Restaurant review

A five-star experience all around

CorrespondentDecember 25, 2009 

  • 100 Woodland Pond, in The Umstead Hotel and Spa, Cary

    447-4200

    www.heronsrestaurant.com

    Cuisine: Contemporary

    Rating:

    Prices: $$$$

    Atmosphere: elegant and contemporary

    Service: polished

    Recommended: everything

    Open: breakfast, lunch and dinner daily

    Reservations: recommended

    Other: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover; full bar (outstanding wine list); smoke free (smoking permitted on the terrace); accommodates children

    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.

At the conclusion of your meal at Herons, the restaurant in the luxe Umstead Hotel, your bill is delivered to your table in an elegant ostrich skin wallet. Tucked into the wallet along with the check is a Guest Experience Card, which asks you to rate your experience in several categories, from 1 (very dissatisfied) to 5 (very satisfied). Here's my questionnaire, filled out.

Arrival

I was greeted within 30 seconds of arrival: Better than that. Before we even entered the restaurant, a doorman opened the front door of the hotel for my wife and me. An Umstead employee in the lobby asked if she could help us. When we told her we had reservations for dinner in the restaurant, she didn't just point the way. She escorted us down the hall to the host stand, where we were greeted warmly by the hostess. 5

Hostess made me feel welcome: See above. 5

Hostess obtained my name and used it: Well, sort of. She used the fictitious name I had given when I booked the reservation. Can't fault her for that, though. 5

I was seated promptly and efficiently: Indeed we were. I don't think there's a 'bad' table in the sumptuously furnished contemporary dining room, but I was especially pleased to be seated at a table with a prime view of the open kitchen, where executive chef Scott Crawford and his crew work with the quiet precision of a well-choreographed dance troupe. 5

Hostess was knowledgeable and helpful: She certainly was, both at the beginning of the meal and the end - but I get ahead of myself. 5

Service

Server greeted me within one minute of seating: Immediately, in fact. 5

Server was warm, friendly and used my name: Warm and friendly, yes, but not overly familiar or intrusive. And again, that fake name thing was really my doing. 5

Server displayed good knowledge of the menu: Excellent knowledge - and enthusiasm to boot, I might add. She heartily recommended the roasted quail appetizer, which turned out to be one of the most memorable dishes I've had in recent memory. 5

Server was attentive and anticipated my needs: Appearing when (and only when) needed, she deftly attended to all the details of our meal, from keeping water glasses filled to crumbing the table before the dessert course. Plates (even at other tables with larger parties, I noted) were served simultaneously, and removed properly. 5

Food recommendations were made: See above. Bonus points for summoning sommelier Justin Tilley when we asked for by-the-glass wine recommendations for each course. Tilley appeared promptly and, with an unintimidating demeanor that belied his Certified Sommelier pedigree, suggested pairings that proved impeccable in every instance. 5

Presentation of food: Mouthwateringly beautiful without being fussy, from my wife's appetizer (plump, ruby-streaked nuggets of lobster poached in vanilla-scented butter alternating with tangerine segments, spanning the length of a rectangular black stone plate) to my entree (bronze-skinned breast of roasted pheasant, framed by swirls of chestnut puree and sparkling ruby cranberries poached in cinnamon-spiced white port). 5

Quality of food: Without exception, stellar. Chef Crawford set extraordinarily high expectations for the meal when he sent out an amuse-bouche of puréed lentil soup topped with an exquisite dollop of what our server described as "caviar curry." Never once did he fail to live up to those expectations. My quail appetizer was as succulent as I've ever had, wrapped in Cane Creek bacon (I understand the chef is a passionate devotee of local produce) and nestled on a savory hash of toasted pecans and potatoes fried in duck fat. A generous slab of pan-seared foie gras, quivering precariously atop the bird, was the crowning glory of a dish truly fit for a king. Judging by this and all the other dishes we enjoyed, I'm confident that I could close my eyes and point to anything on the menu - pan-roasted monkfish, say, or grilled Prime beef strip with a maple-rosemary jus - and be just as delighted.

Crawford, who came to Herons in March, has clearly wasted no time in earning a place among the very best chefs the Triangle has ever seen. Pastry chef Daniel Benjamin doesn't drop the ball, either. If your sweet tooth doesn't feel sufficiently pampered by his quark cheesecake with a miniature "float" of Pedro Ximénez sherry and prune ice cream, or his milk chocolate terrine with a warm pecan pie sauce poured over at the table, then it surely will when he sends out a lagniappe of complimentary sweets afterward. 5

Food was served as it was ordered: Absolutely, and it frequently exceeded our expectations. Not only was my wife's spice-crusted venison loin served precisely medium-rare as ordered, but it appeared to have been properly rested, too. 5

My bill was accurate: Yes. The total came to a little under $300 with tip, and could easily have been much higher had we ordered one of the rarer bottles from Herons' Wine Spectator Award-winning collection of 450 estate-bottled wines. Granted, we did splurge a bit on aperitifs and a salad intermezzo (a lovely melange of oak lettuce, duck prosciutto and toasted hazelnuts in a Banyuls vinaigrette). It's certainly possible for two people to dine well for under $200. For those who find that still a bit steep, I can't recommend the lunchtime Market Menu ($20 for three courses) highly enough. Regardless how much you spend, it's a good bet you'll feel you got your money's worth. 5

Staff wished me a warm farewell: Warmly enough that I can't wait to return after the holidays, when chef Crawford will introduce a new seasonal menu. 5

Departure

Hostess wished me a warm farewell: See above. 5

My coat was checked and returned properly: I'll say. As we got up from the table, it dawned on my wife that she hadn't gotten a ticket when she checked her coat. She needn't have worried. The hostess was waiting for us, coat in hand. I presume our server had sent word ahead that we were on our way. 5

Overall, I experienced warmth on my departure: Yes. Come to think of it, maybe I won't wait until January for a return visit. 5

Overall Herons experience

Overall, how would you rate your experience? Well, let's see, I guess that would be a 5 -- as in five stars.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs.newsobserver.com/mouthful

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