Entering the lobby of the Renaissance Raleigh North Hills Hotel, your eyes are drawn upward to parchment wings, suggestive of the Wright brothers' plane, suspended from a high ceiling. In the airy, sleekly elegant dining room, you can't help but look up again, where clusters of conical pendant lights call to mind the exhaust jets of rockets soaring into the stratosphere.
It doesn't take long to figure out that Flights' name is a tribute to North Carolina's famous contribution to the history of aviation. The theme is a reflection of corporate parent Marriott Hotels' policy of giving each property in its upscale Renaissance chain a distinct local flavor. It makes for a dramatic setting, certainly, and if the ambience is evocative of an airport frequent-flyer lounge, business travelers ought to feel right at home.
But it's the food that makes Flights a worthy destination for locals. Indeed, the restaurant's name could just as fittingly be an expression of the menu's high aspirations - and of executive chef Dean Wendel's fanciful flights of creativity.
Wendel has quietly been pushing the envelope for hotel dining fare for more than a decade. (I still recall being pleasantly surprised by his inventive fare at Bistro in the Park in the Cary Embassy Suites, which I reviewed in 1998.) With his new assignment, the chef has taken his craft to a higher cruising altitude, where turbulence is rare and the scenery at times breathtaking.
And I do mean scenery, both figuratively and literally. Wendel's Cobb salad is a still life on a large oval plate with two separate but exquisitely matched subjects. On one side is a colorful, layered tower of diced English cucumber, Vidalia red onion, grated egg, Maytag blue cheese, applewood-smoked bacon and succulent nuggets of grilled Carolina quail breast. On the other, crisp romaine in a bright grapefruit-champagne vinaigrette. Lovely as it is to look at, the composition's true beauty is revealed when you dig in and discover that each bite is different, depending on how you recombine the ingredients on your fork.
Our waiter's description of the crab cake as "deconstructed" comes close to the mark: a golden, lace-crusted disk of jumbo lumps and little else, surrounded by a tangle of frisée in apple bacon vinaigrette, a smear of Pommery mustard cream and a small mound of pickled, petal-thin jalapeño slices, shallots and cucumber. Macaroni and cheese gets reworked into a presentation that is at once refined and whimsical: deep-fried cubes of gemelli in a truffle-scented medley of molten cheeses, artfully arranged on a swirl of fire-roasted tomato cream and basil oil.
In another riff on a classic pairing, Wendel transforms shrimp and grits into an elegant composition starring a flawless, butter-poached lobster tail and claw on a bed of melted leeks, framed in concentric rings of creamy yellow grits and a rich melange of tasso ham, shiitakes, fresh corn and tomato. The vegetables are local (Wendel is a regular at the North Hills Farmers' Market), and the stone-ground grits are from the Old Mill of Guilford, savory proof of Wendel's support for local farms.
That includes Cane Creek Farm, whose pork shank he features in what may be the most striking presentation on the menu. Taking his cue from traditional, Carolina pig-picking fare, he glazes the braised shank with a demi-glace "bbq sauce" whose espresso-dark sheen is spangled with a vivid confetti of red and green peppers and fresh peaches. Paired with herbed potato salad and grilled asparagus, the pork is deeply flavorful, though the meat was surprisingly dry when I ordered it - surely an aberration, given the kitchen's otherwise consistently high level of execution across the board.
Any other flaws I might point out amount to little more than quibbles. I'd have preferred more grits and less of the intensely rich tasso-shiitake sauté in the lobster and grits, for instance, but that's a matter of personal taste.
Same goes for a dessert offering of seasonal fruit cobbler with blackberry cabernet sorbet. Served in a tiny black-iron skillet, the cobbler (recently, a medley of blackberries, peaches and apples) is stellar. So is the lush, smooth-as-silk sorbet. I just wish that skillet were a little bigger.
The wine selection is surprisingly meager, but there's a respectable list of bottled beers, including five local brews. Service, on the other hand, lives up to the food and setting with enthusiasm, efficiency and just the right amount of polish. With Dean Wendel at the helm, Flights is off to a smooth takeoff with clear skies ahead.