On the wall behind the host stand at Bruno is a framed 1993 New York Times article citing the steaks at Manhattan Steak House as the best at a new restaurant in the city. The article is one of several glowing tributes to Bruno Peros, who came to the States from Croatia at age 15 and over the next three decades worked his way up from dishwasher to restaurant owner. Along the way, his resume included stints as a waiter at 21 Club and grill man at the venerable Peter Luger Steakhouse.
After a 15-year successful run as owner/chef of Manhattan Steak House, Peros succumbed to the allures of the sunny South. He opened Bruno in May near Wake Forest. No matter where you live in the Triangle, it's worth the drive.
Not surprisingly, the man can flat out cook a steak. The 14-ounce Delmonico steak is the most succulent slab of beef I've had in recent memory - perfectly seasoned, precisely grilled to medium-rare, properly rested - and a bargain at $23.50.
The Delmonico is one of a half-dozen or so steaks and chops on offer, including an American Kobe that frequently makes an appearance among the nightly specials. All are served with a vegetable du jour or potato, though you can supplement your order with a selection from a steakhouse-style list of à la carte sides ranging from haricots verts to sautéed mushroom caps.
But don't get the impression that Bruno is merely a steakhouse. The diverse offering is an edible travelogue of the well-traveled owner's life and career, from the grilled octopus salad that evokes the Adriatic shores of his childhood to the shrimp and grits nod to his new home.
Peros is clearly passionate about seafood, and his instinct for preparing it is razor sharp. You won't find better oysters Rockefeller hereabouts - or clams Casino, for that matter, or shrimp scampi. Fortunately, you don't have to choose, because an appetizer combination serves up a sampling of all three. As long as you're splurging, go ahead and treat yourself to one of the best Maryland-style crab cakes around.
Assuming you can resist the temptation to binge on more scampi for an entree, seafood options include trout amandine, grilled Atlantic salmon and dry pack sea scallops with a citrusy lemongrass sauce. Don't decide until your server has recited the nightly fresh catch, though, which can range from flounder oreganato to lobster fra diavolo to "Tuscan style" grouper with clams, shrimp and andouille sausage, served over cannellini beans in a white wine reduction. Or, if you're really lucky, whole Chilean turbot, filleted tableside by the chef.
As culturally free-ranging as the menu is, a recurring Italian theme gives it focus. Separate sections are devoted to the veal and chicken classics and to a handful of pasta dishes such as penne alla vodka and seafood Alfredo. I didn't get a chance to sample any of the veal or chicken dishes, but I can vouch for the excellent homemade gnocchi with pesto.
Desserts live up to the high standards set by the savory fare. The selection varies (apple tarte Tatin, a local rarity, makes an occasional appearance), but you can count on textbook renditions of crème brûlée and Italian ricotta cheesecake.
Kitchen miscues are infrequent, minor and cheerfully corrected - a rack of lamb ordered medium-rare, say, and served rare. In fact, there's little fault to be found with any aspect of the dining experience, unless it's your job to look for it.
A move to cheer
The friendly, well-trained wait staff can miss a beat when the restaurant is very busy (as it usually is on a weekend night), but chances are you'll be enjoying your meal too much to notice. The wine list is serviceable but seldom ventures beyond familiar labels.
My only complaint about the dining room - an otherwise inviting pastiche of earth tones, impressionist landscapes and white tablecloths - is the large, cold expanse of floor-to-ceiling windows that dominate half of the soaring space. That should change soon, when drapery panels are installed.
Looking at all those accolades on the wall on the way out, you're struck by the fact that Bruno Peros could easily have chosen to stay in New York and rest on his laurels. Lucky for us, he didn't.