“Must get the crispy pig head!”
This comment, or some variation on the theme, has popped up multiple times in my email inbox and Twitter feed in the wake of Stanbury’s September opening in downtown Raleigh. But it’s by no means the only dish to have gotten rave reviews. Sweetbreads, lamb tongue, roasted marrow and steak tartare also have their fans.
What these recommendations share – apart from their exuberance – is that they’re for dishes you don’t normally expect to see listed, much less praised, on the menu of a Raleigh restaurant. Durham, maybe.
Or Asheville, where Stanbury owner/chef Drew Maykuth was a founding chef of The Admiral. An unlikely combination of dive bar and restaurant in an even less likely location well off the beaten night-life path, The Admiral has earned a cultlike following.
Judging by the crowds that have been flocking to Stanbury since day one, that following has a strong contingent in Raleigh. Looks like the new restaurant is quickly building a fan base of its own, too.
And with good reason. Maykuth’s considerable talents are already firmly established, and the farm-to-fork ethic (with a healthy dose of snout-to-tail) that won his reputation in Asheville remains abundantly evident in Raleigh.
Small plates dominate Stanbury’s daily evolving menu, encouraging exploration. Adventurous souls who explore the meaning behind “crispy pig head” will discover that it’s a croquette of minced pork (jowl, mostly) topped with a poached egg.
But not just any egg. This one’s a duck egg, cooked sous vide to a precise 63 degrees centigrade, giving it a custard-like consistency that plays silkily against the crisp pork-aliciousness of the croquette. A tour de force pairing of traditional and cutting-edge techniques, it deserves every exclamation point it has gotten in online reviews.
And it may no longer be on the menu when you go. Drew Maykuth is, more than most chefs who profess commitment to the farm-to-fork philosophy, highly responsive to the local harvest (and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the word “locally foraged” crop up from time to time).
In the absence of “crispy pig head,” gastronomic adventurers will find words of consolation among the more than a dozen small plates that are typically offered. “Crispy sweetbreads,” for one, which might be given the General Tso’s treatment with fried rice and broccoli one night, then change hemispheres for a pairing with a potato puree and arugula the next time you visit.
Or “crudo” – Italy’s answer to ceviche, which may showcase glistening slivers of raw North Carolina king mackerel against a backdrop of smoked creme frâiche and dill; or swordfish with tangerine, celery, and radish in a tarragon-tinged citrus emulsion.
Lamb belly over Anson Mills blue grits and a puddle of pozole-spiced broth is a surefire cure for the burned-out-on-the-pork-belly-trend blues. Mushroom bisque is the finest elixir of earthiness and creaminess that has ever glided down your gullet.
Oysters? You can generally count on three varieties on the half shell – a selection from both coasts – all irreproachably fresh and expertly shucked. Fried oysters turn up frequently, too, in refreshingly different presentations such as the one that recently served them with a crisp Asian slaw, kimchi mayo and seaweed.
Those who can resist the temptation of making a meal of small plates will find a small – but nonetheless varied and equally rewarding – selection of entrees: house-made tagliatelle with broccoli raab, say, or an exemplary piece of pan-seared North Carolina striped bass with celeriac remoulade and a delicate slaw of Pink Lady apples. Or an absolutely flawless grilled rib-eye, buried under a mountain of caramelized Brussels sprouts and shiitakes. At first blush, the relatively straightforward dish may seem at odds with the culinary wizardry of the crispy pig head, or of the playful apple “Pop-Tart” with cheddar cheese ice cream that recently highlighted the dessert menu.
But the steak is every bit as true a reflection of Maykuth’s skill, and of his uncompromising philosophy. In this case, he resists the temptation to jump on the grass-fed-beef bandwagon that we’ve come to expect in a restaurant with a locavore focus.
His explanation is simple and in my book earns bonus points for sticking to his principles in the face of trendiness: “I just I prefer the juiciness and flavor of corn-fed beef.”
Some of the wait staff are still going through the learning curve, but service is universally eager to please and reasonably solid for a new venture, especially in light of the fact that Maykuth’s front-of-the-house partners, brothers Joseph and Will Jeffers, have minimal restaurant experience. Another partner, Andrew Shepherd, works with the chef in the kitchen and puts his previous experience at Foundation bar to good use by creating seasonal craft cocktails.
The jack-of-all-trades Jeffers brothers are largely responsible for the funky mountain-rustic look of the dining room, from the recycled wood pallets framing the open kitchen to the stuffed wild boar head guarding a garage door that opens onto the patio.
On the back wall of the dining room, a “Stanbury Rd. SW” street sign hangs above a deep oxblood red leather banquette. I asked Joe Jeffers if there was a special story behind the name.
“I found the sign in a scrapyard when I was working in Wilmington,” he says. “It was about the time we were trying to come up with a name for the restaurant, and I thought it sounded like a good one. The other guys agreed.”
When the food is this good, that’s all the story you need.