“P.G. Werth’s – is that a chain?” my wife asked when I told her where we were going for dinner one night recently.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the question about the restaurant, whose name – let’s face it – sounds like it was created by the corporate marketing team that came up with P.F. Chang’s or T.G.I. Friday’s.
It wasn’t. The name is a tribute by Gregg Hamm, the restaurant’s owner/chef, to Patricia Guy Werth, a high school home economics teacher in Hamm’s hometown of Sanford who became his mentor, inspiring him to dual careers in cooking and education. Hamm has been a culinary instructor at Central Carolina Community College for years, and he owns Cafe 121, a popular restaurant in Sanford. He closed a second Cafe 121 location in Cary last year to devote some of his apparently boundless energy to opening P.G. Werth’s, a restaurant with a contemporary farm-to-fork focus, in Raleigh.
Hamm’s background, combined with his enthusiastic personality, have given the chef a way with words that’s as playfully inventive as his cooking. His seasonally changing menu freely mixes classic French culinary terms with down-home Southern lingo in a way that, for all its charms, could sometimes benefit from a little clarification. Consider this list an abridged lexicon:
Amuse-Bouche: Universally accepted term for a chef’s complimentary welcoming taste at the beginning of a meal. Well, almost universally. When chef Hamm uses the term, he’s referring to his nightly appetizer special, and it will typically set you back $15 to $20. That might get you a shareable portion of a new creation such as the crispy pork belly noodle bowl with snow peas he offered recently. Or it might be a sampler of dishes on the regular appetizer and entree lists – chicken and sweet potato waffle, say, and fried green beans, maybe a seasonal salad.
Calamari Cocktail: Taking considerable poetic license with the word “cocktail” as it’s traditionally used with seafood, this starter features exceptionally tender calamari fried in a mere whisper of cornmeal breading (or, as the menu would have it, “maize”), tossed with diced cucumber pickles and served on a bed of mixed greens. Call it what you will, it’s a keeper.
Duck Duck Grits: Crisp-skinned medallions of duck breast and duck leg confit on a mound of stoneground pimento cheese grits, flanked by a small kale salad in a pork belly-slicked dressing. My only complaint is that, for $31, I wish I had gotten more than a couple of shreds of confit.
Greens, Eggs & Ham: If you’re thinking collards, think again. This lunchtime presentation serves up a surprise at every turn: fried green tomato, basil greens, duck egg, pork belly pastrami and Prairie Breeze cheddar. For an alternate definition of “greens,” see Roots, Greens & Beans in the entree section: ginger-maple carrots, beets, tatsoi, bean spread, red peppers and portobello mushroom.
Jala-Pimento Cheese: A signature item for chef Hamm, this jalapeño-spiked blend turns up in a number of places, from atop a rib-eye steak (where it won over this steak purist) to the PBT Sammich, where it’s paired with bacon and fried green tomatoes. You can also pick up a tub of Jala-Pimento Cheese to take home in the restaurant’s market, where you’ll find a selection of house-made and local artisanal products.
Pan-seared: When applied to yellowfin tuna (a recent fresh catch offering), this term apparently means “it may have touched a hot pan, but not long enough to leave any actual evidence of searing.” Which, as the fish is irreproachably fresh, is fine as long as you like sashimi.
Potage: French for “soup.” But don’t let that fool you into expecting something fancy like potage à la duchesse. Instead, think familiar favorites such as chicken noodle and creamy tomato basil – with, perhaps, a rustically satisfying roasted beet soup (made with homemade chicken stock) thrown in from time to time.
Triangle Microchips: There’s nothing micro about these chips, whose name is evidently a nod to the local tech industry. They’re potato chips – house-fried, sprinkled with local herbs and salt. And they’re addictive.
VV, GF, DF: Signifying that a dish is vegan and/or vegetarian, gluten-free, or dairy-free. If it’s followed by “-A” (as in VV-A), according to chef Hamm, the dish can be adjusted without seriously harming its flavor profile. The generous sprinkling of these cryptic letters throughout the menu is evidence that he doesn’t just pay lip service to special dietary needs.
Located on the ground floor of the new 927 West Morgan apartment building, P. G. Werth’s dining room is a collage of glass, steel and stone that leans more to city chic than to country charm. Any feeling of inviting warmth is largely supplied by a friendly and enthusiastic wait staff. If they can’t put a smile on your face, then a menu that includes the likes of Duck Duck Grits and Greens, Eggs and Ham surely will.
927 W. Morgan St., Raleigh
Cuisine: contemporary, with a Southern accent
Atmosphere: casual city chic
Noise level: moderate
Service: friendly and enthusiastic
Recommended: calamari cocktail, microchips, duck duck grits, signature rib-eye.
Open: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good 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.