If you dined at Royale in the first few weeks after it opened in November, you might have treated your gastronomic soul to a little vacation on the French Riviera, via a saffron-fragrant bouillabaisse, brimming with fish and shellfish and served with a couple of rouille-besmeared crostini.
If you happened in on a Wednesday night, you might instead have warmed your innards with the plat du jour: cassoulet, a hearty white bean stew studded with sausage, duck confit and bacon. On a Saturday, a respectful contemporary take on coq au vin, served over a creamy cloud of pommes purées, would have done the trick just as well.
Any of these dishes would suit the classic French bistro setting, too, with its cozy bar, cafe chairs at marble-topped tables, and sidewalk patio with a view of Moore Square and City Market’s cobblestone streets.
But none of them are on the current menu. In large measure, that’s for the usual reason: the menu undergoes major changes seasonally, with minor daily tweaks reflecting the local market. Factor in the philosophy of owner/chef Jeff Seizer, and you’ve got a constantly changing offering that’s guaranteed not to bore even the most regular of patrons.
“We don’t write recipes here, no dish is ever done,” says Seizer, whose star-studded resume includes Danny Meyers’ Union Square Cafe and the boutique Gramercy Park Hotel in New York. The self-described “impetuous” chef owns Royale (as well as Cafe Lucarne just around the corner, which soon will be redeveloped) with developer Will Jeffers, baker Jesse Bardyn and general manager Gwen Butler.
In addition to getting his inspiration from the ever-changing local market, Seizer responds more quickly than most to customer feedback. Take those potato croquettes you enjoyed in March with a glass of sauvignon blanc from Royale’s streamlined French-leaning wine list. Perhaps you thought, at $7 for just two ping-pong ball-sized croquettes, they were a little pricy. They were replaced by big, puffy gougères, which in turn already have morphed into profiteroles on the dessert menu.
Seizer heeded customers who complained about the chicken liver mousse presentation, too, saying (rightly) that the star ingredient – a thin layer of mousse smeared on crostini – got upstaged by its topping of cornichon and Granny Smith apple slices, and a generous drizzle of blackstrap molasses. His decision to switch to a more traditional presentation, deconstructing it into separate components on the plate, returns the mousse to its rightful place at the top of the marquee.
No doubt the chef will take my own nitpicks to heart as well: an otherwise exemplary beef Wellington (the Saturday plat du jour on the current menu) marred by an underdone inner crust; and a squash gratin that contained considerably more cheese than squash.
On the other hand, I can’t imagine anyone complaining about the other dishes I sampled across a menu that’s rooted in French bistro tradition but freely ventures into contemporary territory. The small plates alone take you from steak tartare to lamb belly (cured overnight and seared to order, with whipped goat cheese and ruby rings of Fresno chile playing counterpoint to its robust meaty flavor) to strawberry salad in the space of a dozen or so listings. When the local strawberry season tapers off, a grilled pineapple salad – tossed with arugula in a light vinaigrette and showered with pine nuts and grated manchego cheese – is more than ample consolation.
Traditionalists are well-served by the likes of steak tartare and a classic frisée aux lardons salad with soft poached egg. Tarte flambée, France’s thin-crusted answer to pizza topped with fromage blanc, onions and bacon, is a worthy shareable starter. Separate sections devoted to shellfish (moules frites, half shell oysters and excellent baked oysters Royale) and charcuterie (supplied by the acclaimed Salumeria Biellese and Biricchino in New York, where Seizer was once executive chef) round out the starter selection.
The chef manages to throw an occasional curveball into the entree lineup (a surprisingly spicy monkfish stew comes to mind), but the offering sticks pretty much to traditional French dishes. You can always count on steak frites (recently a strip steak blanketed with sauce au poivre), classic roasted half-chicken, a duck entree (currently a first-rate duck à l’orange with roasted fennel) and a local catch amandine with haricots verts.
And what self-respecting chef of a restaurant named Royale would fail to offer a Royale burger? Seizer delivers with seven ounces of short rib, brisket and chuck, topped with gruyère and sauce au poivre and served on an oversize English muffin.
For dessert, you won’t go wrong with one of the individual tarts (lemon or peanut butter-chocolate), or pot de creme (recently, chocolate-espresso, nearly as thick and rich as ganache). But the homemade ice cream sundae, garnished with waffle-cut potato chips and sprinkles, will bring out the kid in you.
And somehow, it just seems like the perfect mix of tradition and surprise to put the finishing touches to a happy meal at Royale.
200 E. Martin St., Raleigh
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: French bistro
Noise level: moderate
Service: attentive and well-trained
Recommended: oysters Royale, lamb belly, tarte flambée, duck à l’orange, desserts
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in the nearby City Center deck.
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.