A recent special at Mandolin featured a single scallop for $15. It was worth every penny. Delivered live to the restaurant, the monumental mollusk and its dense, briny-sweet roe sac were expertly pan-seared and presented on the half-shell.
Anchored to terra firma by an earthy dab of parsnip puree and served on a plate bejeweled with emerald green sugar snap peas and a dainty salad of local strawberries, it was a truly memorable dish.
Not that all memories come so dear at Mandolin. True, dinner for two can run close to $200, especially if you get seduced by Mandolins 22-page wine list.
Prices are eminently fair, I hasten to add, and with some 40 wines by the glass to choose from, theres no need to get carried away.
Regardless of how thick your wallet, youd be well-advised to engage sommelier Charles Kirkwood as your guide to an impressive Old World-leaning selection, most from small wineries rarely found outside the immediate region in which they were made.
With a little restraint, you can keep the entire tab for two at Mandolin south of triple digits. Chilled pea soup with country ham and béarnaise sauce, a recent offering on owner/chef Sean Fowlers daily showcase of local produce, evokes just as many satisfied moans as a foie gras torchon with pain perdu and poached pears for half the price.
You certainly wont forget Fowlers rendition of the soul food classic, chicken and waffles, though the entree rings up at just $4 more than that scallop appetizer. An exquisitely juicy breast with a shatter-crisp crust takes center stage, with buckwheat waffle and braised mustard greens in supporting roles. The crowning touch is a bacon-mushroom foam, one of the molecular gastronomy techniques that the chef occasionally employs to add cutting-edge pizazz to a menu whose roots are firmly planted in Southern tradition.
Another contemporary culinary riff takes the form of an egg, poached in an immersion circulator into an oval of silk that oozes when pierced with a fork, saucing an impeccable pan-seared flounder.
Yet another dish floats a cloud of rhubarb foam over a salad celebrating local harvests of strawberries, spinach, asparagus and red ribbon sorrel.
No scientific wizardry is evident in a first-course presentation of grilled North Carolina monkfish, pork belly, black-eyed peas, smoked tomatoes and a mustardy chowchow. None is needed.
Same goes for a recent entree special featuring hanger steak, sweet potato puree and sautéed ramps, topped with wispy threads of fried potato straw.
And for wood-grilled swordfish, though the accompanying smashed fingerling potatoes molded into an attractive cylinder, but dry are a rare instance of substance suffering for the sake of style.
The ramps are no doubt gone for the season, and much of the menu will have changed by now. Rest assured that its nearly impossible to go wrong.
Also be advised that to skip dessert would be unthinkable, given temptations such as hot Valrhona chocolate soufflé, kung pao peanut butter mousse with vanilla-Szechwan ice cream, and an ever-changing kaleidoscope of house-made sorbets.
Mandolin is Sean Fowlers first restaurant and a homecoming of sorts for the chef. The Raleigh native fondly remembers washing down a grilled cheese with an ice-cold limeade when he was a boy at the old Johnsons Pharmacy, which once occupied the space where Mandolin stands now.
The drugstore closed long ago, and the building has for more than a decade been home to a succession of restaurants.
Meanwhile, Fowler grew up and went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Denver, then honed his skills at acclaimed restaurants from Le Bernardin in New York to most recently Fearrington House.
With the backing of Hanes Roberts, the chefs business partner and childhood friend (who often sat next to him at Johnsons Pharmacy), Fowler hired a local design firm to give the space a makeover.
The result is a decor that might be described as farmhouse modern. With fresh flowers on linen-draped tables and chairs upholstered in ivory against a backdrop of pewter walls, heart-pine paneling and a display of canning jars filled with pickles and preserves, the look is as vibrant as a tune played on the restaurants namesake instrument.
And as homespun, thanks in part to the inherited brick floors and ornate molded tin ceilings.
Those hard surfaces can make for a high decibel level in the dining room, especially on Tuesday nights, when local musician Craig Thompson plays a mix of bluegrass, country and folk music in the adjoining bar.
As we were leaving one Tuesday evening, the hostess (Fowlers fiancee, the charming Lizzie Fisher, who is also responsible for those lovely fresh flowers) said she hoped the music hadnt been too loud.
We assured her we had enjoyed it.
But for my money, the sweetest harmonies at Mandolin are the ones coming from the kitchen.
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