Restaurant News & Reviews

Creative flair keeps classic menu interesting

A few months ago, Midtown's management installed railing along the perimeter of the sidewalk patio in front of the restaurant. The railing shields patrons from the glare of headlights in the parking lot, according to general manager Pete Petrilli, but it also serves another important purpose. The burgundy panels of the railing visually define Midtown's location in The Lassiter, a crowded upscale strip mall anchored by a Harris Teeter. And, given that The Lassiter is part of the larger North Hills complex where a profusion of trendy eateries have popped up since Midtown opened in 2005, the restaurant can use all the curb appeal it can get.

Those who manage to navigate past all the SUVs and grocery carts will find Midtown to be a haven of understated elegance, equally suited to a power lunch or a romantic dinner. The look is clean and contemporary in muted earth tones, with crimson-shaded chandeliers suspended from mahogany-framed tray ceilings, adding just the right note of visual pizazz.

What those chandeliers do for the eye, executive chef Scott James does for the palate. James, who has worked at a number of area restaurants and clubs (including Fins when it was in North Raleigh), offers a menu that's rooted in tradition, with just enough creative sparkle to keep things interesting.

On the current menu, a dollop of citrus crema adds a welcome splash of sunny contrast to the dark roux in an intensely flavorful rabbit gumbo. Fried oysters get an exceptionally crunchy crust in the form of toasted ground arborio rice, and a refined Southern accent in the form of a piquillo sauce that's reminiscent of pimento cheese.

The chef punches up another time-honored classic by pairing bacon-wrapped scallops with a pumpkin seed beurre noisette. His riff on a Caesar salad delivers a whole new flavor dimension by tossing both raw and lightly grilled romaine in the dressing. Parmesan brittle and a couple of olive tapenade crostini supply ample crunchy contrast (and, in my opinion, make the croutons unnecessary).

Among entrees, the lamb tasting is in fact a lamb feast, serving up an elegant roasted baby rack, a rustic grilled chop and a brace of spicy house-made merguez sausages, accompanied by caramel-sweet cipollini onions and crispy roasted fingerling potatoes. Lighter appetites will be more than satisfied by coastal white shrimp and house-made gnocchi with cherry tomatoes, squash, basil and piquillo butter.

Espresso- and ancho-rubbed New York strip steak has deservedly become a signature entree for the chef. And the excellent tempura-battered asparagus "frites" that accompany the steak have become so popular that, according to a waiter, they'll soon be available separately. My only quibble with the dish as it was served to me is that the slab of cabernet Cabrales butter that topped the steak was so thick and cold that it barely melted.

My vote for signature dish, however, goes to James' variation on a mac & cheese theme. Under a crust of lightly toasted Ritz crackers, tucked in with the noodles in a rich sauce of mascarpone and aged white cheddar, is an extravagance of lobster nuggets -- a surprising combination that is as witty as it is lavish.

Sous chef Tim Barron does double duty as pastry chef, turning out sweet tooth temptations such as crème brûlée, chocolate torte with marsala cream, and utterly addictive apple beignets with a sticky toffee fondue.

At the back of the dining room, visible through a glass partition, is a private banquet room lined with wine bottles hung on a rock wall. Souvenirs of wine tastings over the years, each of these bottles is signed by the wine maker or vineyard owner. Those seeking more tangible evidence of Midtown's reverence for the grape will find it in the eclectic and reasonably priced wine list, which encourages exploration by offering nearly two dozen wines by the glass or half glass.

Scott James' menu changes seasonally, which means he's probably already cooking up some new ideas for spring. Come to think of it, that's when the weather ought to be perfect for a meal on Midtown's sidewalk patio.