Dining Review

With tasty tapas, Taste is worth seeking out

CorrespondentJune 29, 2012 

  • Taste 3048 Medlin Drive, Raleigh; 919-322-0568; tasteamericantapas.com Cuisine: tapas Rating:* * * 1/2 Prices: $$ Atmosphere: Neighborhood bistro. Noise level: Moderate to high. Service: Eager-to-please, sometimes slow. Recommended: Farm-fresh salad, chipotle-seared scallops, beef medallions. Open: Dinner Monday-Saturday, brunch Sunday. Reservations: Accepted for parties of eight or more. Other: Full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot. The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Tucked away in a pocket of retail just off Dixie Trail, surrounded by upscale residences, Taste is the sort of place that invariably calls to mind the term “hidden gem” the first time you see it. Even if you happen to live in the area, you might well have driven past the restaurant every day since its quiet Feb. 9 opening, and never noticed it.

Turn off onto the two-block stub that is Medlin Drive, though, and you can’t miss it. Shoehorned into a row of shops that look like they date to the middle of the last century, it’s the little brick building with a fresh coat of yellow paint and a large sign on the roof that says “Taste – American tapas – wine & martini lounge.”

Does the food live up to that “hidden gem” first impression? By and large it does, and in some cases, the aptness of the term is uncanny. A recent version of the daily changing farm-fresh salad showcased jewel tones of local blueberries, watermelon and cucumber, glistening in a fruity vinaigrette, in a glass tumbler.

Except for a handful of specials listed on a chalkboard near the bar, the rest of the dozen or so tapas offerings change seasonally.

One tempting option, which you can count on being available until the menu changes in August, is Israeli couscous. Served in a tumbler like the salad, the presentation looks like an extravagant stash of pearls, shimmering in a light yogurt dressing and spangled with shards of bacon and nuggets of pistachio and raisin. The lavish promise to the eye is fully realized on the palate.

Chipotle-seared scallops, strewn across a small plate alongside a clutch of blistered grape tomatoes and glistening under a sheen of thyme-infused olive oil, are another multisensory delight.

So are shrimp wontons, their spicy minced shellfish filling encased in crisp, golden wrappers. And homemade pappardelle tossed with chevre, artichokes, and capers in a light, lemon-brightened sauce. And succulent shreds of slow-roasted pork paired with a small potato salad in a dressing flecked with whole grain mustard.

But for my money– and the unanimous pick of the foursome who joined me in a recent sampling of the entire small plate offering – first prize goes to the duo of beef filet medallions. Served over potato hash and lightly glazed with a Bad Penny brown ale demi-glace, it’s a toothsome twosome and a bargain at $8.50.

Prices across the board are reasonable, for that matter, with most listings falling in the $6-$8 range. And unlike most restaurants that bill themselves as tapas bars, Taste doesn’t hedge its bets with an entree list that can run up the tab in a hurry. Figure on two or three small plates per person.

Hidden gem though it may be, Taste is not without its flaws. The Meadow Farms beef slider that wows you one night may disappoint the next time with dry, overcooked meat. The crispness of the grilled flatbread is likewise variable.

The pastry crust of individual tarts tends to be underdone, whether it’s the otherwise exemplary sweet potato tart that’s paired with grilled andouille sausage or the chocolate tart on the dessert list.

Crème brûlée is a tempting sweet tooth alternative, though the custard occasionally falls short of being completely set. Your safest dessert bet is the cookie-wich, which features a scoop of vanilla ice cream between two house-baked cookies.

Service, while unfailingly welcoming and eager to please, lags at times. You find yourself wishing they’d serve some sort of bread at the beginning of the meal to tide you over between rounds.

The restaurant’s shortcomings are comparatively minor, though, and most of them can likely be chalked up to a learning curve. Taste is the first venture for chef Alex Unger and his partner, Edward Haag, who runs the front of the house. The duo met while working together in a restaurant in Syracuse, N.Y.

Haag also manages the bar, pouring a modest but well-chosen selection of wines (all available by the glass) and bottled beers. A chalkboard over the bar lists his seasonally inspired cocktail creations (which recently included a lip-smacking elixir of local strawberries and lavender).

A neighborhood bistro vibe that is at once cozy and convivial adds to the reasons for seeking out this out-of-the-way spot. And if Taste doesn’t yet merit “crown jewel” status, it’s certainly worthy of “hidden gem.”

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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