Four large glass panels separate the dining room from the cozy bar at Skylines Cafe. Each one is etched with the skyline of a different American city: San Francisco, Chicago, New York and St. Louis. Clearly Skylines' owner Tina Bolick aims to bring a little cosmopolitan flair to Clayton, where residents in the mood for sophisticated fare have long had to drive to the nearest city with the semblance of a skyline, Raleigh.
Skylines' offering is hardly what you'd call cutting edge, but it's a good deal more ambitious than the Clayton norm. Taking his cue from those glass panels, chef Seth Batchelor offers a tour of the American culinary landscape, with an occasional -- but never too daring -- creative twist. For the most part, the young chef (he turned 24 on the restaurant's opening day last March) is an able virtual tour guide, providing ample incentive for Clayton residents to avoid the half-hour drive to Raleigh.
According to Bolick, Batchelor's stuffed chicken entree has already earned signature status for the chef. No wonder. Featuring a supremely moist boneless breast, stuffed with a blend of spinach and cream cheese and topped with a pesto Parmesan sauce that's lighter than it sounds, this is easily the best dish I tasted at Skylines. (Actually, there's another standout, but it isn't on the dinner menu. It's the ethereally light vanilla- and cinnamon-scented pancakes served for Sunday brunch -- with real maple syrup, no less.)
Batchelor grills a mean steak, too. The 12-ounce rib-eye I ordered recently hit the specified medium-rare on the button, its beefy flavor amplified by grilled portobello caps and a judicious drizzle of balsamic reduction. Thick pork tenderloin medallions came close to the mark, though they weren't as juicy as they could have been. Asian-marinated ahi tuna steak was beautifully executed, but unfortunately is no longer on the menu. Its replacement, Cajun blackened tuna with a roasted red pepper cream sauce, is a promising substitute. Other options, which I haven't tried, include crabmeat-stuffed flounder with dill cream sauce, veal piccata, and pecan-crusted salmon with a bourbon glaze.
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Crab cakes and spinach salad are popular starter options, but I'm afraid the crab cakes I sampled, whose flavor was dominated by roasted red pepper, wouldn't hold their own in the big city. Nor would fried calamari rings, another appetizer option.
But I heartily second the locals' opinion on the spinach salad, which features tender baby leaves, goat cheese, dried cranberries, toasted almonds and bacon crumbles in a sweet-tart Granny Smith apple-poppyseed dressing. For those who prefer their salads on the less sweet side, the Skylines salad -- a chopped mélange of mixed greens, napa cabbage, tomatoes and red onions tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette and topped with toasted almonds and crumbled blue cheese -- is a worthy alternative. Add grilled chicken, shrimp, salmon or steak, and you've got a satisfying light supper for about 10 bucks.
Service is small-town friendly, though the level of experience among the young wait staff is variable. Fortunately, Bolick (who has worked in a number of area restaurants, including Darryl's, 42nd Street Oyster Bar and Lucky 32), is there to pick up the slack.
The wine list doesn't offer any surprises, but it's serviceable. Prices are reasonable, too, with some two dozen by-the-glass options averaging about $6. Oh, and the desserts -- a rich flourless chocolate torte big enough to share, and a pecan-riddled wedge of German chocolate pie, to name two -- are indeed worth loosening your belt a notch.
Still, the star of the Skylines show, in my book, is the stuffed chicken breast. It isn't just good enough to save the folks in Clayton a half-hour drive. For those of us who live in the shadow of Raleigh's skyline, it's worth a trip in the opposite direction.