For more than a decade, Michael Dean’s was one of North Raleigh’s most popular dining destinations. By the time the restaurant closed in 2011, it had spawned Rocky Top Hospitality, a collection of eateries dotting the Wake County map from Tribeca Tavern in Cary to Bogart’s on Glenwood South.
The key to Michael Dean’s popularity was simple: fresh seafood, reasonably priced and simply prepared, much of it grilled in a wood-fired oven. In a region dominated by Southern-fried seafood platters, it was a daring proposition. But it filled an underserved niche, and its loss was felt by many.
One of whom, as it turns out, is Michael Dean’s cofounder, Dean Ogan. When Ogan opened Dean’s Seafood Grill & Bar in January in Cary, he described it as “a modern-day Michael Dean’s.”
It’s an apt description. In keeping with current trends, the decor at Dean’s is a bit more casual, but its clean lines and earth tones echo the spirit of the restaurant that inspired it. The bar, which in the previous incarnation was a local pioneer in the infused-spirits trend, has added a few more sophisticated cocktails to its repertoire.
The focus of Dean’s menu is still fresh seafood, but the selection has grown to include a seasonal offering of 10 or more choices. The catch might come from North Carolina waters (shrimp, flounder, amberjack, tilefish) or from as far away as Alaska (cod) or Hawaii (hebi, a fish similar to mahi but milder in flavor).
Pan-seared barramundi, also from Hawaiian waters, is moist and so fresh that even the delicately crisp skin is a treat. The wood-fired grill at “the modern Michael Dean’s” lives up to its billing, too, with the likes of N.C. swordfish, corvina sea bass, and plump white shrimp on skewers.
My only quibble is that portions are on the small side, though the selection and quality of the seafood provide some consolation. So does the fact that entrees from that section of the menu come with your choice of two sides from a list that raises the ante with the likes of baby bok choy, local grits, fried green tomatoes and toasted Israeli couscous salad.
The price also includes your choice from a selection of 14 “accompaniments” covering a diverse spectrum from orange mint marmalade to spicy harissa garlic butter - which, mercifully for the purists among us, is served on the side.
Old favorites are back
A number of the old Michael Dean’s favorites have been revived for the menu at Dean’s. They’ve survived quite nicely, too, judging by the signature riff on seafood Newburg that lived up to my memory with a medley of fish and shellfish in a chipotle Mornay sauce served over rice pilaf, then topped off with a shower of fried calamari.
Fans of Michael Dean’s oyster bar will be pleased to discover that the selection has grown. The seasonally changing list now typically includes four or five varieties - all irreproachably fresh and, with few exceptions, cleanly shucked.
The menu gives a nod to Calabash in the form of a brief but well-executed selection of fried seafood, served with fries and slaw. Landlubber palates are reasonably well-served, too, by a handful of options ranging from wood-fired pork chop to herb-roasted chicken to double bacon cheeseburger.
For most of us, though, the main attraction at Dean’s Seafood is its weekly changing list of fresh fish and shellfish.
And, judging by the many recipe requests I’ve gotten over the years, the desserts. Those who pined for Michael Dean’s banana bread pudding and chocolate Chambord torte will be thrilled to know that the entire dessert selection makes an encore appearance on the Dean’s menu.
The year that the lights went out at Michael Dean’s, Bogart’s also closed its doors after a solid 10-year run. Tribeca Tavern no longer belongs to the Rocky Top Hospitality group, which added The Daily Planet Café to its holdings a year ago.
In short, Dean Ogan has proven adept at changing with the times. And with Dean’s Seafood, he’s shown that sometimes it doesn’t hurt to take a look back at the past.
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