When Bella’s Cuisine relocated from an odd, awkwardly situated stone building in northern Durham to Carrboro last summer, the restaurant gained an extra word in its name along with roomier digs and a more favorable location. The “International” signified that the menu, formerly billed as contemporary Southern with Latin influences, was widening its embrace.
Not that owner/chef Claudia Barragan had any intention of abandoning the fans of her most popular dishes. But now, sprinkled among Barragan’s signature fried green tomatoes and chipotle-spiked shrimp and grits (adapted from a recipe of her mentor, veteran local chef Patrick Cowden), you’ll find the likes of pumpkin ravioli, poblano pesto fettuccine, and pistachio-crusted grouper. Throw in a separate vegetarian menu and a fairly extensive brunch offering – served not just on weekends but every day that the restaurant is open, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. – and it makes for an ambitious undertaking.
A little too ambitious, as it turns out. Time and again, presentations come close to the mark, only to fall short – owing, more often than not, to a single misstep: overcooked shrimp that mar an otherwise fine dish of black pepper shrimp fettuccine; a broken sauce that detracts from the pair of expertly grilled beef filets in steak au poivre; overcooked asparagus spears served alongside a nicely seared pistachio-crusted grouper.
Even the fried green tomatoes aren’t immune from the effects of diluted effort, judging by the dense crust that put up a staunch defense against the tines of my fork on a recent visit.
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Still, it’s entirely possible to score a thoroughly enjoyable meal at Bella’s. A salad of flawless baby spinach leaves, crumbled gorgonzola, candied pecans and crisp slivers of pear and apple, served with a balsamic vinaigrette on the side, is sure to get things started off on the right foot. So are crab cakes, made with ample crabmeat, nicely seared (I’m not sure why the menu says “grilled”), and served with a bacon-corn relish that’s worthy in its own right. An unlikely pairing of pan-seared scallops with dried cranberries, candy-like in a maple-bacon glaze but somehow managing not to upstage the scallops, should prove a pleasant surprise even to a jaded palate.
Same goes for the deceptively named “beef stroganoff.” Bella’s rendition – mushrooms, onions, poblano peppers and tatters of lean, tender beef in a cream sauce served over al dente fettuccine – bears only passing resemblance to the original. But as long as you’re not a stickler about authenticity, it delivers big time on the flavor front.
And to be fair, if you are a stickler, you wouldn’t have ordered the dish anyway. You’d have read the menu description, which gives an accurate accounting of the ingredients, and no doubt you’d have noticed another clue: Beef stroganoff is one of eight options listed under the “Pastas” heading. You’d have opted for something more mainstream — chicken piccata, say, or maybe eggplant parmesan from the vegetarian menu.
As a rule, though, it’s best to keep your mind open to the unexpected at Bella’s. With a flexible attitude, you might find yourself enjoying a meal that feels not so much like you’re dining in a restaurant as at the home of a friend who’s a creative cook – complete with the occasional inconsistency of execution.
Barragan’s husband and partner, Raoul Hernandez, reinforces that feeling, tending a bar that offers a modest selection of wines, bottled beers, and refreshingly simple cocktails such as the mixed-berry frozen margarita that should hit the spot on Bella’s inviting, umbrella-shaded patio in the coming weeks.
The dining room does its part in setting a suitable mood, from the accommodating (if sometimes tentative) wait staff to a decor that’s at once homey and casually romantic. The owners did most of the decorating themselves, softening the commercial look of the brick-and-glass building with muted colors, gauzy drapery, and fresh flowers on the tables. On one whitewashed brick wall, a collection of framed black-and-white photographs depicts scenes of Chapel Hill and Carrboro in bygone days.
According to Valerie Hernandez, the owners’ daughter and restaurant manager, friends of the family had suggested hanging pictures of the Eiffel Tower and other international landmarks to reflect the new global scope of the menu.
“But Carrboro and Chapel Hill have lots of nice scenes, too,” she adds, “and that’s our restaurant’s home now.”
I’d say they made the right call.
360-100 E. Main St., Carrboro
Atmosphere: casually romantic
Noise level: moderate
Recommended: spinach salad, crab cakes, cranberry scallops, shrimp and grits
Open: Lunch (brunch) and dinner, Tuesday-Sunday.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot and in parking deck behind the restaurant.
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.