When Fork and Barrel opened in early July, many of the first customers to walk through its doors were taken aback by what they saw.
It wasn't the decor that caught them by surprise. The large, carpeted dining room, with its dark woodwork and stone accents, beer signs and old movie posters, was just what they expected. So were the elegant horseshoe bar, wine bottles and beer growlers on display in a glass-fronted case near the entrance, and red umbrellas on the sheltered patio.
But when patrons saw the restaurant's name at the top of the menu, their eyes widened. Many had expected to see Tap City, the name of the restaurant that had previously operated in the space before suddenly calling it quits. The transition to Fork and Barrel had been overnight, and new owners Chris Harris and Danny Qaddomi didn't have time to make decor changes beyond adding a couple of giant forks and an old whiskey barrel as symbols of the new restaurant's name.
Nor did they want to. "It was a turnkey operation," says Harris, adding that the upscale-casual look was just right for the North Raleigh neighborhood watering hole ambience they're going for.
The food, however, is a different matter. Harris is a veteran chef whose resume includes the Cardinal Club, Maximillians, and most recently, seven years at City Beverage in Durham.
His menu showcases that experience in the form of an ambitious contemporary take on American pub fare, with options ranging from chile-braised chicken nachos to sirloin steak frites with red wine veal demi, gorgonzola butter and garlic fries.
Fans of City Beverage will recognize a few of their favorites, among them tuna tacos and Krispy Kreme bread pudding.
The food lives up to the chef's ambition, by and large, though the kitchen sometimes shows signs that it's still in the learning curve.
The menu promises jumbo lump crabmeat in the crab cake appetizer, though it's broken into such a fine texture you'd never know it. The fried green tomatoes that accompany the crab cake, on the other hand, are so good you're tempted to ask if you could order them separately.
Fried oysters are a winner, refreshingly different in a presentation that serves them over fresh spinach, barely wilted in a lemon-Asiago cream sauce that's punctuated with applewood-smoked bacon and toasted pine nuts. So are firecracker pork dumplings, whose spicy, ginger-sparked filling and blistery-crisp shells are worthy of their incendiary billing.
The influence of Harris' stint in the Maximillians kitchen is evident on the entree list, where East-West fusions, lengthy catalogs of ingredients, and playful descriptions are recurring themes. Grilled mahi mahi is served over black bean ravioli in a "Volcanic Love Sauce" which, the menu informs you, contains smoked chiles, Thai yellow curry and a half dozen other ingredients.
New York strip steak comes with a roasted black pepper vinaigrette, chive-smashed Yukon gold potatoes and "something green."
Salmon "cassoulet" stakes its claim to the name on the strength of the gigante beans sprinkled among the herbs and vegetables in the white wine broth that the pan-roasted filet sits atop.
Authentic or not, it's a pretty tasty combination.
So is the red curry pork tenderloin with housemade sweet potato ravioli - although, if the promised basil and kaffir lime leaves were indeed present in the sauce I tasted, they must have been in powdered form.
Not surprisingly, the sandwich selection spans the globe from muffuletta to banh mi to curry chicken wrap.
The house burger - eight ounces of ground sirloin, fontina and gorgonzola cheeses, arugula and a smoked-bacon-balsamic-onion jam on a brioche roll - was marred when I ordered it by beef that would be considered overcooked even by those who like their burgers medium-well.
The custard in that oh-so-tempting Krispy Kreme bread pudding wasn't quite properly set that night, either, making for a gooey - albeit still tasty - mishmash.
Maybe it was an off night. I'm inclined to think so, since everything I ordered on a subsequent visit rated good to very good.
At any rate, given Harris' credentials, I'd be surprised if consistency of execution doesn't improve over time.
Assuming it does, that "Fork and Barrel" sign on the outside of the building - which didn't get installed until two months after the restaurant opened - should stay up there a long time