Nunzio Scordo had ambitious plans when he signed the lease for the former Antonio’s Gourmet Market space in Lafayette Village. His restaurant would have a dedicated raw bar and an auxiliary dining room where family-style meals would be served at communal tables. Along the front of the building, he planned to install floor-to-ceiling accordion doors that could be opened to transform the main dining room into an open-air space.
Then harsh reality intruded. The raw bar fell by the wayside when the landlord decided to lease that part of the space separately. Other plans fell victim to the inevitable cost overruns of a restaurant startup.
Still, by the time Scordo opened Driftwood Southern Kitchen in March (four months later than he had hoped) the chef had managed to give the place a farmhouse-chic look to match a menu that he described as “serious food that will define regional farm to table cooking in this area.”
True, many of the decor elements – rustic plank walls, chalkboard menus, a recurring motif of barnyard animals – are rapidly threatening to become as cliched as red paper lanterns and zodiac place mats in a Chinese restaurant. But banquette cushions fashioned from repurposed burlap bags are a distinctive touch, and it can’t be denied that the decor sets a suitable mood for plowing into Scordo’s seasonally changing menu.
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Initially, that menu lived up to the chef’s billing (not to mention his resume, which includes stints at James Beard Award winners Highlands Bar and Grill and Hot & Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama) with a tantalizingly diverse offering that covered the spectrum from Low Country-style boiled peanuts to roasted bone marrow. Offerings such as Fancy Hillbilly Nachos (hand-cut fries smothered in lobster gravy and cheese curds) and Pork & Beans (smoked cheeks, seasonal beans and greens, and chow chow) showed that, serious as the chef may be about his food, he doesn’t lack a sense of humor. A separate section dedicated to smoked meats tempted with the likes of Heritage Farms pork shoulder, house-smoked sausage, and black pepper- and coffee-rubbed brisket.
Just five months later, the offering has changed dramatically. Gone are many of the quirks that made the menu stand out from the crowd. In their place is a more mainstream offering seasoned with current trends: steak frites, banh mi, pork belly tacos – you get the idea. A handful of dishes – fried green tomatoes, hoppin’ John risotto, crispy shrimp and grits – continue to uphold the “Southern” end of the Driftwood Southern Kitchen bargain. Barely.
No doubt a major stimulus for the change was customer demand. “I’ve had North Carolina mahi, grouper, soft shells for the fresh catch,” says Scordo, “but people in North Raleigh really like coho salmon.” So chances are the fish special will be coho salmon.
The thing is, it’s very good coho salmon – wild-caught, per our waiter, expertly grilled and served recently over a salad of ripe local tomatoes, avocado wedges and sweet corn. Pretty much everything that comes out of Scordo’s kitchen, for that matter, is very good. So good that you likely won’t care to quibble about how “Southern” the menu is, or how well it caters to a jaded palate.
Jaded or not, your palate will surely wake up when it gets a taste of Joyce Farms chicken wings, juicy and crisp-skinned beneath a translucent honey-Tabasco glaze. I’d skip the heavily battered fried green tomatoes, but you won’t go wrong with those lavishly filled pork belly tacos. Or made-to-order guacamole, which is available in three variations (better yet, a sampler of all three). I confess the critic in me ordered the lobster, goat cheese and chipotle guacamole as a sort of challenge, thinking there was no way this combination could work. I stand corrected.
The list of smoked fare has been abridged and folded into the entree list. Beef brisket and pulled pork are both more than respectable, though the pork – a sort of hybrid of Carolina and Midwestern styles – isn’t likely to make many converts among the natives. Without question, it’s the St. Louis ribs – meaty and smoky with a tangy-sweet glaze – that steal the show. Could it be the chef’s Cleveland, Ohio, roots showing through?
Maybe, but Scordo’s Southern cooking chops are abundantly evident in his excellent fried-shrimp riff on shrimp and grits with a rich tomato beurre blanc. And his chicken-fried chicken, featuring a boneless breast, exquisitely moist beneath a textbook batter. You can get it smothered in classic sausage gravy, or, for the next few weeks, “summer style”: drizzled with truffle honey and served (on a board rather than a plate, as are a number of other dishes) by a salad of ripe watermelon garnished with chiffonade mint. Carpe diem, I say. The sausage gravy can wait.
The dessert offering tempts with the likes of Mexican chocolate s’mores tart and chocolate pecan pie. But if I can offer just one word to the wise: beignets. OK, they’re listed as “New Orleans style donuts” on the menu. Call them what you like, just get them.
In a business where flexibility in the face of things that are beyond a chef’s control is a key to survival, Nunzio Scordio has faced more challenges than most. That he has adapted while remaining true to the one essential thing that he can control – the quality of his food – is to his credit. And who knows? Maybe one day he’ll be able to expand and put in that raw bar after all.