Full disclosure: I got special treatment when I dined at An on a Tuesday night in February. And I mean really special.
But it wasn’t, I hasten to add, because I’m a restaurant critic. I was dining with a friend who also happens to be a friend of executive chef Steven Devereaux Greene.
Our mutual friend -- we’ll call him V -- isn’t in the restaurant business, but he’s an avid and knowledgeable foodie. He had emailed me to tell me that he’d recently dined at An for the first time since chef Greene had taken over the kitchen last year.
V raved about his experience (something he doesn’t do lightly, friend of the chef or not) and asked me if I’d like to join him for dinner there. He’d make reservations and ask Greene to pull out all the stops. But he wouldn’t tell the chef who I am. He’d just introduce me as a foodie friend or a client he wanted to impress.
Hmm, I thought, let me see. Greene was chef de cuisine at Herons when that restaurant was awarded five stars in 2009. His star-studded resume also includes the acclaimed French Laundry in California. Would I like to see him go off menu and really show his stuff? Without having to sacrifice my anonymity? Well, duh.
To say that the experience lived up to the advance billing is an understatement. A two-hour-plus parade of so many courses I lost count, the meal was the most memorable I’ve had since I dined several years ago at McCrady’s, the James Beard Award-winning restaurant in Charleston - where, as it happens, Steven Greene has also worked.
After whetting our palates with champagne and expertly crafted cocktails, the feast began in earnest when our waiter set an ancient and gnarled grapevine on the table. Nestled in the crooks of its thick, sawn-off branches, rustic earthenware plates bore irreproachably fresh nigiri sushi of Japanese snapper and salmon belly; sea urchin on Japanese custard spiked with bourbon-barrel-aged fish sauce; and an artful composition of quail egg and foie gras. Mind you, that’s just one course.
The procession that followed -- a sampling from the regular menu interspersed with off-menu creations -- maintained the lofty standard. A few highlights: sashimi, as flawless as the nigiri, with wasabi root (the real thing!) grated on sharkskin at the table; hamachi tartare, spangled with a rainbow confetti of roe, snipped herbs and chive blossoms; seared sea scallop in an ambrosial puddle of vanilla coconut broth; pork two ways (sous vide belly and grill-seared tenderloin); and rice-crusted flounder over fine egg noodles in a broth whose translucence belied its deep, earthy flavor.
Who wouldn’t be blown away by such a meal? Of course, now I had to know how different the experience would be for someone who didn’t have a special connection.
To that end, I paid An a follow-up visit - this time with my wife - a few weeks later.
My silent wish that we’d be assigned a different waiter this time (thus reducing the chances that I’d be recognized) was granted. He proved to be every bit as polished and personable as the first one, and was helpful in navigating one of the area’s most extensive and thoughtfully chosen wine lists.
Spring had brought a new dinner menu (the current one), from which we ordered just like everyone else. The meal wasn’t as lengthy -- or as eye-popping -- this time around, but in every other way measured up.
Beausoleil oysters, poached in sake just long enough to plump them up, were a superb starter. So was yakimono: bamboo skewers of marinated fish, beef and vegetables that you cook over live coals in a small tabletop Japanese-style grill.
And entrees: Lamb three ways (loin, tenderloin and belly); and barely-seared ahi tuna whose delicate, maple-soy-glazed flesh played maritime yin to the earthy yang of roasted maitake mushrooms.
Pastry chef Francisco Almaguer delivered a worthy conclusion in the form of toasted pistachio financiers and a yuzu-Meyer lemon tart with a huckleberry compote.
The dining room got a general sprucing-up when chef Greene took over, but the decor remains much as it was. The look is still dramatic and contemporary with an Asian accent, from the silk dragon soaring above a dining room whose 20-foot ceiling is supported by towering mahogany columns to the the antique canoe suspended over the bar.
You could also argue that, in broad strokes, the menu at An is essentially the same as it was before opening chef Michael Chuong left the Cary restaurant to open his own restaurant in Chapel Hill. But the finer points -- and a discernibly higher level of execution -- make all the difference. Working with the same culinary canvas, Greene has transformed a solid establishment into one that ranks among the crème de la crème of Triangle restaurants.
And, as I discovered with my second visit, you don’t have to be a friend of the chef to feel like you’re getting special treatment. Interspersed between the courses of that “regular” meal were an amuse-bouche (edamame from the gardens of the Umstead Hotel, which -- like An -- is owned by Ann Goodnight); a palate-cleansing entremet (strawberry-rhubarb sorbet) and house-baked scones and muffins. (If we had ordered sushi that night, we could have gotten the sharkskin-grated wasabi for a surcharge.)
And, to cap it all off, you get chocolate-dipped “fortune cookies” spilling out of a Chinese takeout box. They don’t contain a fortune, though. According to chef Greene, you get to make up your own fortune.
Here’s mine: He who dines at An is most fortunate indeed.
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