I like to think I'm pretty open-minded about restaurants, willing to take each one on its own terms. But I must admit to a certain wariness when I learned that The Borough, a restaurant and bar in downtown Raleigh, sponsors monthly eating contests. Somehow, an establishment that encourages you to jam deviled eggs down your gullet as fast as you can just doesn't sound like a prime prospect for a restaurant review.
But curiosity got the better of me. Though the menu contains just 16 appetizer, sandwich and salad listings, the offering is tantalizingly varied and imaginatively named. How could I resist a menu that lists matzo ball soup cheek by jowl with hush puppies? How could I refuse to taste a broiled oyster appetizer called The Walrus and the Carpenter, or a salad named Dizzy's Bent Trumpet? Besides, I rationalized -- er, reasoned -- The Borough is on the ground floor of The Dawson, one of the trendiest of the trendy new condo buildings that are fueling the downtown Raleigh renaissance. I owe it to my readers at least to check the place out.
I'm happy to report that my curiosity was handsomely rewarded. Turns out that all those cleverly named dishes are the coinages of owner Liz Masnik, who previously established a reputation as the genial manager of the now-shuttered Poole's Diner.
The Walrus and the Carpenter features half a dozen oysters on the half shell, broiled under a light topping of garlic, Parmesan, herbs and butter. They're not as talkative as the bivalves in the Lewis Carroll poem they're named for, but they're every bit as tasty. Masnik named the hush puppies appetizer Charlie & Simone, after her Labrador retrievers. Substantial, crunchy and slightly sweet spheres as big as golf balls, they're served with whipped honey butter. And Ma's Matzo-Ball Soup, a vegetarian variation on the Jewish classic, is indeed named for the owner's mother.
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For a shareable sampling of appetizers, try A Smattering, which serves up oysters, hush puppies, black-bean-and-corn salsa with tortilla chips, and a creamy spinach and mushroom dip in portions sufficient for two or three. It's a deal at the regular price of $8.50, and a steal on weekdays from 4 to 7 p.m., when appetizers are half-price.
Sandwiches pass for entrees here, and are listed as such under an "Entrees" heading. That's fair enough, as The Borough is more bar than restaurant. What's more, a couple of the sandwiches are every bit as filling as the main course at some restaurants. The Valhalla, for one, is a succulent 6-ounce filet mignon rubbed with Cajun spices, topped with a jalapeño cream sauce and served on a toasted baguette with a side of fresh broccoli. And the 8-ounce burger is (wink, wink) grilled to order.
The Vizzini, which features Italian herb-marinated grilled chicken breast, provolone and diced tomatoes, is a lighter but equally toothsome alternative. A homemade black bean burger is a vegetarian option. And Dizzy's Bent Trumpet lives up to its name with a jazzy riff on a mixed green salad theme in the keys of pear, pistachio, blue cheese and balsamic vinaigrette.
But the food is only part of The Borough's appeal. There's the well-stocked bar, which is tended by Masnik and a friend with whom she worked at Poole's, who goes by the name of "Schmitty." There's the atmosphere, which is at once urbane and friendly, thanks to a warm and attentive staff who welcome all, from T-shirted laptop toter (The Borough offers free Wi-Fi) to jacketed lawyer. It isn't surprising, given its location and broad appeal, that The Borough has already established a solid foundation of regular customers.
I understand that the food eating contests are a big draw, too. The next one is scheduled for Dec. 3. I don't know what the featured food will be (the last one was mashed potatoes and gravy), but I'm tempted to show up to find out. Heck, if it's an oyster-eating contest, I might just sign up.