As I was sitting down to write this review, I realized I’d forgotten one of the questions I’d meant to ask owner Cheetie Kumar in our telephone interview. I left her a message, and she promptly texted back with the answer. Then, as an afterthought, she added a few words:
“Also a small detail but I don’t really regard myself as a ‘chef’ per se. I’m a little weird about that as people train for years to get that title. I’m a cook!”
She’s got a good point. Commendable, in fact, in an era when everybody wants to be an instant celebrity chef. And, as it happens, those words are more telling than anything I learned in my interview with Kumar, who opened Garland last summer in downtown Raleigh – initially as a takeout window, converting a few months later to a sit-down restaurant.
Especially revealing is that exclamation point, which tells you that Cheetie Kumar is as proud to be a cook as she is unassuming. What it doesn’t tell you is that Kumar is a very talented cook indeed.
You’ll have the pleasure of discovering that fact for yourself as you explore her seasonally evolving menu. An edible travelogue of her years growing up in India, then moving with her family to New York, where she discovered ethnic variety in the homes of friends in her Brooklyn neighborhood, then traveling with a band in Europe, Kumar’s food is a delightful adventure at every turn.
(Did I mention that the versatile Kumar is also guitarist in the band Birds of Avalon? And that, with three musician partners, she also owns the upstairs music venue Kings Barcade and the downstairs bar Neptune’s Parlor?)
The Garland adventure might begin with a small plate of tteokbokki (sometimes spelled dukbokki), a toothsome souvenir of the young cook’s meals in a Korean neighbor’s house in Brooklyn. House-made rice sticks lightly tossed in spicy gochujang sauce, neatly stacked like cordwood and showered with toasted jasmine rice and sesame seeds, are a fine nibbling companion to one of Garland’s rotating selection of draft beers. Or maybe a craft cocktail. The subtly smoky refreshment of the Martin Street Fizz (mezcal joven, orange, lime, vanilla and a splash of soda) ought to hit the spot.
House-made lamb sausages are another enticing point of departure. Plump, snappy-skinned nubbins with a spiciness evocative of Merguez, they arrive on a cutting board garnished with exotic house-made mustards, smoked almonds punctuated with pickled lemon, and plenty of crostini.
You might want to take a detour around the surprisingly dry Chicken 65, the only outright disappointment I have yet to encounter at Garland. But a salad of local oyster mushrooms and farro with ramps, barberries and grilled spring onion, served on a plate smeared with green garlic puree and garnished with pea shoots and a quail egg – now that’s a worthy destination.
So is a salad of grilled North Carolina squid and shrimp, though the smallish portion might leave you with a hankering for more seafood.
In that case, you won’t go wrong by following the salad with the local catch entree, which recently served up impeccable pan-seared North Carolina black sea bass over a medley of sautéed local greens, mushrooms and shaved fennel, topped with a salad of bhel puri, a popular snack in Kumar’s native India.
The cook’s earthy rendition of lamb curry with sweet potato and rutabaga can hold its own with those turned out by many a self-proclaimed chef.
And if the tteokbokki put you in the mood for Korean, you can scratch the itch with a Heritage Farms pork rice bowl, made with beautifully crisped sticky brown rice, a bounty of fresh and pickled vegetables and a fried egg.
Substitute tofu for the pork if you’re so inclined, or opt for a vegetarian curry instead of the lamb. And you certainly don’t have to be a vegetarian to succumb to the charms of Kumar’s corn cakes, subtly perfumed with curry leaf and paired with ginger-braised greens, candied pepitas and pumpkin “butter.” Especially if you spring for the optional skewer of grilled North Carolina shrimp.
Kumar is quick to credit Sarah Fisher (whose experience in a number of notable restaurants, including Vivace and Kimbap, might well be considered ample justification to claim a title of “chef”) for her considerable help in the kitchen. And Marilyn Tilley for her dessert confections, an utterly bewitching offering that covers a rainbow spectrum from local strawberry jellies with pink peppercorn sugar to honey-anise marshmallows to a dense, dark Brazilian fudge called brigadeiro.
Taking its cue from the menu, Garland’s decor is a warmly inviting mix of the exotic and the familiar, coming together in a way that suits just about any mood. Spanning one wall is a silhouette of a tree whose branches flow up onto the ceiling, arching over softly lit tables for a downright romantic feel. Just a few feet away, a mural of whimsical pictures inspired by Indian matchbook covers sets the backdrop for a communal table fashioned from reclaimed barn panels.
An eclectic mix of music amps up the energy level without overpowering conversation, and a wait staff that’s considerably more polished than you typically expect of a first venture keep things running smoothly.
Polished, that is, but by no means stuffy. After all, the owner is not a chef but a cook.