Before Tammy Calaway-Harper opened Belle, she spent several months overseeing the renovation of the Jones House, a vintage 1896 structure that the town of Cary had purchased as part of its downtown revitalization efforts. It was to become the home of her first restaurant. Seeing the result – a Victorian beauty with a wraparound porch trimmed in cream and cranberry gingerbread – it’s easy to guess why Calaway-Harper named the restaurant Belle.
But that guess would be wrong. “I named the restaurant for my grandmother, who taught me to bake and cook,” she explains, adding that these skills grew into a passion that eventually lead her to trade a career in marketing for one as a baker and caterer. She continues to operate that side of the business out of the restaurant, which she opened in August.
To put Belle’s seasonally changing menu on the plate, Calaway-Harper installed Josiah Halbohm, formerly sous chef at Mandolin in Raleigh, as executive chef. Early editions of that menu show promise but have been marked by telltale signs of a first venture. And I’m not referring to the kitchen’s execution, which is the usual culprit in a startup, but which has been reasonably solid from the beginning at Belle.
It’s the menu in a literal sense that I have a bone to pick with. Specifically, I’m referring to menu wording that is sometimes misleading, and sometimes downright wrong. Most of the inaccuracies are no doubt unintentional, and in some cases they’re easily overlooked. An entree presentation of beef medallions offered on the fall menu was so sufficiently rewarding that I doubt anyone objected to the fact that the “crème fraîche couscous” on the plate was in fact Israeli couscous.
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On the other hand, if you were hoping that the “paté trio” on the same menu would provide hearty sustenance on an October night, you were likely disappointed when the trio turned out to be airy quenelles of chicken, shrimp and vegetable.
And just how forgiving you’ll be when your brunch order of a “breakfast burrito” turns out to be a deconstructed assembly of corn tortillas, eggs scrambled with pulled pork, and a seasonal vegetable hash, just might depend on your sense of adventure.
Happily, no daring is required for the enjoyment of most of the current dinner menu. Pulled pork lettuce wraps, for one, a small plate offering that proved so popular on the fall menu (and justifiably so) that it’s been held over for an encore. Or chicken and orzotto, another starter that’s so satisfying on a winter night that you’d have to be a Scrooge (or a restaurant critic) to mention that the risotto-like dish is made with orzo pasta rather than the more authentic pearl barley.
The orzotto dish is a hearty starter well suited to the season, and the current entree list offers several ways to double down on the rib-sticking factor. “Chicken & cheese” – a sort of kid’s meal for grownups pairing buttermilk-battered tenders and penne in a roasted red pepper cheese sauce – is a best-seller. But I’ll take my comfort food fix in the form of a thick, pan-seared pork chop with twice-baked potato and a caramelized onion and raisin chutney. Or better still, a lamb and kale shepherd’s pie that puts most Irish pubs to shame.
When it’s available, the fresh catch – from North Carolina waters and, judging by the pan-roasted sheepshead I enjoyed recently, impeccably fresh and expertly cooked – is a gratifying option for lighter appetites. Fish cakes are a keeper, too, and they’re available as an appetizer or entree.
Service got off to a bumpy start at Belle, but has begun to show signs of improvement. Lapses are less frequent and attitudes continue to be accommodating, though there’s still room for improvement.
The atmosphere in Belle’s three dining rooms and cozy bar is more casual than the Victorian exterior might lead you to expect, striking a balance between upscale and down-home with a mix of period light fixtures and contemporary photographic art on the walls, and sleek, lipstick-red chairs at tables draped in white tablecloths.
Toward the back of the house, at the foot of the stairs that presumably once led to the bedrooms, is a display case filled with the pastries that are Tammy Calaway-Harper’s specialty. Temptations range from homespun pies, fruit crumbles and maple bacon scones so big you’ll understand how their cousins got the name “cat head biscuits” to more elegant creations. For the holidays, she’s planning a peppermint panna cotta on a chocolate ganache base, and pumpkin crème brûlée with hazelnut-gingerbread biscotti.
No doubt her grandmother would be proud.
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