It’s a Saturday night, and Venable is packed. The hostess greets you with a friendly smile, tells you there’s a 20-minute wait for a table, and invites you to have a seat at the bar. In no time, you’re sipping an Old Fashioned made with rye whiskey and house-brandied cherries, and taking in your surroundings.
A coat of parchment paint softens the look of the dining room’s exposed brick walls, but there’s no mistaking the industrial heritage of the cavernous space. From exposed steel beams and ductwork to wood floors burnished and pocked with a century of wear, it’s clear that owner/chef Drew Moore aims to pay homage to the history of Carr Mill Mall, where he opened his first restaurant in May.
Hanging on the walls are mounted enlargements of vintage photographs, all taken nearby and some dating back to the early days of the last century, during the building’s original incarnation as a cotton mill. The blacksmith just across the railroad tracks, around the time when Carrboro’s name was Venable. Weaving looms. A grammar school class portrait from the Depression era.
The menu is firmly rooted in history, too, but it is by no means a culinary museum. Moore, a CIA graduate who has worked in kitchens from New York to Italy (and more recently at local restaurants Federal and Il Palio), calls his offering “elevated comfort food.”
“Elevated” translates to a focus on local sustainable produce on a menu that changes with the seasons. Thankfully, it doesn’t refer to prices, which hover in a comfortable $6-8 range for starters and average of $15 for entrees.
A few weeks ago, Venable’s signature rotisserie-roasted free-range chicken came with grilled local corn on the cob and excellent herb-salted shoestring fries. Roasted butternut squash has replaced the corn, but the chicken – half a free-range bird, its flesh moist under a skin with a savory herb-and-spice rub – is still the star.
But it’s hardly the only evidence of Drew Moore’s talent. He elevates the classic bistro salad frisée aux lardons with a local duck egg, whose soft-cooked yolk and ethereally light Panko crust are a miracle of precise timing and a delicate hand. And if at first you wonder why he garnishes his French onion soup with thin crostini and a mere whisper of Gruyère rather than the usual half-inch glob of molten cheese, you’ll understand once you’ve dipped your spoon into the soul-satisfying caramelized onion goodness of the soup itself.
Arancini, crunchy risotto fritters with a creamy filling redolent of wild mushrooms, are another worthy starter. So is sourdough bruschetta topped with a caponata of fried eggplant, peppers, raisins, pine nuts and basil.
More than half the starters are vegetarian, come to think of it, though the dishes are so tempting that you may not notice it at first. The chef walks the locavore walk in his entree offering, too, where typically two of the seven listings are vegetarian. Currently, he’s showcasing the fall harvest with homemade sweet potato gnocchi and Brussels sprouts in brown butter and fried sage and acorn squash stuffed with Israeli couscous, apples and broccoli raab.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is an expertly grilled (and properly rested) New York strip steak, sliced and served with seasonal vegetables (recently, baby carrots and green beans) and buttery whipped Yukon gold potatoes.
Or you could get your beefeater fix with Venable’s first-rate burger, which is made with ground chuck and short rib and grilled precisely to order. You’ll find it under the “Sandwiches” heading, among a half-dozen options ranging from banh mi to knife-and-fork BLT.
I haven’t yet had a chance to get my hook into the cast iron-roasted whole North Carolina trout that recently turned up on the entree list. But I can vouch for chef Moore’s distinctive take on fried chicken: a skinless airline breast in a golden Panko crust in a presentation strongly reminiscent of Wienerschnitzel.
It pays to listen when your server recites the nightly specials. You can always order the rotisserie chicken, after all. But until the chef decides to add rotisserie-roasted duck, or ribs, or sausage-stuffed Cornish game hen to the menu, they’re only available as specials.
You’ve only been sitting at the bar 15 minutes when the hostess comes to tell you that your table is ready. But you’ve decided you’ll eat at the bar, after all, where you’re at least somewhat isolated from the din of the bustling dining room.
You’re just able to make out “La Vie en Rose” on the sound system – not the Edith Piaf original, but a respectful rendition of the classic. Just the right background music, you decide, for enjoying elevated comfort food.
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