Dining Review

Oro has a distinctive look and a distinctive menu

CorrespondentMay 23, 2013 

  • Oro

    18 E. Martin St., Raleigh



    Cuisine: contemporary tapas

    Rating: * * * 1/2

    Prices: $$$

    Atmosphere: sleekly contemporary

    Noise level: moderate to high

    Service: hospitable and attentive

    Recommended: grilled corn, truffle mac-and-cheese, green beans, pork belly skewers, Campfire dessert

    Open: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner nightly.

    Reservations: recommended on weekends

    Other: full bar; accommodates children/get a sitter; good vegetarian selection; parking on street and in nearby garages (no valet service).

    The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Entering Oro, your eyes are drawn immediately upward to the chandeliers suspended from the dining room’s 20-foot ceiling. Twin cylinders of gold encrusted with glass disks of an amber color so rich that some take on a ruby hue, they’re evocative of antique jewelry. Or maybe Moorish lanterns.

The chandeliers add a vivid spark of color to a dining room whose otherwise monochromatic palette ranges from the ivory of the chairs’ faux leather upholstery to the burnished walnut of the tabletops to Plexiglas panels, behind which diners on the mezzanine level overlook the main dining room.

That the light fixtures also play a classical counterpoint – with a touch of the exotic – to the sleek contemporary theme of the decor is fitting. They’re the requisite finishing touch to a setting designed as a backdrop for the seasonally changing tapas menu of owner/chef Chris Hylton.

Hylton, who opened Oro last year with his wife, Cara, draws on classical technique, a global palette of flavors, and a playful sense of creativity to turn out food that is at once adventurous and comforting.

And, like those chandeliers, the chef’s presentations are visually striking.

Local sweet corn, grilled on the cob and then cut into segments, looks for all the world like a miniature skyline of buildings with bamboo-skewer antennae, blanketed in a downpour of miso butter.

The chef works from a different set of blueprints to construct a tower of roasted beets, set in a garden of balsamic-drizzled greens and capped with a spherical dome of fried goat cheese.

If the architecture appears to be freeform in an unadorned logjam of whole green beans, rest assured that their vibrant color and tender, soy- and chile-glazed flavor supply all the sensory satisfaction required. So does truffle mac-and-cheese, a boat-shaped bowl of noodles and creamy, cheddary, earthy goodness punctuated with fresh fines herbes and toasted bread crumbs.

And those are just a few of the vegetarian options on a menu that offers a healthy selection of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options (and helpfully denotes them with a V, VE or G).

For those not bound by or committed to such dietary restrictions, the options expand to include the likes of veal ravioli, jerk chicken flatbread and gnocchi with smoked duck breast in pesto cream sauce.

Caramelized pork belly skewers, lightly glazed with Thai chile-spiked pork demi, are justifiably popular. So are fish tacos featuring North Carolina grouper, mango jicama salsa and wasabi guacamole on flour tortillas.

The chef’s distinctive riff on shrimp and grits, which presents the shellfish in a neat row atop a rectangular grits cake, is another favorite. The accompanying ver jus sauce is a refreshing change of pace, though when I sampled the dish, the grits cake lacked the crisp, golden-brown exterior promised by the picture on the restaurant’s website.

Fortunately, such miscues are infrequent. The only other one of note that I encountered took the form of dry chicken in a small plate of fried chicken and green tomato.

I certainly couldn’t find fault with the Chilean sea bass that’s listed among “Signature Dishes” along with ramen noodles, grilled lamb chops and half a dozen others. The category appears to be aimed at those looking for a light entree in lieu of – or in addition to – the small plates. And it’s priced accordingly, with most dishes running about $5 more than the tapas.

Among a dessert offering that covers familiar territory from warm apple tart to crème brûlée, an option by the name of Campfire stands out. Our server’s description as “S’mores for grownups” is on the money: a large platter of marshmallows, crushed Graham crackers, chocolate sauce and fresh berries, surrounding a small flame for toasting the marshmallows. It’s meant for sharing, of course, and it’s the quintessential conclusion to a meal at Oro.

General manager Jim Soffe sets the tone for an attentive and hospitable wait staff. Soffe also curates the well-chosen selection of some 150 wines, as well as an Enomatic preservation system that dispenses 16 premium wines seldom seen on a by-the-glass list.

Ask Cara Hylton about the restaurant’s distinctive chandeliers, and she’ll proudly tell you that they’re locally made – which, as it happens, is yet another reason why they’re perfect for Oro. Where else should they hang but in a restaurant whose chef shops every Wednesday at the farmers market?

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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