Tell your foodie friends you’ve got reservations for Crawford and Son, and you no doubt will be bombarded with recommendations on what to order. “Yellowtail crudo is a must,” they’ll say, or “The mushroom bread pudding is to die for.” Or, “Braised pork cheeks – forget fork-tender, you can eat these babies with a spoon.”
They’re all on the money. In fact, you could pretty much close your eyes, point at the menu, and count on scoring a home run.
And why wouldn’t you? Scott Crawford is a multiple James Beard Award semifinalist, after all, who earned a stellar reputation locally as executive chef at Herons before moving on to work briefly at Standard Foods and finally striking out on his own to open Crawford and Son last November.
So go ahead and order whatever you like. But allow me to add a suggestion of my own: Get the warm malted wheat rolls. They’re easy to overlook, tucked in among the side dishes on the menu. And they’re not as sexy as, say, beef tartare or crispy duck croquette. Order them anyway, and you’ll get a half-dozen still warm from the oven, their nut-brown tops glistening with a sheen of butter punctuated with shards of sea salt. Tearing one open, you release an intoxicating cloud of wheaty, yeasty perfume that will haunt you until – well, until you order more, which you probably will.
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Crawford will be the first to tell you that the wheat rolls aren’t actually his creation. They’re the handiwork of pastry chef Krystle Swenson, whose own star-studded resume includes the critically acclaimed Blackbird in Chicago. But the rolls are emblematic of Crawford’s culinary philosophy – a philosophy he’s able to express fully, now that he’s his own boss.
“I always felt like I was cooking a style that someone else wanted,” Crawford says, adding that he’s proud of the food he cooked at Herons but found the presentations he was expected to deliver at the deluxe resort restaurant to be contrived. He goes on to say that he got his first taste of the freedom to express his own style – albeit briefly and within constraints – at Standard Foods.
It’s a style that, while still rooted in the classical training of a talented chef, aims not for temple of haute cuisine but for cozy neighborhood restaurant, serving food that is both as ordinary and as special as those warm wheat rolls.
But don’t take “ordinary” to mean “plain.” A salad of pale green leaves of Brussels sprouts and candied walnuts in a warm bacon vinaigrette, topped with crumbled Asher blue cheese, is a kaleidoscope of flavors, textures and colors, with nary a single extraneous element.
The yellowtail crudo presentation — watermelon radish, fermented peppers, seaweed, crumbled rice crackers and blushing pink petals of immaculate fish scattered across a canvas of lemony miso — has been so popular that it has earned more or less permanent status on a seasonally evolving menu that undergoes major changes in the spring and fall.
Spring being hard upon us, I’d say get the crispy duck croquette (served over cannellini beans in a garlicky broth that’s evocative of a cassoulet, and topped with a poached duck egg) while the getting is good.
The charred octopus that was drawing rave reviews had slipped the net last time I checked. Until it returns, seafood lovers will find ample consolation in a savory crab “porridge” with brown butter, parmesan and sunchoke chips. Or drop your line in the waters of the entrée list, where you can reel in a flawless seared swordfish – recently served with fennel, kabocha squash puree and farro risotto.
The entree selection is brief but varied, with typically five options covering the spectrum from vegetarian (recently a medley of winter root vegetables, foraged mushrooms, soft egg and savory granola) to Wagyu beef short rib — all priced under $30. Confit chicken legs, served with roasted vegetables over “creamy rice” that you’d swear is textbook risotto (it’s Carolina Gold rice) and a puddle of soul-satisfying chicken jus, is as memorable a $24 dish as you’re likely to come across anywhere.
Crawford doubles down on his neighborhood-restaurant ethic with midweek Blue Plate specials. Offered Tuesday through Thursday nights, the weekly changing special has included the likes of smoked venison meatloaf, buttermilk-fried rabbit, and short rib pot pie crowned with a thyme biscuit, all priced under $20. It’s enough to make you want to move into the neighborhood.
Kitchen miscues are rare, and in my experience almost always negligible. To say that the ham hock jus that otherwise exemplary sweetbreads were sitting in prevented them from living up to the menu’s “crispy” promise feels like quibbling.
On the other hand, it’s hard to overlook the tough crust on the sugar cream pie I was served the first time I visited. Everything else about that dessert, from creamy custard to vibrant huckleberry sherbet, lived up to the rave reviews I’d heard, so I gave it another chance the next time I visited. The crust had improved markedly, though the fact that our server brought a knife with the dessert (“just in case”) was revealing on two counts: first, the crust is evidently still a work in progress; and second, the wait staff are exceptionally attentive to diners’ experience in addition to being well-trained in general.
The narrow 60-seat dining room, designed by noted local architect Louis Cherry, strikes a comfortable balance between urban sophistication and homespun charm. A compact bar along one wall dispenses a streamlined but thoughtfully chosen selection of wines, bottled and draft beers, and a changing list of expertly crafted specialty cocktails.
Hanging on a wall at the back of the dining room, lit by a vintage crystal chandelier, is a collection of old family photos. The collection — the families are those of Crawford and his staff — continues to grow as employees bring in more photos.
A visual expression of Crawford’s view of his restaurant as an extended family of sorts, the collection is rooted in the past, and at the same time thoroughly alive in the present. Just like the food, you might say.
618 N. Person St., Raleigh
Rating: ☆☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: urban sophistication meets homespun charm
Noise level: moderate
Service: exceptionally attentive and well-trained
Recommended: take your pick (but don’t forget the wheat rolls)
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking on street.
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.