Order the mahi-mahi when you're in a Rock Harbor state of mind

CorrespondentAugust 15, 2013 

  • Rock Harbor Grill

    121 N. Salem St., Apex


    Cuisine: contemporary American, seafood

    Rating: * * 

    Prices: $$$

    Atmosphere: colorful and casual, with a rock music motif

    Noise Level: Moderate

    Service: friendly, generally attentive with occasional lapses

    Recommended: grilled mahi-mahi, bone-in pork chop, peach cobbler

    Open: Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; small sidewalk patio; live music; parking on street.

    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.

The red guitar on the “Rock Harbor Grill” sign over the entrance is the first clue. Inside, in the street-level bar and upstairs dining room, the motif is repeated: here a guitar sculpture, there a guitar painting, and on bracket shelves, actual guitars on display.

Framed black-and-white photos of classic rock legends from Elvis to David Bowie (the era roughly covered by the music playing in the background, on nights when a local band isn’t playing) hang on lilac-colored walls. On each table, a list of cocktails offers concoctions with names like Pink Floyd and Purple Haze.

If you didn’t know it before, you’ve probably guessed by now: Rock Harbor is not an actual place, but a state of mind. The mind of owner David Vance, to be precise, who opened Rock Harbor Grill in January with his wife, Chandra. The “Rock” in the restaurant’s name refers to Vance’s musical passion.

“We wanted the place to be colorful, relaxing and fun,” says the food-service-distributor-turned-restaurateur. By incorporating a bit of his own personality into the mix, Vance has created an inviting spot with a bit of quirky charm smack in the middle of historic downtown Apex.

Executive chef James Lee, who earned his chops at 1587 Restaurant on the Outer Banks, accounts for the rest of the restaurant’s name with a seafood-accented menu inspired by American grill tradition. Taking his cue from the setting, Lee’s contemporary riffs on classic dishes are as varied as the music legends whose portraits hang on the dining room walls.

The chef acquits himself well for the most part, though he occasionally wanders off-key. More often than not, it isn’t the dish itself that hits a sour note, but a finishing flourish.

Panko-encrusted prawns (here, the term refers to butterflied jumbo shrimp) are plump and sweet beneath their crisp, golden brown coating. Red wine-macerated cherries play a welcome sweet-tart counterpoint, too. But the companion smoked gouda risotto “cake” lacks any hint of the crusty exterior that the menu description leads you to expect.

An otherwise fine crab and avocado “martini,” served in a cocktail glass, is marred by garnishing wedges of fried tortilla that have gone stale and chewy.

A salad of baby spinach, dressed in a lavender vinaigrette and strewn with crumbled feta, balsamic-macerated strawberries and candied pecans, offers a more harmonious start to the night’s play list. Or a small skillet laden with fried green tomatoes, whole cloves of roasted garlic, shallot confit and a charred red pepper tapenade, which is served with French bread for sopping up the savory oils in the bottom of the pan.

Entrees are more successful, by and large, though they’re not immune to hitting the occasional off note. In the case of “Southern Rock” scallops, it isn’t the garnish but overcooked scallops that miss the mark. The accompanying fried grit cake, grilled asparagus and onion-and-bacon relish are all fine.

Lemon-encrusted North Carolina mountain trout filets, finished with a blood orange vinaigrette and paired with a toothsome hash of sweet potato and bacon, come closer to the mark.

Closer still: mahi-mahi, expertly grilled, served over scallion-studded jasmine rice and topped with ribbons of sautéed napa cabbage and wild mushrooms. A drizzle of subtly sweet soy reduction and a sprinkle of peppery daikon sprouts sing a well-orchestrated backup chorus.

The bone-in pork chop will have you humming a happy tune, too, as will the buttery mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables (recently asparagus, broccolini and baby carrot) that round out the presentation.

The wait staff are uniformly friendly and enthusiastic, though they may miss a beat from time to time. A tardy offer of a drink refill, say, or forgetting to tell you about desserts.

If your server does forget, be sure to ask. They’re all made in house, and if you’re lucky, a delightful, not-too-sweet peach cobbler may be in the offing. If the rock gods are smiling, you may even find yourself digging in, as I did recently, to the tune of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” or

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