If Raleigh’s No. 1 restaurant news story in 2015 was the highly anticipated, much-delayed opening of Standard Foods, then last year’s top story was its abrupt closing. Foodie tongues wagged over the departure of local superstar chef Scott Crawford over philosophical differences with owner John Holmes, barely six months after the restaurant opened its doors.
The buzz over the split called to mind a celebrity divorce, with people taking sides and wondering if Standard Foods would retain custody of its sterling reputation if and when it reopened.
Standard Foods did indeed reopen last October, and it’s clear that the restaurant weathered the storm just fine. New executive chef Eric Montagne, who most recently worked for noted chef and award-winning TV personality Vivian Howard as executive chef of Boiler Room Oyster Bar in Kinston, has lost no time in establishing himself as a rising culinary star in his own right.
Montagne’s background and style are a matchmaker’s dream for Standard Foods’ stated mission of “obsessive” local sourcing. Drawing on the restaurant’s own garden and that of Raleigh City Farm next door, as well as some 30 other farms, fisheries and food artisans listed on the menu, the chef turns out a seasonally evolving menu that impresses as much with its variety as its consistently high level of execution.
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The chef’s Boiler Room experience pays rich dividends in his oyster offering – Cedar Island oysters, typically, a variety noted for its rich briny-sweet flavor and, for my money, one of the best on the East Coast. The oysters are available raw or roasted, with garnish and toppings varying according to the season and the chef’s inspiration (sumac oil, seaweed vinegar and bronze fennel on the raw, recently, and a delicate lace of minced shrimp, mushrooms and pecorino on the roasted). Either way, you can count on irreproachably fresh, plump oysters, expertly shucked with nary a drop of their precious liquor spilled.
Variety and surprise are recurring themes, in fact, throughout a menu that undergoes substantial weekly changes and daily harvest-driven tweaks. Mushroom fritti are an appetizer staple, but the featured mushrooms will depend on what Fox Farm & Forage (that list of suppliers printed on the menu isn’t just for show) has delivered to the kitchen door. Regardless of what turns up on your plate – oyster mushrooms, shiitake and pioppini are likely candidates – you can be sure they’ll be gratifyingly crisp and practically exploding with concentrated earthy flavor.
What you can’t be sure of is that the garden will still be yielding tangles of tender pea shoots to supply bright counterpoint to that earthy flavor. In fact, you can safely bet that pretty much every dish I describe here will have changed in some way by the time you read these words. Don’t let that dissuade you.
Rabbit liver paté – rich and smooth as butter, served over a crisp slab of toasted milk bread, garnished with pungent dollops of whole grain mustard – may not even be on the menu. If it is, by all means snare it before it gets away.
Standard Foods version 2.0 retains the rustic-modern decor of the original virtually unchanged, and the concept still includes a boutique locavore grocery with a house butcher. As a result, you can count on finding a “butcher’s cut” offering among the menu’s handful of entree options.
One night in early May, that translated to a pork chop with scarlet turnips and shiitakes served in a vibrant green puddle of spring onion soubise. On another night, it might be steak – the cut varying according to what’s in the butcher’s case – grilled to order and sliced in the manner of an Italian tagliata.
If your taste runs to seafood, by all means drop a line in the water for the whole fried fish. You might pull up a North Carolina flounder or triggerfish, or the snapper I snagged, which arrived fresh and moist beneath a crisp crosshatched skin, presented upright on the platter as if still swimming. Alongside the fish, an epicurean shoreline was bestrewn with cornmeal crepes, hot honey, mixed greens and grilled lemon halves – all, as our server explained, for assembling our own fish tacos.
Entree accompaniments are ample, but you’ll still want to order a side or two. Make one of them spoonbread (think moist, fine-textured cornbread), topped with a golden crown of molten cheddar, honey and sea salt, and served in the small cast-iron vessel it is baked in. The other is up to you, and depending on the season, may be anything from pencil-thin asparagus spears spangled with ricotta, grated egg and breadcrumbs to caramelized Brussels sprouts tossed in umami-boosting bottarga butter.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the locally inspired dessert offering changes frequently. If the strawberry shortcake pairing ripe local berries and olive oil pound cake is no longer in the offing, you might find consolation in the Escazu chocolate budino, or in a playful milkshake made with Carolina Gold rice ice cream, topped with whipped dulce de leche. You can’t really go wrong here, so feel free to follow your whim.
Kitchen miscues are rare, for that matter, across the entire menu. The only noteworthy stumble I encountered was a too-salty broth in an otherwise excellent flounder bouillabaisse.
Service is solid, too, if not quite up to the high standards set by the kitchen. Mind you, the wait staff are well-trained and friendly – so friendly at times that they may linger chatting a little too long at one table at the expense of attending to others.
Such lapses are infrequent, however, and never in my experience so long that your glass sits empty. And regardless, whether you’re drinking wine (an excellent international selection) or beer (mostly local drafts) or an expertly crafted specialty cocktail, you’ll no doubt come to the same conclusion that I have: Standard Foods has not merely survived the end of a rocky relationship, it’s absolutely thriving.
205 E. Franklin St., Raleigh
Atmosphere:rustic-modern, with adjoining boutique grocery
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: well-trained, generally attentive
Recommended: oysters, mushroom fritti, rabbit liver paté, fried whole fish, spoonbread, desserts
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Saturday and Sunday
Reservations: recommended on weekends
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot and 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.