A gleaming, six-ton steel bank vault door built into the entryway is the first clue. Then follow strings of faceted crystals, suggestive of diamond necklaces, suspended from the dining room's soaring two-story ceiling; yards of polished stone and custom fabrics, including the sumptuous silken upholstery of deep banquettes; dramatic modern sculptures backlit in the copper and green of money. Upstairs, in the sleek lounge that overlooks the dining room, the bartender mixes cocktails with esoteric ingredients such as absinthe and elderflower liqueur, then sets them on a bar whose glass top, like a jeweler's case, displays more of those cut glass "diamonds" on black velvet. Behind the bar, a backlit bottle of Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac ($80 per one-ounce shot) radiates a bullion glow.
The Mint's name is more than just a nod to the bank that once occupied the space, or a reference to the considerable investment by its owners, Raleigh Restaurant Group (whose own investment was supplemented by $1 million in seed money from the city of Raleigh as part of the downtown revitalization effort). Together, the restaurant's name and decor represent the promise of a dining experience made memorable by its opulence.
Executive chef Jeremy Clayman does his part in living up to that promise with a seasonally changing menu that might best be described as "contemporary Southern dips its toe in the foam of molecular gastronomy." Augmenting classic culinary techniques with the foams, gels, sous vide cooking, a type of cooking with pressure, and other science-lab hallmarks of molecular gastronomy, Clayman turns out presentations that are among the most culinarily ambitious -- and certainly most distinctive -- around.
When the chef's creations work, as they do more often than not, the results can be memorable indeed. A stunning, first-course offering of butter-poached lobster with peanuts, popcorn and bourbon-caramel (think deconstructed Fiddle Faddle) proved so popular on the introductory winter menu that it has been held over for an encore performance for the spring. In another starter, Clayman presents seared jumbo scallops, parsnips, ramps and a translucent slice of dehydrated and candied orange in a surprisingly harmonious composition of variations on the theme of naturally sweet flavors: briny, earthy, herbal and citrus. In a similarly successful entree presentation, leek purée and vanilla citrus hollandaise showcase the lean flesh of poached ono. And, while I couldn't detect anything particularly experimental about the preparation of steel cut oats, the decision to pair them with roasted rack of lamb is inspired.
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Clayman's creations don't always hit the mark. Seared organic chicken comes close, but the lukewarm temperature and semiliquid white of the accompanying sous vide-cooked "hot spring egg" isn't likely to win many fans. A first-course offering starring medallions of veal flank is marred by a chewy star ingredient. So, inexplicably, are crab cakes with braised fennel and a lavender-vanilla sauce.
For those who prefer simpler presentations, a supplemental menu offers a steakhouse-style selection of grilled and roasted steaks, seafood and poultry, with sides ordered a la carte. Judging by the 22-ounce bison rib-eye I sampled recently, and by the collards and truffle Parmesan potato purée I ordered alongside, I'd say the a la carte option offers every bit as lavish an experience as the entree menu.
Either way, dessert is a must -- a warm, molten-centered chocolate cake, say, or a sinfully grown-up deconstruction of the childhood classic, PB&J. And as long as you're here for the opulent experience, you might as well splurge on an after-dinner port or dessert wine from one of the Triangle's most impressive wine lists.
Credit for assembling the 500-plus wines in the list goes to general manager Doug Snyder, who comes to The Mint from Bin 54 in Chapel Hill. Snyder is also in charge of the wait staff who, with one or two exceptions, are as polished and pampering as the surroundings.
With most entrees hovering around the $30 mark, The Mint isn't cheap. But you knew it wouldn't be, the minute you walked in the door and saw that bank vault. Think of it as an investment in your happiness.