'How did we do?" It's the first question I've come to expect whenever I call a restaurant with the news I'm reviewing it. Occasionally - when management is particularly confident, presumably - I'll get some variation on "well, it's about time."
When I called Ashley Christensen to tell her I was reviewing Beasley's Chicken + Honey, I got a response I'd never heard before: "Wow, I didn't think you'd actually review it."
Even so, I immediately understood her implied question: Why would I devote an entire review to a restaurant with a limited menu centered on an obscure Southern pairing of fried chicken and honey?
Several reasons, actually. Let's tally them up:
The buzz: Check any list of culinary trends over the past couple of years, and you're sure to find some variation on "one-note" restaurants. In major metropolitan areas, focused-menu eateries specializing in everything from meatballs to grilled cheese sandwiches are hot.
The queen bee: Poole's Diner, Christensen's flagship restaurant, has earned the chef a stellar reputation among local cognoscenti. That reputation has quickly spread nationally, with an appearance on "Iron Chef" and two nominations for the coveted James Beard award among the feathers in her culinary cap. When a chef of Christensen's stature sets off to explore new territory, foodies will follow.
Variation on a theme
The hive: With its August opening, Beasley's joins a growing number of restaurants and bars on a stretch of Wilmington Street whose nightlife potential had until recently been overlooked, and now promises to bridge the gap between Fayetteville Street and City Market. Within weeks of Beasley's opening, Christensen strengthened her foothold with the opening of Chuck's, a gourmet burger joint, and Fox Liquor Bar next door.
Chicken + Honey + more: Turns out Beasley's isn't a one-trick pony after all, strictly speaking. True, the star of the show is fried humanely raised chicken topped with a drizzle of local honey. The chicken is juicy (even if you order white meat) under a crunchy, deep golden brown batter crust. Honey adds a sweet note that, for those of us who grew up with it, brings back fond childhood memories. The honey is optional, but I encourage you to give it a try.
The chicken biscuit, featuring a boneless thigh, pickled green tomatoes and a dab of honey-dijon mustard on a large, rustic biscuit, is a winning variation on the theme. Or you could go all in on sweetness, raising the ante with an offering that pairs your honey-drizzled chicken with an exquisitely light, delicately crisp Belgian waffle, with a little cruet of maple syrup on the side.
Chicken pot pie takes poultry in a different direction, and serves it up in a rich, steamy milk gravy under an exemplary flaky crust. Or you could take a detour around chicken entirely, opting instead for the Berkshire pork shoulder meat loaf with smoked tomato gravy.
For that matter, nobody would blame you if you opted for the vegetable plate, creating your own combination from can't-miss options that include bacon-studded potato salad, cider-braised collard greens, garlicky-peppery snap beans, and baked sweet potatoes with brown sugar-dijon butter.
Nectar: In addition to a tempting assortment of house cocktails, libations include half a dozen beers (all draft, all North Carolina brews) and a small but well-chosen wine list. An excellent selection of sparkling wines reflects the owner's fondness for pairing bubbly with fried chicken. I doubt many will test her theory with a $425 bottle of '98 Krug (one of four champagnes listed under the heading of "Royal Jelly") to go with their $7.50 plate of fried chicken. But I can confirm that the Spanish sparkler Mas Codina Cava Brut ($6 per glass) pairs quite nicely.
The sweet story: Beasley's is a labor of love for Ashley Christensen, a tribute to both her mom (an excellent Southern cook) and her dad (an amateur beekeeper). The peculiar typography of the restaurant's name is inspired by the words on the side of a fried chicken and honey shack her school bus drove past every day when she was growing up in Kernersville.
The sting: The meat loaf I sampled needed salt, and desserts can be surprisingly hit or miss (a banana pudding that tasted of little but sweetness comes to mind), but otherwise I found kitchen execution to be solid. Beverages and desserts served in Mason jars and jelly glasses suit the country-diner-meets-urban-chic decor, but some might find that stark presentations on tin plates with no garnish carry the style a bit too far. Others will find the lack of a paper menu (the menu is on a chalkboard over the bar, though I'm told a paper menu is available on request) an inconvenience, and the spartan stools uncomfortable after a few minutes.
But pluses far outnumber minuses at Beasley's Chicken + Honey. Add them all up, and you have a restaurant that without question merits a review.