You might say that Page Road Grill, which opened last December near RTP, was already on first base when it started to play the game. After all, it’s the newest member of Chapel Hill Restaurant Group, a team with a perfect batting average.
With a history spanning more than three decades, CHRG has never had one of its restaurants fail. That’s an impressive enough feat in itself, made downright astonishing by the diversity of the lineup. Since the 1977 opening of Chapel Hill landmark Spanky’s, CHRG’s portfolio has grown to include perennially popular seafood eatery Squid’s, Italian wood-fired grill specialists 411 West and 518 West, and Mez, a contemporary Mexican restaurant.
Among the many factors that have contributed to such an unbroken string of successes, the fact that each restaurant has been built on a well-defined concept is key.
Which is why I was surprised the first time I visited Page Road Grill a few weeks after the restaurant opened and found the menu to be unfocused. Parts of it lived up to the restaurant’s pre-opening billing as an American gastropub: house-smoked salmon, roasted free-range chicken, grilled hanger steak, a seasonal grain salad of farro and quinoa in a poppy seed vinaigrette.
But a sizable number of dishes pulled the menu in a decidedly Southern direction. There was a classic oyster po’ boy, shrimp and grits, even “NC BBQ” – the authenticity of which was called into question by a menu description that included both “Eastern style” and “pulled pork.”
Possibly in part because of this lack of focus, execution was uneven. The po’ boy was first-rate, as were the trio of miniature fried pecan pies that brought our meal to a sweet conclusion. But the hanger steak was unexceptional. So was grilled mahi mahi, served under a deluge of garlic chile sauce that left me wondering what the menu writers were thinking when they labeled this one “Simply Fish.”
Turns out CHRG management was aware of the problem. “I’m afraid I got caught up in the building and neglected the menu,” founding partner Pete Dorrance told me when I called for an explanation. Dorrance was referring in part to the strict environmental standards for LEEDS compliance, a commendable goal which the partners had previously achieved with the completion of Mez next door.
He went on to tell me that management had just decided to focus the menu on Southern flavors, and had brought in a new chef to put them on the plate.
Solomon Khoury, who grew up in the restaurant business (his father, chef-restaurateur Victor Khoury, named Solomon’s in North Raleigh after him) and more recently earned his Southern cooking chops at Farmer Brown in San Francisco, was tapped for the job. At Page Road Grill, Khoury is implementing the change gradually – and quite successfully, judging by my most recent visit. Shrimp and corn hushpuppies, served with a warm pimento cheese dip, were addictive. Blackened crawfish, served over a creamy wild mushroom risotto and garnished with a crisp, golden-brown skein of fried potato threads, was superb.
Both were offered as weekly specials the night I ordered them, and according to the chef, both are prime candidates for the standing menu. Don’t miss them if they’re available.
If not, you won’t lack for tempting alternatives. Sweet tea-glazed duck breast, for one, which Khoury has recently been serving over sweet potato salad with bourbon-braised apples. Or the Southern charcuterie plate that he’s working on for a future menu. So far he’s got shaved country ham, house-made pimento cheese, pickled green tomatoes and pepper jelly.
Potted plants and bamboo canes soften the utilitarian look of the dining room and bar, but they do little to absorb the sounds reflected off the hard surfaces of brick, steel and glazed concrete. Because of its location, the noise level is apt to be highest on weeknights, when the restaurant becomes a popular after-work watering hole for the RTP crowd.
To continue the baseball metaphor, Page Road Grill may well have come close to getting picked off at first base in its opening months. But with CHRG in the coach’s box, it’s a good bet the team’s perfect batting average will remain intact.
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