Tasty choices are easy as pie

CorrespondentNovember 25, 2011 

  • 618 N. Person St., Raleigh

    508-7612

    www.piebirdraleigh.com

    Cuisine: American

    Rating:

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: urban contemporary with whimsical touches

    Noise level: moderate to high

    Service: enthusiastic and attentive, with occasional minor lapses

    Recommended: pie cracklins, shepherd's pie, daily specials, dessert pies

    Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday.

    Reservations: recommended on weekends

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Maybe it's the homey image conjured up by the word "pie." Or maybe it's the salt and pepper shakers on the tables at Pie Bird. Made of white ceramic and shaped like birds, they call to mind the restaurant's namesake pie bird (a hollow device, also usually ceramic in the shape of a bird, that's baked in a pie to vent steam) - which in turn makes me think of those four-and-20 blackbirds of nursery rhyme fame. Whatever the reason, I can't stop thinking about aphorisms and old song lyrics I learned in childhood. For instance ...

"Every cloud has a silver lining." When Sheilagh Sabol Duncan was laid off in 2009, she decided to take the lemons life had given her and make lemon pie. Duncan, who had earlier in life been a caterer, began baking pies (OK, not just lemon) for her neighbors in the Oakwood community. Her pies were such a hit that she decided to open a restaurant.

One of those neighbors was Krishna Bahl, who turned out to be a fellow pie lover and avid hobby cook. Bahl joined Duncan in the venture, and the partners targeted a summer 2010 opening in the old Conti's Italian Market space.

Rolling out the crust

"Better late than never." After nearly a year of frustrating delays, Pie Bird finally opened its doors in March. By opening day, the restaurant had already acquired a solid base of fans who had followed its progress on Facebook. Many were already familiar with the cotton candy blue-striped awning over the door, and had gotten a sneak peek at interior details, from the brushed-metal stools at the bar on one side of the narrow dining room to the colorful geometric patterns on the high-backed banquettes along the opposite wall.

"Practice makes perfect." As is often the case with first-time ventures, Pie Bird's kitchen got off to a bumpy start. But with the help of a couple of professionally trained chefs (Dustin Hunt, formerly of Vivace, and Rubykaye Arthur, a promising prospect from the Wake Tech culinary program), the ride has since smoothed out substantially.

The savory pies that make up the bulk of the entree offering are filling enough that a starter isn't absolutely necessary. But it takes more will power than I've got to resist a starter of "pie cracklins," strips of deep-fried pie dough served with white bean hummus and caramelized onion dip.

Then there are the homemade soups, an ever-changing selection that might include local vegetable with pesto, collard and black bean, or "scrapple soup," whose namesake gets deconstructed into diced pork belly and vegetables in an unctuous broth.

Chicken pot pie, which starts with whole chickens simmered with aromatic vegetables until tender, and ends up in a classic creamy sauce under a buttery crust, is the signature entree. Madras curried chicken pot pie is an exotic - but not too exotic - twist on the theme. An exemplary shepherd's pie serves up ground lamb and roasted carrots in a savory herbed gravy under a golden brown topping of parmesan mashed potatoes.

"Jack Sprat could eat no fat ..." Granted, the words "pie" and "slimming" don't exactly go hand in hand. But Pie Bird at least offers a couple of vegetarian options: a mushroom tart with caramelized onions, and a meatless version of the Madras curry pot pie.

Look for the specials

"Variety is the spice of life." It pays to check the board for daily specials. Recent rewards have included tempura-battered green beans, tomato and goat cheese pie, and a luau burger - made with house-ground beef and topped with white cheddar, pineapple and mango chutney.

"A bird in the hand ..." At lunchtime, savory pies take the form of "hand pies" - so called because, at least in theory, their self-contained form (think empanada, only round) makes it possible to hold them in your hand. With filling options ranging from curried chicken to spinach and feta to black bean and green chile, hand pies are offered individually or in combination with a soup or side of your choice.

"Can she bake a cherry pie?" Indeed she can. When it's available, the cherry pie is chock full of fruit and topped with a beautiful lattice crust. She makes a mighty fine peanut butter pie, too, and a downright transcendental honey and sea salt pie. And with North Carolina apples coming in, chances are good that one of the temptations in Pie Bird's display case will be as American as - well, you know.

ggcox@bellsouth.net

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