When A Southern Season relocated a few years ago, I had mixed feelings about the move. On the one hand, the roomier digs in University Mall allowed the gourmet shop, already one of the best in the South, to become more impressive. On the other hand, the move cost the Triangle one of its loveliest alfresco dining spots. Ensconced in a landscaped thicket of flowering shrubs and wax myrtles strung with twinkle lights, the patio of The Weathervane, A Southern Season's restaurant, had the secluded feel of a private estate garden.
The new patio, by contrast, is defined by a serpentine brick wall that separates the space from the mall parking lot -- a pleasant setting, given the location, but hardly a secluded garden. Happily, the dining room preserves the warmly inviting feel of the original with honeyed oak paneling, muted earth tones and soft lighting suspended from tray ceilings. Executive chef Patrick Cowden does his part, too, in preserving the culinary tradition of an establishment that has been a local landmark for decades.
Cowden, who came to The Weathervane in 2005, is naturally suited to the restaurant's contemporary Southern culinary heritage. Indeed, some of the dishes on his seasonally changing menu will be familiar to fans of his extensive local career as a restaurant chef and caterer. The chorizo-studded shrimp and grits that was a signature dish at Patrick's, the restaurant that the chef owned for too brief a time in Durham, is as gratifying as ever.
On the current winter menu, Cowden's update of a classic Southern soup features pan-seared oysters in a creamy chowder that's streaked with wilted spinach leaves and, whispering sweet memories of summer, a few kernels of corn. In another first-course offering, delicately crisp sautéed sweetbreads are scattered around a central mound of emerald green baby limas and tatters of Johnston County country ham.
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The chef's penchant for offering a taste of luxury at reasonable prices is a good fit, too, for a restaurant whose pantry includes the shelves of the area's premier gourmet specialty market. When they're available, Cowden shaves truffles over his presentation of truffled cheese toast, a dish already rich with the earthy aroma of black truffle oil and sautéed wild mushrooms. Another first-course offering serves up seared foie gras torchon in lavish portion for $10.
Pork osso buco, a dish I fondly recall from Patrick's, makes an encore performance at The Weathervane, this time topped with an orange-ginger gremolata and accompanied by cumin-fragrant mashed sweet potatoes. Jumbo veal tortellini, napped with a roasted Roma tomato sauce whose light appearance belies its concentrated flavor, are another rewarding entree option. So is crispy flounder topped with a crabmeat "guacamole," if you're fortunate enough to dine there when it's offered as an entree special.
Pastry chef Rhonda Mullen, who worked with Cowden at Patrick's, tempts the sweet tooth with an irresistible assortment of seasonal desserts. Most of the holiday offering, which included eggnog crème brûlée, white chocolate peppermint roulade and pumpkin tiramisu, is slated to make way for new desserts this month. If the tiramisu survives the transition into January, don't miss it.
The wine list, like the kitchen, benefits from ties to A Southern Season. Drawing from the shop's outstanding selection, the list is a well-chosen four dozen labels, virtually all available by the glass.
The weak link in the Weathervane experience is service, which can vary widely in terms of training. The staff is uniformly friendly, though, and when you combine warmth with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee that greets you regardless of the time of day (The Weathervane is also a deservedly popular spot for breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch), you can't help but feel welcome.
That includes the patio, which is, after all, an inviting spot. The rooster weathervane that was once a focal point of the patio at the old Weathervane now stands sentry over the new patio's fountain. All four compass points on that weathervane are labeled with an "S," a tribute to the establishment's Southern culinary roots. I'm happy to report that, even after transplanting, those roots are still strong today.