Restaurant review

Casual dining with surprising twists

CorrespondentSeptember 18, 2009 

  • 225 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh


    Cuisine: American, contemporary

    Rating: ***1/2

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: chic urban renovation

    Service: enthusiastic and attentive

    Recommended: squash tart, shrimp and grits, roast pork, burgers, sandwiches, sides

    Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily (pastries available 6 a.m. to 11 a.m.; kitchen menu served 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.)

    Reservations: accepted for parties of 10 or more

    Other: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover; full bar (excellent draft beer selection); smokefree (smoking permitted on the rooftop patio); accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ***** Extraordinary **** Excellent. *** Above average. ** Average. *Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Busy Bee Cafe has two entrances, side-by-side doors facing Wilmington Street. The one on the left opens to the ground floor cafe, a high-ceilinged space with a chic urban renovation vibe and a long counter behind which, depending on the time of day, a barista pulls espresso drinks or a bartender pulls pints. The door on the right leads upstairs to a compact bar and rooftop patio, where the draft beer selection is smaller but more rarefied, and live music or a DJ keeps the place buzzing into the wee hours several nights a week.

Regardless of which entrance you choose, you're headed for some mighty fine eats. Chef Jeremy Clayman, whose showstopping molecular gastronomic creations wowed foodies at The Mint, has retooled his offering for a more casual, mainstream audience at the Busy Bee.

At first glance, in fact, the menu reads like an American restaurant Top 40: calamari, Caesar salad, burger, fish and chips, shrimp and grits, chicken salad sandwich, steak frites.

But anyone familiar with Clayman's work knows to expect a few surprises, and the chef doesn't disappoint. His Caesar salad features whole romaine leaves in an unusual presentation that calls to mind Caesar Cardini's legendary original version. Just as you're congratulating yourself on making the connection, you notice the parmesan frico, a wafer of toasted cheese that gives Clayman's version the crunch traditionally supplied by croutons.

Fish and chips comes in the form of a sandwich, featuring crisp-battered flounder, fries and malt vinegar aioli on a Kaiser bun. Burgers feature eight ounces of chuck, ground coarser than most for a texture and juiciness rivaling that of steakhouse burgers. Even the grilled chicken sandwich is elevated above the banal chicken sandwich norm, the breast meat juicy under a light honey glaze and a topping of caramelized pear and fresh basil.

At $7 to $8, sandwiches of this quality are a bargain in their own right. Given that the price includes your choice of sides -- such as addictively crunchy-crusted fried green tomatoes and a sinfully creamy-cheesy, herb-flecked macaroni and cheese -- they're a downright steal. And you can compound the felony by ordering the Tom & Jack burger, which includes the fried green tomato as one of its toppings, and getting the mac and cheese as your side.

Clayman reaches a little deeper into his bag of tricks for some of his small-plate presentations. His take on a salade niçoise, for instance: seared rare sushi-grade tuna from Hawaiian waters, sliced and fanned over fingerling potatoes and haricots verts, served on a plate streaked with red pepper gel and dusted with fennel pollen and dried kalamata olive "dirt." Or a summer squash tart whose ingenious solution to the eternal soggy crust problem involves baking the individual tart "upside down" with the puff pastry crust on top, then inverting it onto the plate for service. Or bruschetta that get its vibrant color not from tomatoes, but beets and orange sections.

Large plates are for the most part more straightforward, but nonetheless satisfying. In the shrimp and grits, the shrimp are expertly cooked, the grits creamy, and the andouille-studded gravy rich and spicy. Pork loin, succulent and faintly pink under a well-browned crust, is served over a sweet-and-savory mosaic of mashed sweet potatoes and roasted cauliflower florets. Flank steak is a bit chewy in steak frites, but that's to be expected of that cut, and the fries are crisp and golden.

Disappointments are few and, in my experience, invariably minor. A lackluster stuffed portobello cap that didn't live up to its "mushroom gratin" menu billing comes to mind.

Busy Bee Cafe is owned by David "Woody" Lockwood and Chris Powers, both formerly with Rocky Top Hospitality (which operates Michael Dean's and Bogart's, among others), and real estate developer David Meeker. The partners named their restaurant for the Busy Bee Cafe that inhabited the building in the 1920s, and they preserved many of the building's period details in restoring it. Vintage black and white photos of the original Busy Bee hang on one of the exposed brick walls. But with Jeremy Clayman in charge of the kitchen, the new Busy Bee Cafe looks as much to the future as to the past. And like the restaurant's two entrances, both directions lead to good times in downtown Raleigh.

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