Restaurant Review

Drinks are stars at 2 Raleigh restaurants, but menus still shine

CorrespondentAugust 2, 2012 

  • More information CALAVERA 444-101 S. Blount St., Raleigh 919-617-1661 www.calaveraraleigh.com VINOS FINOS Y PICADAS 8450-110 Honeycutt Road, Raleigh 919-747-9233 www.vinosfinosypicadas.com 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.

On the surface, Calavera and Vinos Finos are as different as two restaurants can be. Calavera is a brash, urban-chic tequila bar with a strong late-night following. About the time things get jumping at Calavera, they’re usually winding down for the suburban wine bar crowd at Vinos Finos.

But the two establishments do share one key trait. At both, the featured attraction is the bar offering, with a food menu designed to match. The kitchen plays a supporting role, you might say, with a menu that’s too limited in scope to warrant a full review. But in both cases, their performances are so successful that I just have to tell you about them.

Calavera

Day-of-the-Dead skeletons, Virgin Mary prayer candles and strings of colorful twinkle lights set an emphatically offbeat mood in the compact downstairs bar and upstairs dining room at this downtown Raleigh newcomer. Score a window seat, and you’ll get a prime view of late-night bar hoppers in the bargain.

Calavera’s bar offers a modest Spanish-leaning wine list, a handful of bottled beers, and cocktails ranging from classic caipirinha to fanciful creations such as the Manzanita (Maker’s Mark, Absolut Orient Apple, fresh ginger and orange).

But Calavera’s most valuable liquid assets take the form of one of the area’s best tequila selections. The list of 34 tequilas is helpfully divided into categories for blanco, reposado and añejo and includes such rarities as Patron Platinum and Don Julio 1942. If you’re an aficionado – or if you just can’t decide on one – you can always opt for a horizontal or vertical flight.

The food menu isn’t nearly as broad, but it presents plenty of temptations in its own right. Eleven variations on the baked empanada theme – a widely eclectic selection ranging from Holy Frijoles (black beans, roasted sweet potato and Oaxacan cheese) to Piggly Wiggly (“Carolina-style” pulled pork) make up the bulk of the offering. At $3 a pop, you can afford to sample liberally.

Having done just that, I can especially recommend the Holy Frijoles, along with the New Mexicana (pork and roasted New Mexican chiles) and Poblano Loco (tequila-marinated poblanos, onions and molten cheese). Add a selection or two from the quartet of sides that round out the menu, and you’ve got a satisfying meal. The sharable cilantro lime salad, say, or Mexican-style corn on the cob: boiled in sugar and topped with mayonnaise, cotija cheese and a sprinkle of cayenne.

Then finish with the King of Kong, a dessert empanada with a banana and Nutella filling. As for what tequila might pair best with that one, you’re on your own.

Vinos Finos y Picadas

The “Vinos Finos” – a selection of more than 350 wines, including what owner Pat West proudly describes as the largest selection of South American wines in the United States – may get top billing at this casually inviting wine bar and retail shop in North Raleigh’s Lafayette Village. But the “Picadas,” small plates designed to pair with those wines (all of which are available by the glass), are equally worthy of a visit.

As you watch boards laden with the likes of 18-month serrano ham, Spanish smoked paprika chorizo and aged manchego with local honey being delivered to nearby tables, the temptation to order a mix-and-match selection of cured meats and cheeses is irresistible.

By all means, do. But don’t stop there. You wouldn’t want to miss out on bacon-wrapped Medjool dates.

Or goat cheese-stuffed piquillo peppers, or seafood salad with capers and lemon, or deviled eggs with black truffles and chives. You’ll want at least one of the rustic grilled crostini, too – Catalan-style roasted vegetables, say – and an Argentinean-style empanada is a must. The quandary is which one: beef with olive and egg, corn and cotija cheese, or duck confit with sweet potato and rosemary?

The predominantly Spanish and South American flavors are a natural match for the wine list. As it happens, they also reflect the background of Pat West’s wife and partner, chef Genia Bedini West. Born in the States and raised in South America, the chef makes regular return visits to the continent of her childhood to visit family and scout new producers of wine and food for the restaurant.

Pat West, who manages the business and marketing side of the restaurant, frequently makes the rounds of the dining room. Chatting with West, it doesn’t take long to realize that he’s his wife’s biggest cheerleader – making Vinos Finos y Picadas a happy marriage in more ways than one.

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

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