Far too many restaurant menus are guided by what I call the “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” school of thought. In a misguided attempt to appeal to the widest possible audience, they offer an extensive selection that reads like a Top 100 of American favorites – and invariably stretches the kitchen beyond its limitations.
They’d be wise, in my opinion, to ditch that approach and instead follow the contrarian advice of Mark Twain: “Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket.” Applied to menu design, that would translate to focusing on what you do best.
A small but growing number of restaurants are showing the way. Oak City Meatball Shoppe is a prime example.
Meatballs may sound a little too focused, but the deceptively concise menu at this cozy downtown Raleigh spot manages to offer a variation on the theme for every conceivable taste.
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Start by choosing a meatball (traditional beef, spicy pork, chicken or veggie) and sauce (tomato, Parmesan cream, pesto, meat sauce or mushroom gravy). I’m partial to the beef and spicy pork (try the beef with meat sauce or mushroom gravy, and the pork with Oak City’s vibrant tomato sauce). The veggie, which appears to have been made mostly with broccoli, not so much.
Not enough choices? Check out the daily meatball and sauce special, where you might find chicken Milano with roasted garlic cream, or Sicilian meatballs with spicy vodka sauce, or Buffalo-style chicken meatballs with blue cheese cream.
Once you’ve settled on a combination, you’re only partway done with the decision-making. Do you want your meatballs on a plate – over spaghetti, say, or buttery smashed skin-on potatoes? If so, you can add a salad (try arugula with dried cranberries and goat cheese in pomegranate vinaigrette), and you’ve got a hearty meal your mom would approve for under $20.
A la carte sides, served in family-style portions, expand the possibilities with options ranging from collard greens to mac and cheese. Don’t overlook the daily vegetable. Depending on the season, your reward might be first-rate green beans with almonds, maple-glazed sweet potatoes or crispy fried okra.
Looking for something a little easier on the wallet? Go for the hoagie, which serves up three meatballs with sauce and cheese of your choice on a crusty mini-baguette for $10, including your choice of salad. It’s a hefty sandwich, so gild the lily with crunchy thick-cut bacon and a fried egg at your own risk.
Not quite that hungry? Two meatballs on a brioche bun will set you back $9. Like the hoagie, this one comes with a salad, and you can add a small side for just two bucks. And if you simply can’t narrow your choice down to a single meatball and sauce combination, then sliders (three for $8) are the way to go. This is the only option where you can mix and match your way to a sampling of different meatballs and sauces.
The dessert offering exemplifies the focused menu concept with a single option: the “pie of the day,” baked by State Fair blue ribbon award-winning Slice Pie Company of Raleigh. Pumpkin, key lime, pecan – they’re all worth the splurge.
The bar covers the bases well with a selection of some three dozen beers (eight on tap), a small but well-chosen selection of reasonably priced wines, and an impressive bourbon list. Cocktails ranging from classic Manhattan to house creations such as the Horse Bite (Redemption rye, bitters, house-made black peppercorn syrup, lemon) round out the liquid assets side of the ledger.
Setting aside the veggie balls as a matter of personal taste, the only out-and-out disappointment I’ve yet to come across was an egregiously over-salted side of sauteed spinach. An accommodating server cheerfully offered to replace the dish, and in a few minutes delivered a much improved rendition.
That Oak City Meatball Shoppe is celebrating its second anniversary this month is, in my opinion, convincing evidence in support of the focused-menu philosophy. The restaurant is owned by Ken Yowell, who also owns Calavera Empanada & Tequila Bar in downtown Raleigh and Carrboro – not coincidentally, another successful example of the concept.
Like Calavera, Oak City has already spawned a second location. The Shoppe Bar & Meatball Kitchen opened in September in Carrboro. The menu is the same as at the Raleigh restaurant, but the location forced Yowell to come up with a new name.
“Of course, Carrboro is not Oak City,” he says. “I didn’t think past opening Raleigh at the time.”
Given Yowell’s batting average, I’m guessing he’ll factor that lesson into the equation when it comes to naming his next restaurant.
180 E. Davie St., Raleigh; 919-714-9014
Cuisine: American (meatballs)
Atmosphere: cozy, urban-casual
Noise level: moderate
Recommended: beef and spicy pork meatballs, daily specials
Open: lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday
Reservations: not accepted
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking on street and in nearby parking decks.
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.