Stenciled on the front wall of the former garage that has been home to Whiskey Kitchen since the restaurant opened in August, in big block letters next to a glass-paneled garage door that now opens onto a patio, is the restaurant’s motto. Cleverly written in the form of a cocktail recipe, the motto starts out, “One part neighborhood bar. One part Southern kitchen.”
Don’t take that to mean that they do things halfway here. The “neighborhood bar” is stocked with well over 200 whiskeys, including impressive collections of single malt Scotch and bourbon (though I couldn’t say whether that rare Pappy van Winkle I got a glimpse of is still available). And the “Southern kitchen” is turning out an ambitiously inventive menu loaded with surprises, including a few unforgettable creations.
The pork shank pot pie, for one, is a positively medieval-looking dish featuring a whole cured, smoked bone-in shank sticking out of the center of a flaky biscuit crust. Beneath the crust is a medley of root vegetables and butterbeans in a rich gravy made from the pork’s braising liquid. Clearly intended for sharing, this rib-sticking riff on a savory pie is one of two dishes listed under the “Platters” heading.
The other is just as impressive. The shellfish platter serves up a bounty of head-on North Carolina shrimp, littleneck clams, smoked sausage, creamer potatoes and sweet corn on the cob (though our server said the corn would last only as long as the season) in a broth amped up with smoked chile paste. Piled high on a platter garnished with grill-charred lemon halves, a cruet of drawn butter and bias-cut slices of toasted baguette for sopping (don’t even try to resist), this is a shareable starter for four or an outright feast for two.
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Smaller parties – or those wishing to leave room for wider sampling – will find abridged variations on both platter themes under the Plates heading, in the form of clams with smoked chile paste, an N.C. shrimp boil (both with the same fixings as the platter), and a smoked chicken pot pie.
N.C. shrimp turn up again in a Southern take on a lobster roll, where they’re peeled and chilled in a remoulade punctuated with fennel and pickled celery. My only quibble with the sandwich as it was served at our table recently was the meager portion of shrimp – which, given the kitchen’s otherwise consistently generous hand, I’m inclined to chalk up to a one-time oversight.
There’s absolutely nothing to fault with the lamb burger topped with mild, creamy Shepherd’s cheese and chile-spiked aioli (and a judicious pinch of the spice blend worked into the meat for a little extra kick); or with the fried skate sandwich, which showcases the sweet white flesh of an under-appreciated fish in an exemplary cornmeal breading.
Prefer to take the vegetarian route? Memorable destinations include a beet salad with local greens, smoked blue cheese and hazelnuts in a red wine-maple syrup vinaigrette; and the grain bowl, an earthy cornucopia of farro, wheat berries, grilled vegetables and sprouts in a piquillo-yogurt dressing, topped with avocado – or, if you’re not a stickler about the vegetarian thing, a poached duck egg.
Just looking for a few nibbles to share while you sip your bourbon Old Fashioned or Bulleit rye Manhattan? Bite-size florets of fried cauliflower, showered with finely shredded sheep’s milk cheese, will do nicely. Or house-made farm cheese (think cottage cheese, but creamy), topped with a poached duck egg (and a sprinkle of sumac for tangy counterpoint), served with grilled baguette slices. Or smoked fish dip, amped up with everything seasoning and a touch of spicy mustard, served with bagel chips.
But beware the cracklin’ biscuits. Light and buttery, their tops spangled with crunchy bits of pork crackling, they’re so addictive they might as well just drop a couple of letters and call them crack biscuits.
And dessert is no afterthought here. Textbook sour cream pound cake, topped with a dollop of lemon-tinged whipped cream, comes with a miniature Mason jar of caramelized pineapple chunks on the side. A Southern take on a shoofly pie is as sinfully satisfying as it looks – a pecan-studded, caramel-drizzled slab of molasses goodness on a pastry crust. And if the ice cream sandwich, currently costarring muscadine grape ice cream and peanut butter cookies, is as good as the cornmeal cookie and smoked peach ice cream version that recently reduced the conversation at our table to a series of “Mmmms,” you’d be justified in ordering one of each dessert.
The wait staff are attentive and eager to please, by and large (most of them actually appear happy to be here), though the pacing can lag a bit when the place gets busy. And more training about whiskey is clearly in order, given a bar where the price of a shot can be well into double digits.
Still, the overall experience at Whiskey Kitchen is commendably smooth for a restaurant that opened barely four months ago. The feat is all the more impressive in light of the fact that owner/chef Michael Thor was sidelined by a serious motorcycle accident a year ago and is still recovering in an Atlanta health care facility. Chef de cuisine Jonathan Botta and pastry chef Marco Zapata have done an admirable job in picking up the slack.
Thor’s partner, the affable Jeff Mickel (known to many as the longtime general manager at Flying Saucer), sets a relaxed and welcoming tone, whether you’re seated indoors, admiring the rows of liquor bottles against the backdrop of a dramatic feast-themed mural in Delft blue and white, or on the heated patio with a prime view of leafy Nash Square across the street. From where I sit, that motto painted on the exterior wall sure looks like a recipe for success.
201 W. Martin St., Raleigh; 919-803-3181
Cuisine: contemporary Southern
Atmosphere: casual – large, open dining room and bar with lounge in back and heated patio
Noise level: moderate
Service: attentive and eager to please
Recommended: cracklin’ biscuits, farm cheese, fried skate sandwich, lamb burger, pork shank pot pie, shellfish platter, desserts
Open: lunch and dinner daily
Reservations: not accepted
Other: full bar (outstanding whiskey selection); accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; heated patio; parking on street and in the L Building deck on W. Davie St.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.