If Carolina Crossroads' dining room has undergone any changes since it was given a makeover in 1994, they're so minor you wouldn't notice them. Of course, you wouldn't expect frequent changes of the restaurant in the Carolina Inn, an 84-year-old Chapel Hill landmark whose stock in trade is tradition.
Not that the place looks dowdy, by any means. I imagine those daffodil yellow walls get a fresh coat of paint every few years, and the vintage print skirts on those Chippendale chairs must surely come off for an occasional cleaning. But the grandfather clock and antique corner cupboard, the candlestick lamps and chandeliers, the oil paintings in ornate gilded frames all remain, steadfast guardians of a timeless elegance reminiscent of an antebellum plantation house.
Meanwhile, the kitchen has been anything but frozen in time. Last year, Johnson & Wales-trained Jimmy Reale took over as executive chef, bringing with him an inventive, seasonally changing menu that marries the flavors of the Mediterranean and the American South. Last summer, that translated to first- course pairings such as prosciutto di Parma with local heirloom tomatoes and Chapel Hill Creamery farmer's cheese; duck confit with country ham and a sunny-side-up egg over grits and red-eye gravy; and pan-seared foie gras with brioche crostini and a Southern peach and chili relish. Entree highlights included sweet tea-brined Berkshire pork tenderloin; roasted local Poulet Rouge chicken with summer squash, snow peas and baby carrots; and huge, beautifully seared sea scallops encircled by a summer harvest of chowder peas, sweet corn and broccoli raab.
Reale's current menu offers similarly tantalizing interpretations of the flavors of fall. First-course temptations range from port wine-poached pear with goat cheese, arugula and spiced walnuts in cranberry vinaigrette to cornmeal-fried oysters with Tabasco aioli over a Cajun stew of red beans, crayfish and andouille sausage. Grilled Georgia quail, its flesh succulent beneath a mahogany skin, is served against a backdrop of roasted tomatoes, arugula, cornbread panzanella, buttermilk dressing and smoked bacon gastrique.
Among entree options, pan-roasted grouper holds its own against a culinary kaleidoscope of Spanish chorizo, roasted peppers, chard, corn and red potatoes in a pimentón-tomato-tortilla jus. And if the braised beef short rib with sweet potato spoon bread, Madeira jus, Brussels sprouts and a creamy succotash of fresh-cut corn and lima beans doesn't cure your cold-weather blues, then you must be a vegetarian. In which case, the butternut squash risotto with chanterelles, roasted tomatoes and broccoli raab, showered with shaved Locatelli cheese, ought to do the trick.
The flavors of the season also inspire the sweet seductions of pastry chef Suzanne Menius. Anyone lamenting the passing of summer's coeur à la crème with Grand Marnier-spiked berries will find that fall's pear almond tart with brandy ice cream and pomegranate caramel sauce quickly puts them in a holiday mood.
The extensive, Old World-leaning wine list covers all the bases, from simple, crisp Friulian pinot grigio to stately Château Pétrus '04. And if the $1,700 price tag on that Pétrus gives you pause, rest assured that nearly three dozen wines are available for under $40 a bottle, and 14 are offered by the glass. As you might expect from a landmark hotel that is one of the area's premier venues for weddings and other celebrations, the list is particularly strong in champagnes and sparkling wines.
The cellar could be better managed, though, judging by two wines I was served on separate occasions, neither at the proper temperature. To be fair, on one of those occasions the waiter warned me that he'd have to go downstairs to fetch the wine. Presumably, he didn't chill the wine sufficiently in his rush to deliver it to the table.
But for the most part, service is polished and attentive. Miscues in the kitchen are rare, too, and generally minor: foie gras that isn't cooked all the way through, for instance, or crust on a lime tart that's gone a little soft. At any rate, there's nothing that should stand in your way if you're looking to stimulate your palate with an ever-changing menu of fresh contemporary flavors, while the rest of you nestles in the comforting embrace of long tradition.