From time to time, I take a break from checking out new restaurants, and pay return visits to ones I haven’t reviewed in a while. This time around, I go for seconds at a couple of venerable local landmarks that make their elegant homes in restored mansions.
Note: In December 2007, ratings changed from a 4-star scale to a 5-star scale.
330 Hillsborough St., Raleigh
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Last review: 2001 ☆☆☆ 1/2
New rating: ☆☆☆☆
Book a table at Second Empire, and you’ll invariably get this question from the reservationist: “Are you celebrating a special occasion?”
More often than not, I’m guessing, the answer to that question is “yes.” Second Empire is, after all, the quintessential special occasion restaurant. Located just three blocks from the state capitol in the historic Dodd-Hinsdale house, it’s also a prime spot for entertaining clients and impressing out-of-town visitors. The imposing Victorian mansion promises tradition and opulence and delivers on that promise indoors, greeting you with a hand-carved walnut staircase flanked by dining rooms whose wainscoted walls are hung with oil paintings and ornate gilt-framed mirrors. Table linens are crisp and white, and with owner/manager Kim Reynolds setting the standard for gracious hospitality, waiters dressed in vest and tie provide service that is formal but not stodgy.
Executive chef Daniel Schurr clearly likes the place. Schurr left his post as chef at the Angus Barn Wine Cellar nearly two decades ago to become the opening chef at Second Empire, and he’s been here ever since. It’s hard to imagine a better match for the setting than the chef’s seasonally changing menu, which showcases prime quality ingredients in inventive presentations that are rooted in classic technique (Schurr graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America) and as ornate as the building’s Victorian woodwork.
A recent visit confirms that the chef hasn’t lost his touch. Setting the tone is a caramelized butternut squash and roasted duck leg tart, encased in a square of crisp phyllo, crowned with a cloud of tender local greens and set on a plate bespattered with the jewel tones of tiny diced fruit, hazelnuts and infused oils.
In another first-course offering, the chef puts a fresh spin on an old-school favorite, pairing sautéed veal sweetbreads with port wine-braised red cabbage, celery root puree and a crisp wedge of rösti potato, set in a puddle of caper- and thyme-spangled veal jus.
Schurr is adept at dancing right up to the line that separates a gratifyingly complex dish and one that’s overwrought, but occasionally he crosses it. In an entree offering of citrus and rosemary grilled swordfish, the fish is irreproachably fresh and expertly cooked. But if a fish can drown, this one does in a torrent of ingredients that – well, let’s just let the menu speak for itself: “ditalini pasta & black-eyed pea ragout, ham hock, wilted spinach, rutabaga puree, spaghetti squash, apricot & curry jus.”
Grilled Australian rack of lamb, on the other hand, nails it with a list of ingredients that’s just as long but more harmonious: “pappardelle pasta & chickpeas, roasted red onion, cauliflower puree, roasted baby carrots, smoked collards, roasted garlic rosemary jus.”
Our server’s raves notwithstanding, key lime pie turns out to be just okay. But chocolate soufflé, which she assures us needn’t be ordered in advance thanks to some “kitchen magic,” is first-rate.
A full bar and one of the area’s premier wine cellars round out the list of reasons why Second Empire is a perennial favorite for celebratory meals. It’s not the sort of place most of us can frequent on a regular basis, of course, given a dinner tab that can easily top $100 per person (the downstairs Tavern offers a less expensive alternative in a more casual setting). But it’s unequivocally worth the occasional splurge. Even if you aren’t celebrating a milestone event, you’ll no doubt discover that a meal at Second Empire is itself a special occasion.
2701 Chapel Hill Road, Durham
Last review: 2009 ☆☆☆☆
New rating: ☆☆☆☆
Other than a fresh coat of paint every few years, little has changed about the 1908 Bartlett Mangum house since the husband-and-wife team of Shane Ingram and Elizabeth Woodhouse restored its Neoclassical Revival splendor and opened the doors to Four Square in 1999.
Soaring two-story Doric columns and rocking chairs on a wraparound porch announce the owners’ delicately balanced aim of making a meal here memorable but not stuffy. Inside, the mood is reinforced by the homelike scale of tastefully appointed dining rooms with period details including fireplaces repurposed as decorative displays of framed photographs and fresh flowers in cut glass vases.
Set against this comfortingly enduring backdrop, chef Ingram delivers a change of scenery in the form of an all-new menu every two months. Drawing heavily on local produce (supplemented by herbs from the restaurant property and the owners’ home garden), Ingram prides himself on rarely repeating a dish. Even for a chef whose resume includes the likes of Emeril’s, Charlie Trotter’s and The Inn at Little Washington (where he and Woodhouse met), that’s a setting a high bar for creativity. And it gets higher with every passing year. As a recent sampling of the March-April menu demonstrates, Ingram continues to clear the bar with only a rare stumble.
Creamy tomato and pork neck soup, in a combination as soul-satisfying as it is surprising, makes the best of the late winter larder while hinting at summer harvest to come. Another surprising – and surprisingly harmonious – starter pairs date-walnut bread pudding and double cream Camembert from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia, with a tart cherry compote playing brassy high notes in the background.
Poached lobster tail, served over black beans and garnished with a dainty scalloped-edge butter cracker, is a visually striking presentation, but the composition as a whole is dominated by the cumin-scented beans.
My only quibble with the poached duck egg and broccoli rabe wonton presentation, on the other hand, is that it doesn’t come with a spoon for scooping up every drop of the roasted long chile and charred onion-crab broth.
Working with a similarly broad palette of flavors – and a seemingly endless supply of inspiration – Ingram offers an entree selection that covers the spectrum from supremely delicate coconut milk-poached steelhead salmon to rustic tamarind and brown sugar-glazed venison chop. All in the space of just seven listings, where you’ll also find an exemplary crisp-skinned half chicken served over creamy cheese grits, and an unimpeachably fresh barbecue-spiced swordfish steak paired with a whimsical “octopus hushpuppy” that turns out to be an actual baby octopus fried in cornmeal batter.
By and large, desserts live up to the high standard set by the savory courses. Apple cinnamon monkey bread will scratch the sweet-tooth itch nicely, as will butterscotch pudding with chocolate shortbread, peanuts and a maple-cider gastrique. But it’s the Winter Citrus presentation – a kaleidoscope of grapefruit curd and jalapeño pound cake cubes, spangled with strips of preserved lemon and fresh seasonal citrus sections – that still has my mouth watering.
Four Square’s excellent wine list is thoughtfully sorted by flavor profile, with some two dozen wines available by the glass and a commendable half-bottle selection. In the unlikely event that your server isn’t able to help you make a selection, maitre d’hotel Brandon Carr is certainly up to the task. A former wine distributor who is in charge of the beverage program in addition to heading up one of the area’s most polished wait staffs, Carr has been with Four Square since it first opened its doors.
Sometimes, it turns out, lack of change can be a good thing.