Restaurant News & Reviews

The Triangle's best restaurants

Now that turkeys by the million have given their all for the holiday season, it's once again time for critics of all stripes to stick our necks out on the chopping block of public opinion. That's right, it's the season of annual "best of" surveys.

Last year was the first time I offered my picks for Best Restaurants in the Triangle. This year, based in part on response to that inaugural list, I've refined the selection process. The Top 20 list represents my choices for the very best restaurants in the Triangle, regardless of price, cuisine or location. These are the restaurants that, in my experience, most consistently deliver the "full package" dining experience of excellent food, attentive service and pleasant atmosphere.

As I did last year, I've singled out a Restaurant of the Year -- a best in show, if you will. This year, I've selected Fins, already among the crème de la crème of area restaurants when it was in North Raleigh. Now that the restaurant has relocated to chic new digs downtown, Fins is better than ever.

In an effort to give fair representation to establishments whose settings are modest but whose food represents excellent value, I'm offering a separate Best Bargains list. I'm also adding a Top Newcomer category to honor the best of the new restaurants I've reviewed in the past year.

There's no shortage of candidates for any of these categories; I wrestled with narrowing each list. I wouldn't be surprised if you can name a worthy restaurant or two that I haven't included. I invite you to tell me what you think of my selections on my blog (http://blogs.newsobserver.com/epicurean/). Feel free to add your own nominations. And while you're at it, what do you think of the new Top 20, Best Bargain and Top Newcomer categories?

Note: You can find my full review of these (and hundreds more) restaurants at http://events.triangle.com/restaurants.

Top 20

Fins - Restaurant of the Year

110 E. Davie St., Raleigh, 834-6963, www.myspace.com/finsrestaurant

Cuisine: Pacific Rim fusion, seafood

For nearly a decade, Fins was North Raleigh's best-kept secret. Then, last year, owner/chef William D'Auvray and his wife, Lisa, pulled up stakes and set out for snazzier, higher profile digs downtown. The new dining room was much larger than the old one, however, and even loyal fans wondered whether the couple had bitten off more than they could chew.

They needn't have worried. The new space is chic and dramatic but warmly inviting, and spacious without feeling cavernous. Service, under Lisa D'Auvray's watchful eye, is attentive but not intrusive. And the food is, if anything, even better now than it was before.

Fins' Pacific Rim fusion menu still leans heavily to seafood and evolves with the daily catch. D'Auvray has wisely kept some of the old favorite presentations in his rotation, too. Regardless of what you order - butter-poached diver scallops, or Thai snapper "Indonesian style," or Marcona almond-crusted turbot draped over a mound of emerald green fava beans - you can count on impeccable freshness and near flawless execution. You won't go wrong, either, with landlubber fare such as red curry baby lamb and Vietnamese style foie gras sandwich.

The sashimi selection would put most sushi bars to shame. Fins is the first restaurant in the area to feature a robatayaki bar, where the chef char-grills small cuts of sashimi-grade fish and other delicacies to order and serves them, sushi bar-style. With advance reservations, D'Auvray will serve a multicourse chef's table-style tasting menu at the robatayaki bar - an experience sure to be memorable.

The wine selection is extensive and thoughtfully chosen to match the menu's varied flavors. Desserts, from baba au rhum to exotic fruit sorbet sampler, are as distinctive and expertly prepared as the rest of the meal. In short, the new Fins is a keeper.

Bin 54

1201-M Raleigh Road, in Glen Lennox Shopping Center, Chapel Hill, 969-1155, www.bin54restaurant.com

Cuisine: Steakhouse

Bloomsbury Bistro

509-101 W. Whitaker Mill Road, at Five Points, Raleigh, 834-9011, www.bloomsburybistro.com

Cuisine: Contemporary

Bonne Soirée

431-10 W. Franklin St., in The Courtyard, Chapel Hill, 928-8388

Cuisine: French

Elaine's on Franklin

454 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 960-2770, www.elainesonfranklin.com

Cuisine: Contemporary

Enoteca Vin

410 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh

834-3070

Cuisine: Contemporary with a European accent, wine bar

Fairview Dining Room

3001 Cameron Blvd., in the Washington Duke Inn, Durham, 490-0999, www.washingtondukeinn.com

Cuisine: Contemporary

Four Square

2701 Chapel Hill Road, Durham, 401-9877, www.foursquarerestaurant.com

Cuisine: Contemporary

Frazier's

2418 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, 828-6699, www.fraziersbistro.com

Cuisine: Contemporary

Jibarra

7420 Six Forks Road, in Peachtree Market, Raleigh, 844-6330, www.jibarra.net

Cuisine: Mexican fine dining

Lantern

423 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 969-8846, www.lanternrestaurant.com

Cuisine: Pan-Asian

Magnolia Grill

1002 Ninth St., Durham, 286-3609, www.magnoliagrill.net

Cuisine: Contemporary with a Southern accent

Maximillians

8314 Chapel Hill Road, Cary, 465-2455, ww.maximilliansgrill.com

Cuisine: Contemporary, fusion

Nana's

2514 University Drive, Durham, 493-8545, www.nanasdurham.com

Cuisine: contemporary Mediterranean

Red Palace

Beacon Plaza, 3945 New Bern Ave., Raleigh, 231-3788, http://redpalacenc.com/

Cuisine: Chinese

Saffron

4121 Davis Drive, in McCrimmon Corners shopping center, Morrisville, 469-5774, www.saffronnc.com

Cuisine: Indian

Second Empire

330 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, 829-3663, www.second-empire.com/secondempire

Cuisine: Contemporary

Vin Rouge

2010 Hillsborough Road, Durham, 416-0406, www.vinrougerestaurant.com

Cuisine: French

Vivace

4209 Lassiter Mill Road, in The Alexan, Raleigh, 787-7747, www.vivaceraleigh.com

Cuisine: Italian

Jujube

1201-L Raleigh Road, in Glen Lennox Shopping Center, Chapel Hill, 960-0555, www.jujuberestaurant.com

Cuisine: Asian

BEST BARGAINS

Allen & Son

6203 Millhouse Road, Chapel Hill, 942-7576

Cuisine: Barbecue

Dain's Place

754 Ninth St., Durham, 416-8800, www.dainsplace.net

Cuisine: Burgers, sandwiches, pub fare

London Fish & Chips

6446 Tryon Road, in Wellington Park, Cary, 859-8888, www.londonfishandchips-nc.com

Cuisine: English fish and chips

Los Comales

2103 N. Roxboro Road, Durham, 220-1614

Cuisine: taqueria

Neomonde

3817 Beryl Road, Raleigh; 10235 Chapel Hill Road, Morrisville, 828-1628 (Raleigh); 466-8100 (Morrisville), www.neomonde.com

Cuisine: Middle Eastern

TOP NEWCOMERS

Herons

100 Woodland Pond, in The Umstead Hotel and Spa, Cary, 447-4200, www.heronsrestaurant.com

Cuisine: contemporary

J. Betski's

10-120 W. Franklin St., Raleigh, 833-7999, www.jbetskis.com

Cuisine: German, Polish

Panciuto

110 S. Churton St., Hillsborough, 732-6261, www.panciuto.com

Cuisine: Italian

Piedmont

401 Foster St., Durham, 683-1213, www.piedmontrestaurant.com

Cuisine: French, Italian

Rue Cler

401 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham, 682-8844, www.ruecler-durham.com

Cuisine: French

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