I couldn't say why I ordered the coconut shrimp. Sure, the appetizer is representative of the offering at North Seafood Bistro, a tiny new neighborhood restaurant and bar in North Raleigh specializing in seafood with a California accent. But my experiences with coconut shrimp at other restaurants have been almost universally disappointing. My apprehension appeared justified, too, when I asked the waiter about the dish, and he said he didn't have an opinion because he didn't like coconut. Such a noncommittal response from a waiter, I've learned, is often code for "I'm not allowed to say it, but I'd steer clear if I were you."
Come to think of it, maybe that's why I ordered the coconut shrimp. Much as the foodie in me wants to score a winner every time I order, the restaurant critic knows it's my duty to sniff out the duds as well.
In this case, I'm happy to report that my suspicions were utterly unfounded, and my sense of duty rewarded with five succulent butterflied jumbo shrimp, bristling like porcupines with long shreds of crisp, golden-brown coconut. Because the coconut was fresh and unsweetened, it didn't overwhelm the natural briny sweetness of the shrimp -- although the accompanying Asian sweet chile dipping sauce did provide a welcome pungent contrast. My wife's fried oysters were first-rate, too.
The first course proved a harbinger of good things. An entree special of pan-seared swordfish steak was impeccably moist and fresh-tasting, its rich flavor and meaty texture punctuated by the bright counterpoint of a citrus basil pesto. Tilapia, a much more delicate fish, got a correspondingly gentler treatment -- a quick sauté in butter, a whisper of garlic, and a scattering of chopped scallions.
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The sailing was nearly as smooth on a subsequent visit. The evening started off with panko-crusted crab cakes whose fillings were practically all crabmeat. The cakes might well have lived up to their "to die for" billing if they hadn't been lukewarm when they arrived. On the other hand, I could find no fault with the shrimp quesadilla, a lightly crisped half moon of flour tortilla bulging with shrimp and creamy goat cheese, and served with a vibrant mango salsa. The pan-seared tuna steak that followed was a keeper, too, the fish medium-rare as promised and its flavor nicely framed by a judiciously applied sesame ginger sauce.
Walnut-crusted grouper, another main course offering, was a shade overcooked. But the accompanying fries, sprinkled with fresh garlic and chopped parsley, were on the money. So were a couple of side dishes ordered à la carte: toasty-sweet corn sautéed with rosemary, and panko-crusted triangles of macaroni and cheese.
Fitting the menu, California labels dominate the wine list. Nearly all the 26 listings are available by the glass, and printed descriptions help with wine selection. That's a good thing, because chances are your waiter won't be able to help. While service at North is by and large friendly and attentive, the staff is not as informed about the food and wine as they ought to be.
According to Dana Gustafson, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Christi (she's in charge of the kitchen, he runs the front of the house), those mac 'n' cheese triangles are popular with children as well as adults. That's just fine with the Gustafsons, who moved here from Los Angeles in search of a more family-friendly lifestyle. It's no coincidence that their restaurant's casual atmosphere embodies that lifestyle as much as the menu reflects the couple's West Coast background. It makes for a happy marriage of California and Carolina under one roof.