Bar & Grill.
Inside, our eyes adjusted to the dimly lit bar, a narrow room whose timeworn patina and high, pressed-tin ceilings require little imagination to picture as a pharmacy soda fountain in a bygone era (which, indeed, it was).
In no time, my wife (in the interest of anonymity, I'll call her Honey, since she's so sweet -- and since she didn't find it particularly flattering when I called her Lamb Chop in a previous review) and I were seated by one of the tall windows in the larger, airier dining room reserved for nonsmokers that adjoins the bar. Everywhere we looked -- from the weathered wooden phone booth in one corner to the flea market hodgepodge of old prints and newspapers on the walls to the Norman Rockwell streetscape outside our window -- the view conspired to soothe the worries of the present with snippets of the past. A glass of wine from the modest list and vintage Dixieland jazz playing softly in the background soon helped our own rush-hour tensions fade to insignificance.
Our appetizer erased them entirely. More precisely, it was Honey's appetizer, featuring a pair of inch-thick crawfish cakes liberally studded with whole, sweet-as-could-be specimens of the freshwater shellfish atop snappy turnip slaw. She unselfishly forewent the "critic's taste" rule, however, and allowed me to have a whole cake. OK, I'll admit that her generosity may have been in response to a puppy dog whimper I occasionally resort to. All I can say in my defense is that for crawfish cakes this good, you'd whimper, too.
Besides, I shared my starter -- an iceberg wedge with chunky blue cheese dressing and bacon bits -- with her, too. Although, in fairness, I did get the better end of the deal.
Honey's entree -- seared cobia with lump crab gravy -- was good in parts, though it wasn't whimper-worthy. The fish itself was fresh-tasting and nicely cooked, but its mild flavor and semifirm texture were lost under the thick gravy that smothered it.
I preferred my "baseball steak," so named because it resembles a baseball in size and shape. Thankfully, the comparison doesn't extend to include texture, though. The cut -- an eye of sirloin roughly 3 inches in diameter and nearly that tall -- isn't as tender as the filet mignon it also resembles, but it would give a New York strip a good run for the money in terms of tenderness and flavor. The accompanying pommes frites were good, too, and the stewed okra and tomatoes were a welcome change of pace.
After indulging in respectable renditions of creme brulee and chocolate raspberry torte from the house-made offerings on the dessert tray, we found the journey home as relaxing as the drive to Wake Forest had been stressful. And when we returned a few days later, knowing what awaited us at the end of the drive made the traffic more bearable.
The highlight of that second visit was a brace of cornmeal fried catfish set on a mound of creamy country ham grits and topped with a creamy slaw dressed up with an abundance of lump blue crab meat that was itself worth the drive. Crunchy-crusted buttermilk fried chicken, piled on mashed potatoes and slathered with cream gravy, was a winner, too. These followed starters of shrimp tempura with a Thai chili garlic sauce (a qualified success, the black sesame seed-freckled batter being a shade on the heavy side) and an appetizer special of molasses barbecued ribs (which we gnawed to the bone). We shared a properly tart Key lime pie on a graham cracker crust.
The creative force behind this brief but varied offering is Jeff Dowdle, who bought Burkenstock's in November 1999 with his wife, Amy. Dowdle kept the restaurant's name, but scrapped its fried seafood menu, replacing it with the new American cuisine he'd learned in Charleston, S.C., before moving to the Triangle. The chef's background is evident in the Low Country and Cajun accents that mark some of his creations, though dishes ranging from shrimp tempura to chipotle-rubbed duck breast reveal an interest that reaches far beyond the Southeast.
Still, Dowdle appears to be at his best when he stays closest to his culinary roots. I'd willingly drive to Wake Forest for crawfish cakes and fried catfish, rush hour traffic and all. I must admit, though, that I'd rather do it on a Saturday.
Greg Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.