Chef's Palette bills itself as a neighborhood restaurant and bar, and the location in a strip mall ensconced in the bedroom communities of southern Cary certainly fits the bill. The decor strikes a suitably inviting balance between upscale and casual, too, with hardwood floors, artwork by local artists, and suede-upholstered chairs at tables draped in khaki linens.
But the restaurant's name hints at loftier ambitions. And the wildly eclectic nature of the art - impressionist landscape, vibrant abstract, realist fruit still life, monochromatic mural in subtle earth tones - makes it clear that you'd be ill-advised to add the word "typical" to that "neighborhood restaurant and bar" description.
If the decor doesn't convince you, the menu surely will. The pages are illuminated, for starters, in both senses of the word: a soft battery-powered backlight glow to the pages and decorative illustrations in the margins.
The plate, the palette
The words within those margins are pretty eye-catching, too. Under the headings of "Primers" (appetizers) and "Gallery" (entrees), you'll find dishes with fanciful names that pick up on the artistic (and in some cases, just artsy) thread and run with it. Names like Little Boy Blue Apple Salad, for instance, and The Good Shepherd's Pie, and Tidal Pool Rendezvous, a pastiche of peppered pan-seared scallops, candied applewood-smoked bacon and grilled asparagus over creamy stone-ground gouda grits.
Chef Rick Wolf's plate presentations are as playful as the names of his creations.
A starter of Intense Sweet Potato Ribbon Fries is served on a platter in the shape of a painter's palette, complete with a trio of dipping sauces in little "paint pots." It's tempting to dismiss such presentations as mere eye candy - until you dig in, that is, and discover that the spiral cut chips are exemplary and the dips (whole grain mustard remoulade, Caribbean-spiced honey, and a Roquefort-accented four cheese) are all worthy companions.
The chef's creations sometimes venture perilously close to baroque excess, but they seldom cross the line. The Howling Wolf, for instance, serves up barbecued jumbo shrimp and a crawfish-spangled potato cake (one of several souvenirs of Wolf's New Orleans background) on a subtly sweet pool of corn soubise. The shrimp are glazed with a spicy apple butter barbecue sauce that could easily overwhelm the other flavors. Thankfully, it's painted on with a delicate brush.
Big Kahuna Tuna, which pairs sesame-crusted seared rare tuna (notwithstanding the menu's "medium-rare" description) with an Asian slaw interwoven with wakame seaweed, comes close to the mark. The accompanying ginger and peanut sauces are welcome flourishes, but the tomato salsa and garnishing drizzle of balsamic reduction seem out of place.
Commendably, appetizers are offered in two sizes:Vignette (just right for one) and Mural (ample for two or more).
Wolf's Louisiana roots are well-represented on the entree list by Voodoo Pasta, a mixed-media composition of blackened pork rib-eye, shrimp, crawfish and andouille sausage against a backdrop of orzo and Creole tomato sauce. CP's Stuffed Rainbow Trout offers a lighter taste of bayou flavors with its stuffing of crawfish- and andouille-punctuated cornbread.
Impasto Pecan Encrusted Pork Marsala, on the other hand, is marred by the oddly dry filling of the accompanying fried portobello mushroom ravioli. A more satisfying option for carnivores is the rosemary- and black pepper-marinated Renaissance Rib-Eye, whose tenderness I suspect may be attributed to connections made by owner Kathie Clark during her 14-year stint at Jimmy V's Steakhouse.
The artistic theme
Chef's Palette is Clark's first restaurant, and its painterly theme is the expression of her philosophy. "I have a lot of artist friends," she says, "and I've always thought of a chef's creations as art."
Rick Wolf's compositions live up to that image, by and large, though my favorite - a riff on the classic Cajun deep-fried turkey featuring a whole jalapeño Tabasco-injected Cornish game hen called Pixy Fried Dixie Chix - was the casualty of a recent menu change. Gone, too, are the delightful desserts I enjoyed: Electric Bananas Foster on a puff pastry crust, and a cast iron skillet-seared, amaretto-glazed pound cake called Southern Fried Magnolia.
The new menu offers ample reassurance that the chef hasn't lost his inspiration, however, with the likes of Mahogany Roasted Duckling with a Bing cherry and green peppercorn demi-glace, and Peter Peter Pumpkin Cheesecake. And who knows? Maybe Chef's Palette will offer an artist's retrospective presentation of that game hen on a future menu.