Entering Plates, your eye is drawn to a colorful display of plates on the left wall, near the front of the dining room. An eclectic collection embracing everything from English Blue Willow china to Polish folk art pottery, the plates conspire with little vases of fresh flowers on rustic pine plank tabletops, mirrors in ornate frames, and chalkboard wine menus to create a warmly welcoming bistro-meets-farmhouse-kitchen atmosphere.
The plates are a nod to the restaurant’s name, of course. Turns out they’re also an apt metaphor for owner/chef Steve Day’s food, which is as refined as porcelain and at the same time as unpretentious as everyday stoneware.
Day trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London and has worked in award-winning restaurants from the Michelin two-starred Le Gavroche in that city to, more recently, The Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary. It’s the sort of resume that sets very high expectations.
Time and again, Day delivers with a seasonally evolving menu that, in a highly trained culinary circus act, deftly keeps multiple plates spinning in the air, all the while making it look easy.
Take the sweet potato-coconut curry soup he offered recently. A deceptively simple dish, the soup pairs two inherently sweet ingredients without letting the sweetness dominate. At the same time, those ingredients are held in exquisite balance in a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Oh, and one more pair of spinning plates: sweet potato, evidence of the chef’s commitment to local produce, even in the off-season; and coconut, proof that he won’t let that commitment get in the way of flavor. And you thought you were just getting the soup du jour.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from this sublimely delicate soup is Day’s exuberant take on a charcuterie platter. House-made duck liver paté, rabbit terrine and turkey rillette were recent highlights on a platter that typically serves up half a dozen or more cured meats and local cheeses. Per the menu, foie gras is a $6.50 option. At that price for a generous portion, I’d say it’s not optional.
If the soup and charcuterie plate impress, Day’s crab and fennel beignets mesmerize: crusty globes that break open to reveal a surprisingly airy center, which in turn releases the concentrated perfumes of land and sea, mingling in a rising waft of steam.
Entrees are similarly varied and reliably rewarding. Day clearly has an instinct for seafood, as evidenced by the irreproachable pan-seared N.C. rockfish he served up recently in a shallow pool of ginger broth spangled with the bright flotsam of fresh edamame. On another occasion, a pan-seared filet of flounder, beached on an earthy, soul-satisfying cassoulet and garnished with petal-thin slices of watermelon radish, was likewise flawless.
When Day turns inland for inspiration, he might express it as veal tenderloin with smoked local mushrooms, or a fennel- and thyme-marinated pork chop with Brussels sprouts over creamy grits and a spicy pork jus. The juicy, mahogany-skinned roasted half chicken he was offering in March has since made way for chicken schnitzel – which, given the chef’s track record, isn’t likely to disappoint.
As adept as the kitchen is at keeping all those plates spinning without letting any fall, there is the occasional wobble. Under-seasoned cauliflower Alfredo, an otherwise inspired vegetarian dish, comes to mind.
Last time I checked, you could still conclude your meal with sticky toffee pudding (a souvenir of Day’s London experience), warm homemade carrot cake with buttermilk icing, a wicked milk stout “brownie,” or a textbook vanilla crème brûlée – all of which evoked satisfied moans from our table on recent visits. If you can’t decide, just close your eyes and point at the menu.
Steve Day opened Plates in November in the former Zely & Ritz space on Glenwood South. The restaurant is his first, but you’d hardly know it judging by the food. Or by any other part of the experience, for that matter, which exudes confidence and welcome in every measure, from the well-trained wait staff to the put-together look of the dining room.
Staffers contributed to that plate collection on the wall, as did Day’s family, friends, and a few early fans. If new fans were allowed to add to the collection, the walls would surely be covered in plates before long.