If The Village Grill's name conjures up images of a generic American pub, rest assured that you'll be disabused of that notion the moment you walk through the door. Sure, there are plenty of TVs over a large central bar, where you can watch your favorite team while enjoying a locally brewed beer or an Arnold Palmer cocktail. But the bar is polished oak, gleaming under the soft light of sleekly elegant sculpted glass lamps.
The floors are strewn with oriental rugs and the walls hung with a profusion of original paintings. Richly colorful caricatures and fantasies with themes ranging from a society matron walking her dog on the grounds of a country estate to people dancing in sybaritic ecstasy across a large canvas, they set a mood that is at once dramatically stylish and as casual as a neighborhood watering hole. As long as you bear in mind that the neighborhood is Lafayette Village, the upscale retail and office complex where the restaurant is situated.
The menu, in contrast, has had a harder time establishing an identity. In the early going, an attempt to be as all-embracing as the atmosphere too often fell short. Burgers were solidly satisfying, but truffle cheese fries were disappointing. Mussels sautéed in white wine fared better, as did lobster mac and cheese. But neither lived up to its ambitious promise or the setting.
Of these, only the burger remains on a menu that has already undergone a number of revisions. The current offering is a step in the right direction, though consistent execution continues to be a problem.
The mussels are now steamed in Fat Tire ale, and judging by the unpleasantly bitter broth in a recent sampling, I'm afraid they're a backward step. Better to start with the house-made pimento cheese, a natural beer-quaffing companion served in shareable portion with seed-spangled flatbread crackers.
Buffalo wings are crisp and addictively spicy, and the Ashe County blue cheese sauce (part of a new focus on North Carolina products) is a welcome change of pace. But the order I was served recently should never have left the kitchen with those dry-to-the-point-of-cracking carrot sticks and wilted celery on the plate.
I couldn't find anything to fault, on the other hand, in the Southern fried chicken salad. An entree-size offering that serves up crisp, moist fingers of buttermilk-marinated breast meat over chopped romaine tossed in herbed Ranch dressing, this one will leave you satisfied but not stuffed. Garnishes of candied bacon, spiced pecans and a wedge of brie will turn that satisfied smile into an ear-to-ear grin.
St. Louis-style ribs tend to be overcooked - a shame, given that the distinctive house-made barbecue sauce is as rich and complex as a Mexican mole. Lowcountry shrimp and grits are a better entree option and earn bonus points for using North Carolina shrimp. The cheddar-enriched grits are richly flavorful, too, though they're so thick they hold their shape like mashed potatoes when scooped onto the plate.
The Village Grill's cooked-to-order burgers remain a strength. (If you're not a red meat eater, you can substitute grilled or fried chicken in any burger. Or opt for the vegetarian falafel Tree Hugger Burger.)
In keeping with current fashion, burgers are available with a variety of topping options ranging from Memphis Smokehouse (bacon, smoked cheddar, onion straws and barbecue sauce) to California (avocado salsa, roasted poblano, habanero cheddar and chipotle sauce).
A strong candidate for most outrageous burger in the Triangle is the Twenty Dollar Burger, a lavish layering of Kobe beef, black truffle pâté, brie and fig jam. According to managing partner Joe Forgione, who took over day to day operations a couple of months ago, it's one of the best-sellers. For my money, the beef alone is so juicy and flavorful that I'd be happy if they left off everything else and called it a Ten Dollar Burger.
Then again, there's something to be said for extravagance when you're dining in a place with oriental rugs on the floors