In the spirit of auld lang syne, I’m devoting this week’s column to return visits to restaurants I haven’t reviewed in a while.
Ginger Asian Cuisine
2048 Kildaire Farm Road, Cary
“The Heart Healthy Menu is your best bet.” That was my conclusion when I reviewed Ginger Asian Cuisine a few months after the restaurant opened. Not that the mainstream offering – an extensive list of mostly Chinese-American fare with a sprinkling of Thai dishes – didn’t offer plenty of temptations. The chow fun noodles alone were worth a visit. But it was the Heart Healthy Menu – developed in collaboration with the nutritionists at the Cary Lifetime Fitness Center, dishes featuring fresh vegetables and antibiotic-free meats cooked in little or no oil, with low-sodium sauces and no MSG – that set Ginger apart from the crowd.
It still does. In fact, the list has grown, if I’m not mistaken, and now includes more than four dozen listings ranging from a vegetarian ma po tofu to wok-grilled salmon to roast pork with mixed vegetables, all available with your choice of white or brown rice. The kitchen appears to have raised its game, too, judging by the first-rate cumin lamb I enjoyed on my most recent visit. The szechwan peppercorn in that dish – so subtle I didn’t notice its tongue-tingling presence until I took a sip of water – was a delightful surprise, and further evidence that Ginger can deliver the authentic goods as well.
6112 Falls of Neuse Road, Raleigh
Saint Jacques recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, and it’s easy to see why. Tucked into one of North Raleigh’s countless strip malls, the restaurant is a haven of constancy and Old World charm in a rapidly changing landscape. Regulars know they’ll be comfortable in a casually romantic dining room that has changed little since the restaurant opened. They’ll be served by a vest- and tie-clad wait staff that are as warmly hospitable as they are polished, under the direction of Provençal-native owner Lil Lacassagne. And they can count on a menu of traditional French cuisine, skillfully prepared and served without pretension.
That’s not to say that the menu is frozen in time. Granted, a few dishes, including textbook renditions of onion soup gratinée and mousse au chocolat, have earned a well-deserved permanent place on the menu. But a number of dishes I enjoyed not long after the restaurant opened – among them tournedos Rossini and an entree medley of poached seafood with aioli dip – are no longer offered. Happily, a recent meal provided more than ample consolation. From amuse-bouche (herbed goat cheese mousse garnished with candied lemon zest) to dessert (apple millefeuille), the meal was thoroughly delightful. Particularly memorable was an herb-crusted rack of lamb with vegetable terrine, savory proof that even an old standby can charm a jaded palate.
144 Morrisville Square Way, Morrisville
For years, the first thing that came to mind when I thought back on my visits to Tower was the dosa. Not just the quality – which was quite good – but also the eye-popping variety. In addition to nearly a dozen classic variations on this oversize Southern Indian rice and lentil crepe, the menu listed a like number of inventive “Tower Dosai Creations” such as Gunpowder (amped up with spicy chutney and Indian spices) and – I’m not kidding – Pesto.
I’m afraid my second memory of those early visits is the biryani. A mass of gummy rice and frozen vegetable medley (especially disappointing in a strictly vegetarian restaurant), this was – there’s no nice way to put it – the worst rice dish I’d ever had in an Indian restaurant. I might have chalked it up to an off night, but apart from the dosa, few other dishes rose above the level of “meh” (to use a term that I’m not sure had even been coined back then). Frankly, I didn’t think the place would survive.
I’m happy to report that I was wrong. The biryani still isn’t up to the exemplary standards of Paradise India Cuisine (a biryani specialist just around the corner on Chapel Hill Road), but it’s a marked improvement. “Fresh” has replaced “meh” as the most accurate word to describe the bulk of the offering at Tower, from tomato-brightened palak paneer to spice-fragrant vegetable korma. Dosa are as good as ever.
But the Pesto dosa? That’s history.
Vinos Finos y Picadas
8450-110 Honeycutt Road, Raleigh
Bacon-wrapped medjool dates. Goat cheese-stuffed piquillo peppers. Serving boards laden with 18-month serrano ham, Spanish smoked-paprika chorizo, and aged manchego drizzled with local honey. Seafood salad bright with capers and lemon, and deviled eggs with black truffles and chives. These are a few of the Picadas (finger foods) I sampled as pairings for the Vinos Finos (fine wines, including the largest selection of South American wines in the area) when I first visited this Lafayette Village wine bar. If the food menu didn’t match the wine list in sheer numbers (350-plus wines at the time), it certainly didn’t lack for options.
And the restaurant didn’t even have a kitchen. Chef Ginia West got by with a a panini press and a single oven until last year, when she and her husband and partner, Pat West, installed a full kitchen. Now you can add spice-rubbed chicken wings to the list of small plate enticements, along with herb-marinated grilled shrimp with a Peruvian yellow pepper sauce. There’s a modest selection of entrees, too, including grilled skirt steak with chimichurri sauce, and a saffron-perfumed lamb stew studded with carrots, baby potatoes and raisins.
And if you’re not sure what wine goes with your selection, just do what the regulars do: ask Pat.