The first things that catch your eye when you step inside Kitchen are the chefs' aprons. Crisp and white, each hanging on a separate black metal grid, they span the length of the dining room wall in a neat row, like a brigade of classically trained chefs awaiting inspection. The display is more than eye-catching, however, more even than a clever reference to the restaurant's name. The juxtaposition of steeped-in-tradition apron and modern grid hints at the French-inspired contemporary bistro menu that's in store.
It's also fitting, given the restaurant's name, that every seat in the compact dining room and cozy bar affords a view into the open kitchen. There, you can watch owner/chef Dick Barrows turn out food in bistro-casual presentations with a level of execution as precise as those grids on the wall.
A textbook country-style duck terrine, studded with pistachios, is a still life framed in a careful scattering of cornichons, caperberries and dabs of whole grain mustard and red onion relish. Horseradish cream and pickled carrots add sparkle and crunchy counterpoint to the buttery richness of smoked trout. A whisper of truffle oil echoes the earthy sweetness of roasted red and yellow beets, alternating slices of garnet and topaz fanned across the plate.
Even the butter that's served with thick slices of rustic French bread is lightly sprinkled with Hawaiian red sea salt. That the bread is house-baked (and, it must be noted, has improved dramatically in the five months since the restaurant opened) is testament to Barrows' commitment to scratch preparation. Pretty much everything, from smoked trout to pickled vegetables to desserts, is made in-house.
The seasonally changing menu favors local produce, too, though the chef is not above snapping up a bunch of Oregon-foraged chanterelles, hedgehogs and black trumpet mushrooms when he can get his hands on them, then sautéing them and serving them up over a delicately crisp polenta cake. Lucky for us he's flexible that way.
Flexibility is also evident in the chef's approach to the bistro classic pairing of mussels and French fries. Besides the traditional Provencal moules frites, variations include Belgian style (cooked in abbey ale with caramelized onions and fennel), Thai red curry, and a Basque version whose broth is punctuated with Spanish chorizo, leeks and pimentón.
For those who crave heartier fare this time of year, the current late fall menu doesn't disappoint. The kitchen turns out a fine rendition of steak frites, which pairs the crisp shoestring-cut fries with a well-trimmed, expertly grilled grass-fed flat iron steak. Braised lamb shank, fork-tender and served with garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed young collard greens, is as deeply satisfying as it sounds. Even the seared salmon with green lentils and bacon is a dish sure to be comforting on a cold night.
Confit duck leg, served with fingerling potatoes and caramelized cipollini onions, also hits the spot - so well, in fact, that you might consider taking the menu up on its offer of a second leg for a $6 upcharge. You might not eat both ("leg" actually means "leg-thigh quarter"), but I'm sure your dining companion will be happy to help.
In the bistro tradition
Kitchen misfires are infrequent and generally minor, along the lines of the lemon ricotta cheesecake that was on the dry and crumbly side recently. Crème brûlée was exemplary, however, as was a delightfully different polenta pound cake.
True to bistro tradition, the wine list is small but thoughtfully chosen, with nary a cliche among the Old World-leaning selection. Pricing is bistro-inspired, too, with the most expensive bottle on the current list fetching $27. My only quibble, given the menu's focus, is the lack of a French red by the glass.
Dick Barrows and his wife, Sue, (she's the affable woman with the close-cropped red hair who oversees Kitchen's enthusiastic young wait staff) are newcomers to the Chapel Hill dining scene. But they're hardly new to the business. The couple owned restaurants in Pennsylvania for nearly three decades before succumbing to the Southern charms of Chapel Hill while visiting their daughter when she attended UNC-CH.
If you look closely at those aprons on the wall, you'll notice that they're autographed. Among the signatures of chefs the Barrowses have known and admired over the years, you may spot the names of Mario Batali and Tom Colicchio. There's also an apron bearing the signatures of chefs the couple have met since moving to Chapel Hill, including some of the area's most talented. Dick Barrows' own signature would be a fitting addition to that one.