Southern Star's striking decor, a vibrant pastiche of potted palms and paintings of flamenco dancers on walls awash in tropical flower shades, would fit right in with the trendy establishments on Glenwood South in Raleigh. The bill of fare, whose multicultural embrace reaches from Cape Cod to Brazil, would seem natural posted by a restaurant door on Chapel Hill's Franklin Street.
But the last place you'd expect to find this hip combination is just where you will find it, in the geographic limbo between downtown Cary and the town's outlying subdivisions.
The reason for Southern Star's off-the-beaten-path location is simple enough. Owner/chef Alan Batson is a Cary native and has returned home after years of cooking his way around the world to open his first restaurant. His partner in the venture is his wife, Lindalva, whom he met in Brazil.
Batson's menu is an edible travelogue of his wanderlust years, with one scene often dissolving seamlessly into the next. His signature maracuja salad, for instance, brings together candied pecans of the chef's native South with dried cranberries of New England on a bed of greens dressed with a Brazil-inspired passion fruit vinaigrette. Another starter, crispy chicken livers with local shiitake mushrooms and Madeira sauce, dresses up a humble Southern favorite with European flavors and classic techniques Batson polished in France and Italy.
While these dishes showcase Batson's instinct for harmoniously combining diverse ingredients, his lobster "barbecue," slowly braised with annatto butter and served with a silver queen corn cake and cucumber slaw, is downright inspired. And his salad of spring dandelion greens with country ham lardons, dressed in a vinaigrette of aged cachaca (the Brazilian sugar cane liquor that's an essential ingredient in caipirinha cocktails) and brown sugar, and capped by a soft fried egg, is alone worth a trip. Make your visit soon, though, before these ephemeral greens go out of season.
The globetrotting adventure continues with the entree list. Swordfish India House, named for the Cape Cod restaurant where Batson made the dish locally famous, stars a thick steak of impeccably fresh fish, glazed with a reduction of caramelized onions, honey and Red Zinger tea, and crusted with a crunchy spread of pecans, walnuts and cashews.
Batson credits the moistness of the swordfish to cedar plank roasting, a technique he picked up in the Caribbean. He uses the technique to good effect with a number of other dishes, notably a New York strip steak with a Caribbean five spice rub and a black rum sauce.
If there's a drop in quality when it comes to desserts, it's a short drop. Drunken rum cake with pineapple anglaise is well-soaked one time, inexplicably dry the next. Carrot cake with coconut sauce is first-rate, however, as are any of the house-made ice creams.
The wine list is as diverse as the menu, offering a variety of choices in terms of style, geographic region and budget. The supplemental list of 20 wines under $20 a bottle (all available by the glass) is especially welcome.
Southern Star's weak link is its friendly but inexperienced wait staff. Though the service has shown improvement in the four months since the restaurant opened, it still has a considerable way to go before it measures up to the food.
Still, you shouldn't let the service stop you from paying the restaurant a visit. If you'd like to check out the wares at minimal financial risk, you might consider taking advantage of Southern Star's early bird special. Offered 4:30-6 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 4-9 p.m. Sunday, the prix-fixe special features a three-course meal with a glass of wine for an almost unbelievable $30. That's $30 per couple, mind you.
Granted, you're limited to just two or three dishes for each course, and the portions are not as big as those on the regular menu. But you can't beat the price. And once you're hooked, Alan Batson has good reason to believe you'll be making regular trips to his off-the-beaten-path destination. *
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Greg Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.