Before Brian Fitzgerald moved to Cary to open his first restaurant in May, the young chef had pretty much lived his entire life in New York. He grew up in Rockland County, about 20 minutes from Manhattan. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, he worked in a number of fine dining establishments in the city, including Maxim’s and the Harvard Club, where he was executive sous chef.
It didn’t take Fitzgerald long to feel at home in his new digs.
At least in part, that’s because he has family here. His brother and sister-in-law were transferred to Cary some 20 years ago by IBM, where they both worked. Fitzgerald had visited them a number of times over the years and, like many visitors before him, succumbed to the region’s charms.
It certainly can’t hurt that the town has given Academy Street Bistro an enthusiastic welcome. The dining room is often at or near capacity, and prime-time reservations aren’t easy to come by.
The main attraction, without doubt, is Fitzgerald’s seasonally changing menu of contemporary American fare. In a town where national chains are the rule, a locally owned restaurant that starts you off with chilled cucumber dill soup or a salad of local heirloom tomatoes in the summer, followed by butternut squash soup or wild mushroom risotto in the fall, is a most welcome addition.
By and large, Fitzgerald’s execution lives up to his menu’s promise. “Jumbo lump crabcake” proves to be just that, formed into a golf ball-size sphere with minimal binder, and encased in an evenly crisp, golden-brown crust.
Prince Edward Island mussels, steamed with Chablis, garlic, shallots, tomatoes, heavy cream and chives, and served with a generous tumble of french fries, will satisfy a yen for moules frites. Caramelized Brussels sprouts with onion and bacon, offered recently as an appetizer special, will no doubt win over a few converts among the “not a fan of Brussels sprouts” crowd.
It’s a good idea, in fact, to give your server your full attention when he recites the list of half a dozen or so nightly specials. You wouldn’t want to miss it when he announces the availability of coq au vin, a French bistro classic rarely seen in these parts, and here given a soul-satisfying rendition by the chef. Or his pumpkin creme brûlée, a charming dessert baked in a sugar-crusted miniature pumpkin.
If coq au vin doesn’t happen to be in the offing, anyone pining for poultry will find ample consolation in a roasted airline breast of local chicken, served with mashed potatoes, rosemary jus and a medley of corn and beech mushrooms.
I didn’t sample the Roquefort-crusted filet mignon that’s offered on the current menu with black truffle sauce. Judging by the juicy grilled New York strip steak I scored from the previous menu, though, it’s a good bet that you won’t be disappointed.
An exemplary piece of pan-seared salmon, served over a savory patchwork of black beluga lentils, asparagus spears and lemon beurre blanc, offers further evidence of the chef’s skills.
That’s not to say that the kitchen is immune to the occasional stumble. Sautéed flounder was a bit overcooked one night, though the accompanying saffron risotto was on the money. On a subsequent visit, a grilled bone-in pork chop fell further short of the mark, the chop overcooked to the point that even those averse to the faintest hint of pink in pork would find it dry.
Such miscues are the exception, however, not the rule.
Service is generally solid, too, under the direction of the chef’s sister-in-law, general manager Marylynn Fitzgerald. Granted, some servers are more adept than others at coping with a full dining room. But you shouldn’t have too much trouble flagging down someone among the eager-to-please staff to refill an empty water glass.
Academy Street Bistro’s patio is one of the most inviting in town, though it will likely see less use as winter approaches. Rest assured that the dining room offers ample charms in its own right, striking a comfortable balance between upscale and casual with warm honeyed pine floors, metallic mesh placemats on burnished wood tabletops, and pillar candle sconces on the walls.
Those walls are hung with drawings of local landmarks by popular local artist Jerry Miller and with enlarged vintage black-and-white photos of Cary in bygone days. They’re a fitting adornment for a restaurant owned by a chef who is happy to call Cary his new home.