The train cars parked on the tracks next to Carr Mill Mall in Carrboro haven't left the station in years. But they've been carrying people to all kinds of destinations since September, when Southern Rail, an upscale-casual restaurant and bar, opened inside. It just happens that Southern Rail's destinations aren't on any map.
The dining car, with its deco prints, vintage china and other nostalgic bric-a-brac, softly lit by crystal chandeliers hanging from mahogany-paneled ceilings, transports you back to the time before its ornate woodwork had taken on the patina of time. In the more eclectically furnished bar car, and in a second bar in a glass-enclosed platform, the itinerary could include stops anywhere you like. An aperitif in Paris in the '40s, say, or a glass of wine (the thoughtfully chosen list offers 18 options by the glass) in contemporary Carrboro. In fair weather, the tree-shaded patio out back might well be a biergarten in Berlin for those inclined to take their lagers al fresco.
A salvaged caboose has been converted into a kitchen, with executive chef Joe Brzoska (formerly of Acme Food & Beverage) serving as culinary conductor. Brzoska's menu is a ticket to a gastronomic global tour, from black bean cake with a Southwestern salsa to poached Asian pear salad to steak frites. The ride is occasionally bumpy, but for the most part it's a rewarding adventure.
One worthy destination -- or, more accurately, two destinations in one -- is yakimasu, a shareable appetizer pairing a fritto misto of calamari, oysters, scallops and shrimp with an Asian-dressed salad of vegetable "noodles." Soups merit consideration, too, with recent options including cauliflower with applewood-smoked bacon, and a vibrant roasted red pepper crowned with a dollop of thick, velvety cream of asparagus. A salad of arugula, roasted beets, goat cheese and walnuts in a lemon-caper vinaigrette is also worth a visit. I'd take a detour around the bean cake, however, which is so thick that it comes off as little more than a dense cylinder of mashed beans.
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The Berkshire pork chop, featuring a breed known as Kurobuta in Japan, where its meat is as prized as Kobe beef, is a must on the entree itinerary of any pork fan. Order it medium-rare, and you'll get a massive bone-in chop, crusty on the outside, pink and juicy at the center. Cast iron-seared scallops, served with grilled asparagus and a gratin of Yukon gold and sweet potatoes, are a winning seafood alternative. I can recommend the steak frites, too, with reservations. The marinated skirt steak is flavorful, and slicing it across the grain before plating makes the best of a cut of beef not known for its tenderness. The fries can be hit or miss, however -- though the accompanying house-made ketchup is so good you'll want to eat it with a spoon.
Brzoska's crab cakes are a signature dish the chef brought with him from Acme. Unfortunately, based on the fishy taste and burned bottom crust of the cakes I sampled recently, I must advise you to order them at your own risk.
Among the half dozen or so homemade dessert options, the "chocolate soufflé" proved well worth the calories, though its texture -- somewhere between mousse and flourless torte -- was hardly that of a soufflé. Banana bread pudding, on the other hand, was only so-so.
Actually, we hadn't ordered the bread pudding. Our waitress brought it by mistake -- understandable enough, since we had ordered a dessert which she had described as "butterscotch pudding with bananas and Heath bar." What is not understandable is the fact that, when we pointed out the error, her only response was to say "Oh, sorry." Unfortunately, this lapse was not an isolated incident. Both times I visited Southern Rail, our servers were friendly but inattentive.
To be fair, the restaurant has been open only a couple of months. Knowing that the owners, Mike Benson and his wife Christina, and operating partner Spencer Pope, are all experienced restaurateurs, I'm betting that Southern Rail will soon be rolling smoothly down the tracks toward dining satisfaction.