The Triangle's best restaurants you need to taste in 2013

A landmark and a newcomer share the top spot

CorrespondentJanuary 24, 2013 

Look out, Durham! Raleigh is gaining on you.

After years of languishing in the shadow of its smaller neighbor to the northwest, the capital city’s dining scene is beginning to generate a little light of its own.

The glow is brightest inside the Beltline, where chefs have been firing up the stoves at new restaurants from Glenwood South to Wilmington Street. With menus ranging from empanadas and tequila bar (Calavera) to Indian with a contemporary twist (Blue Mango) to the Triangle’s first-ever taste of Laotian cuisine (Bida Manda) joining the lineup, the selection has never been better.

Neither has the quality. Of the eight area restaurants earning four stars or better last year, three are inside the Beltline. The diversity of fare offered at this trio of newcomers (Cajun/Creole at Battistella’s; contemporary Southern at Mandolin; Indian at Mantra) is just icing on downtown Raleigh’s increasingly colorful cake.

Throw in the rest of Wake County, and the number of four-star-or-better winners climbs to five. In North Raleigh, long maligned as a suburban sea of national chain restaurants, Hayashi-Ya quickly earned a place among the area’s handful of elite Japanese restaurants. And in Holly Springs, Little Hen serves up savory farm-to-fork evidence that fine dining is no longer limited to the urban centers.

All the way out in Pittsboro, Oakleaf puts an exclamation point on that last sentence. Owner/chef Brendan Cox’s daily evolving offering is so bewitching, in fact, that I’ve selected Oakleaf as co-winner of this year’s Restaurant of the Year award.

The other winner is Yamazushi, which stands alone in saving Durham from being shut out of the elite circle this year. (Read more about my Restaurant of the Year picks below).

That’s not to say that the city that Bon Appétit magazine called “America’s Foodiest Small Town” a few years ago is resting on its laurels. If the biggest culinary news in the Bull City was the closing of James Beard Award-winning Magnolia Grill in May after 25 years, the August opening of Mateo tapas bar promises to offer consolation.

Carrboro’s Venable Rotisserie Bistro was the lone banner-carrier for Orange County newcomers. But as long as the paper lanterns continue to glow at Lantern (the Triangle’s only other Beard Award winner), Chapel Hill will never be left entirely in the dark.

Note: You can find my full reviews of these (and hundreds more) restaurants at events.triangle.com/restaurants.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Co-winners: Oakleaf 480 Hillsborough St., Pittsboro 919-533-6303 oakleafnc.com Cuisine: contemporary Yamazushi 4711 Hope Valley Road, Durham 919-493-7748 yamazushirestaurant.com Cuisine: Japanese

You’d be hard-pressed to name two more widely different restaurants in the Triangle than Oakleaf and Yamazushi. One is a newcomer, for starters, serving up fashionable farm-to-fork fare in a contemporary, rustic-chic setting. The other is a local landmark, quietly offering an obscure and exotic Japanese specialty in a tiny bento box of a dining room since 1986.

At Oakleaf, owner-chef Brendan Cox’s commitment to local produce is so strong that his menu is updated daily on the restaurant’s website. Whether he’s offering caramelized day boat scallops over sweet corn “risotto” in the summer or a roasted chestnut soup with duck ragout in the winter, you can rest assured that the food will be refreshingly inventive without ever being precious.

Leslie Cox, Brendan’s wife and partner, sets a warmly inviting and attentive example for her dining room staff. Add a well-tended zinc bar, and you can count on a memorable experience. You’re not likely to forget a meal at Yamazushi, either, though the experience is decidedly more serene.

Traditional Japanese hospitality and exquisite presentation are essential parts of the kaiseki experience that is the restaurant’s specialty. Roughly analogous to a Western tasting menu, kaiseki is an elaborate, ritualized multi-course meal with roots in Zen Buddhist tradition. The sequence of courses is fixed, but the dishes themselves vary with the seasons. In the hands of owner/chef George Yamasawa, those dishes become edible haikus – miso-marinated black cod, say, or burdock nestled on a velvety puree of young edamame.

Did I mention that Yamazushi’s dining room is tiny? There are just four tables, and you’ll search in vain for a sushi bar. The arrangement allows Yamasawa to focus on kaiseki, and his wife, Mayumi, to pamper diners with an unparalleled level of service. That includes helping you navigate the area’s premier sake selection. For all their differences, Oakleaf and Yamazushi do share a key trait:

Both are uncompromising in the goal of providing a first-rate dining experience. And both are so consistently successful at achieving that goal that they’re worthy of selection as Restaurant of the Year.

GOLD MEDAL Fearrington House 2000 Fearrington Village Center, Pittsboro 919-542-2121 fearringtonhouse.com Cuisine: contemporary Herons 100 Woodland Pond, in the Umstead Hotel & Spa, Cary 919-447-4200 theumstead.com Cuisine: contemporary Lantern 423 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill 919-969-8846 lanternrestaurant.com Cuisine: Asian Nana’s 2514 University Drive, Durham 919-493-8545 nanasdurham.com Cuisine: contemporary Mediterranean Poole’s Diner 426 S. McDowell St., Raleigh 919-832-4477 poolesdowntowndiner.com Cuisine: American bistro

SILVER MEDAL 18 Seaboard 18 Seaboard Ave., Raleigh 919-861-4318 18seaboard.com Cuisine: contemporary Southern, grill Angus Barn 9401 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh 919-781-2444 angusbarn.com Cuisine: steakhouse Bloomsbury Bistro 509-101 West Whitaker Mill Road, at Five Points, Raleigh. 919-834-9011 bloomsburybistro.com Cuisine: contemporary Bruno 11211 Galleria Ave., in Wakefield Park, Raleigh 919-435-6640 brunoraleigh.com Cuisine: steaks, seafood, Italian Coquette 4351 The Circle at North Hills, Raleigh 919-789-0606 coquetteraleigh.com Cuisine: French Elaine’s on Franklin 454 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill 919-960-2770 elainesonfranklin.com Cuisine: contemporary Fairview 3001 Cameron Blvd., in the Washington Duke Inn, Durham 919-490-0999 washingtondukeinn.com Cuisine: contemporary Flights 4100 Main at North Hills St., in the Renaissance Raleigh North Hills Hotel, Raleigh 919-278-1478 flightsnorthhills.com Cuisine: contemporary Four Square 2701 Chapel Hill Road, Durham 919-401-9877 foursquarerestaurant.com Cuisine: contemporary Glenwood Grill 2603 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh 919-782-3102 glenwoodgrill.com Cuisine: contemporary Southern Il Palio 1505 E. Franklin St., in the Siena Hotel, Chapel Hill 919-929-4000 sienahotel.com Cuisine: Italian Kitchen 764 Martin Luther King Blvd., Chapel Hill 919-537-8167 kitchenchapelhill.com Cuisine: French, contemporary Margaux’s 8111-111 Creedmoor Road, in Brennan Station, Raleigh 919-846-9846 margauxsrestaurant.com Cuisine: contemporary, seafood Maximillians 8314 Chapel Hill Road, Cary 919-465-2455 maximilliansgrill.com Cuisine: fusion Midtown Grille 4421-115 Six Forks Road, Raleigh 919-782-9463 themidtowngrille.com Cuisine: contemporary One 100 Meadowmont Village Circle, Chapel Hill 919-537-8207 one-restaurant.com Cuisine: contemporary Panciuto 110 S. Churton St., Hillsborough 919-732-6261 panciuto.com Cuisine: contemporary Italian Saint Jacques 6112 Falls of Neuse Road, Raleigh 919-862-2770 saintjacquesfrenchcuisine.com Cuisine: French Revolution 107 W. Main St., Durham 919-956-9999 revolutionrestaurant.com Cuisine: global Second Empire 330 Hillsborough St., Raleigh 919-829-3663 second-empire.com Cuisine: contemporary Vivace 4209 Lassiter Mill Road, in The Alexan, Raleigh 919-787-7747 vivaceraleigh.com Cuisine: Italian Watts Grocery 1116 Broad St., Durham 919-416-5040 wattsgrocery.com Cuisine: contemporary Southern

BEST IN CLASS (BY CUISINE): AFRICAN: Queen of Sheba 1129-O Weaver Dairy Road, in Timberlyne Shopping Center, Chapel Hill 919-932-4986 queenofshebachapelhill.com

BARBECUE: Allen & Son 6203 Millhouse Road, Chapel Hill 919-942-7576

CARIBBEAN: Old Havana Sandwich Shop 310 E. Main St., Durham 919-667-9525 oldhavanaeats.com

CENTRAL/SOUTH AMERICAN: Machu Picchu 4500-100 Falls of Neuse Road, Raleigh 919-526-7378 machupicchuperuviancuisine.com

CHINESE: Gourmet Kingdom 301 E. Main St., Carrboro 919-932-7222 thegourmetkingdom.com Super Wok 1401-L SE Maynard Road, in Maynard Plaza, Cary 919-388-8338 superwok.wikidot.com

FRENCH: Vin Rouge 2010 Hillsborough Road, Durham 919-416-0466 vinrougerestaurant.com

GERMAN/CENTRAL EUROPEAN: J. Betski’s 10-120 West Franklin St., Raleigh 919-833-7999 jbetskis.com

GREEK: Taverna Agora 6101 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh 919-881-8333 tavernaagora.com

INDIAN (NORTHERN): Mantra 116-100 N. West St., Raleigh 919-833-2823 mantraraleigh.com

INDIAN (SOUTHERN/VEGETARIAN): Udupi Café 590 E. Chatham St., Cary 919-465-0898 sriudupi.com

ITALIAN: Il Palio 1505 East Franklin Street, in the Siena Hotel, Chapel Hill 919-929-4000 sienahotel.com

JAPANESE: Waraji 5910 Duraleigh Road, Raleigh 919-783-1883 warajijapaneserestaurant.com Yamazushi 4711 Hope Valley Road, Durham 919-493-7748 yamazushirestaurant.com KOREAN: Seoul Garden 4701 Atlantic Ave., in Millbrook Collection, Raleigh 919-850-9984 raleighseoulgarden.com

MEXICAN (CONTEMPORARY): Dos Perros 200 N. Mangum St., Durham 919-956-2750 dosperrosrestaurant.com MEXICAN (AUTHENTIC): Los Comales 2103 N. Roxboro Road, Durham 919-220-1614

MIDDLE EASTERN: Sitti 137 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh 919-239-4070 sitti-raleigh.com PIZZA: Pizzeria Toro 105 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham 919-908-6936 pizzeriatoro.com SEAFOOD: Blu Seafood & Bar 2002 Hillsborough Road, Durham 919-286-9777 bluseafoodandbar.com

SOUTHERN: Big Ed’s City Market 220 Wolfe St., Raleigh 919-836-9909

STEAKHOUSE: Bin 54 1201-M Raleigh Road, Chapel Hill 919-969-1155 bin54restaurant.com TAPAS: Mateo 109 W. Chapel Hill St., Durham 919-530-8700 mateotapas.com

TEX-MEX: Jalisco 1600-107 Ronald Drive, Raleigh 919-790-1999 fondaybirrieriajalisco.com THAI: Sawasdee Two Raleigh locations: 6204 Glenwood Ave., 3601 Capital Blvd. 919-781-7599 (Glenwood); 919-878-0049 (Capital) sawasdeeraleigh.com

VEGETARIAN: Sage Café 1129 Weaver Dairy Road, Chapel Hill 919-968-9266 sagevegcafe.com

BEST NEW RESTAURANTS: Battistella’s 200 E. Martin St., Raleigh 919-803-2501 battistellas.com Cuisine: Cajun/Creole Hayashi-Ya 8401 Brier Creek Parkway, in Brier Creek Commons, Raleigh 919-206-4333 hayashiyaraleigh.com Cuisine: Japanese Little Hen 5160 Sunset Lake Road, Holly Springs 919-363-0000 littlehennc.com Cuisine: contemporary Mandolin 2519 Fairview Road, Raleigh 919-322-0365 mandolinraleigh.com Cuisine: contemporary Southern Mantra 116-100 N. West St., Raleigh 919-833-2823 mantraraleigh.com Cuisine: Indian Mateo 109 W. Chapel Hill St., Durham 919-530-8700 mateotapas.com Cuisine: Spanish (tapas) Venable Rotisserie Bistro 200 N. Greensboro St., in Carr Mill Mall, Carrboro 919-904-7160 venablebistro.com Cuisine: contemporary American

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