Urban Food Group is without question one of the most successful restaurant groups in the Triangle. Assuming, that is, that youre judging not by the sheer number of restaurants under its umbrella but by their quality and variety.
Fraziers, the groups original landmark restaurant, closed in June after an impressive 14-year run during which it offered a fine dining alternative to the college-student fare that dominates Hillsborough Street.
Porters City Tavern is still flying the UFG banner next door, though, and Coquette delivers the French brasserie goods in style at North Hills. Vivaces refreshing take on an Italian trattoria proved so popular in North Raleigh that a second location has since opened in Charlotte and a third is in the works for Durham.
Chow, the groups latest concept, is its most casual to date. To call the restaurant a family-friendly sports pub isnt quite accurate, though the cavernous dining room with its large central bar bristling with draft beer taps and sports screen TVs certainly looks the part. Theres even a room in the back where you can shoot a game of pool (not to mention an inviting sheltered patio where you can preserve your couch potato tan if youre so inclined).
The menu bears more than a passing resemblance to that of a sports pub, too, with nachos, wings, burgers, hearty salads and the usual sandwich suspects all present and accounted for. As you might expect, though, given UFGs track record, the bar for quality is set substantially higher.
More often than not, the kitchen clears that bar. Wings - which are smoked rather than fried, then finished to order on the grill - are succulent under a beautifully charred skin. The avocado is fresh and buttery and the crumbled bacon thick and crunchy on a generous Cobb salad. Chows pulled pork and green chile nachos will spoil you for garden variety nachos for a long time to come.
Carolina white shrimp tacos are another keeper, the shellfish plump and irreproachably fresh under the merest dusting of breading. Shredded cabbage and avocado salsa add crunchy and creamy counterpoint without upstaging the shrimp.
According to Chows logo, the star attractions are burgers and pizzas. That billing is eminently justified in the case of the burgers, which are ground on the premises and offered in a handful of signature variations from Piedmont (homemade pimento cheese, fried green tomato and bbq sauce) to Flatline (bacon, fried egg and Dukes mayo). For my money, the grilled-to-order beef is good enough that Ill stick with the Classic (lettuce, tomato and onion).
Pizzas, which are available with topping combinations ranging from roasted-tomato Margherita to house-made sausage with banana peppers and arugula (or create your own combination from a list of 30 options), are another solid option. The crust in particular has noticeably improved since the restaurants early months.
According to Kevin Jennings, who owns Urban Food Group with his wife, Stacey, the improvement is the result of continuously fine-tuning the recipe with a goal in mind. Wed like to make a crust as good as Lillys, Jennings says, referring to the landmark Five Points pizzeria, but were not there yet. Theyre getting close.
Such attention to detail is another UFG hallmark, and no doubt a key to the success of its restaurants. Chows menu has already been streamlined, with items such as fried wings and pimento cheese fritters being jettisoned with an eye to allowing the kitchen to focus on doing a few things well.
One of those things is onion rings, whose crust was far too dense when I tried them not long after the restaurant opened. By the time I got around to ordering them again a few weeks ago, they had gone all the way from a D to a delicately crisp, golden A-.
Which brings me to yet another key to Urban Food Groups success: the continuing day-to-day involvement of the owners in their restaurants. Just a couple of weeks ago, Kevin Jennings was expediting orders at Chow when he noticed that the onion rings were slightly under-seasoned. Im guessing it didnt take long to make the necessary corrections.
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