100-106 Jerusalem Drive, Morrisville
Last review: 2000 (* * * out of 4)
New rating:* * out of 5
When I reviewed Babymoon Cafe a few months after the restaurant opened, I was charmed by the casually romantic atmosphere of the place. I was also impressed by owner/chef Joseph Leli’s contemporary Italian menu, an ambitious offering that included the likes of penne alla Mino (Leli’s prosciutto-punctuated riff on a Bolognese theme) and strawberries blanketed in a moscato-laced zabaglione. New York-style pizzas (Leli named Babymoon Cafe after the Long Island pizzeria where he cut his culinary teeth) weren’t on the dinner menu, but regulars knew to ask for them. In Morrisville, which at the time had few upscale restaurant options, Babymoon was the brightest light in the nightlife sky.
What a difference a few years makes. Leli sold the restaurant a few years ago, and now owns Leli’s Diner in Wake Forest. In his absence, while Morrisville’s dining landscape has rapidly expanded to embrace an ever-wider range of cuisines, Babymoon Cafe has retreated to the safe familiarity of a mostly Italian-American menu.
It would be safe, that is, if the execution weren’t so hit-or-miss. A recent visit got off to a less-than-reassuring start with chewy fried calamari. The kitchen partially redeemed itself with a solid rendition of mussels marinara and an entree of grilled salmon over risotto. But it lost points with a not-so-special nightly special of shrimp over linguine in pesto cream.
But the setting is as charming as ever, and you can still count on them for a decent pizza.
2109-110 Avent Ferry Road, Raleigh
Last review: 1996 (* * * out of 4)
New rating:* * * 1/2 out of 5
You might say Dalat and I go way back. Even before I began reviewing restaurants 20 years ago, I was a regular customer. Whenever the urge for Vietnamese food hit, I’d head to Dalat for a fix of shrimp- and pork-filled summer rolls (goi cuon), followed by vermicelli with Vietnamese spring rolls and barbecued pork.
Naturally, Dalat was one of the first restaurants I reviewed (and, not surprisingly, I really liked the place). Reliable execution and reasonable prices have kept the restaurant on my short list of go-to places when I’m dining “off duty” (translation: on my own dime). Over the years, the menu has expanded to include pho, banh mi and other Vietnamese classics. Fish in caramel sauce, served furiously boiling in an earthenware baking dish, became another favorite of mine.
A few years ago, I began to notice that the place was looking decidedly timeworn. The food was still as good as ever, mind you, and the service remained fast and friendly (full disclosure: owner Tao Le knows who I am). But the dining room’s increasingly dowdy look caused me to fear that my old friend Dalat was beginning to let herself go.
I was delighted, then, when I stopped in a few weeks ago and discovered that Dalat had gotten a makeover with highlights including lots of potted tropical plants, bamboo poles, and a fetching display of Vietnamese stringed instruments on one wall. It put me in such a festive mood I splurged on red snapper in a red coconut curry – a thoroughly rewarding dish, proving that even an old friend can surprise you from time to time.
Tir na nOg
218 S. Blount St., Raleigh
Last review: 1998 (* * out of 4)
New rating:* * * 1/2 out of 5
Opened in 1997, Tir na nOg lays claim to the title of “Raleigh’s original Irish pub.” The genre has grown to include half a dozen pubs in Raleigh, by my count, and another nine scattered about the Triangle.
At some point in the past couple of years, Tir na nOg came up with another way to distinguish itself from the competition. While other Irish pubs are offering more and more contemporary creations – presumably in an effort to prove that they’re keeping up with the times – Tir na nOg’s kitchen has opted to take a nostalgic look back at the past.
We’re talking beef Wellington, a dish so labor-intensive it’s practically impossible to find in a restaurant nowadays. Tir na nOg’s rendition does the old-school classic dish justice with a generous cut of beef tenderloin (cooked precisely medium-rare as ordered recently) and mushroom duxelles encased in puff pastry, and served with a stout-and-onion gravy.
Granted, the Wellington is the most rarefied example on the menu, but it serves up dramatic evidence of a kitchen that has raised its game across the board. Pub classics, from Scotch egg to blueberry bread pudding, are exemplary. Fish and chips (made with wild-caught Alaskan cod, according to the menu), give Doherty’s in Cary (the local gold standard, in my book) a run for its money.
That’s not to say that Tir na nOg has turned into a culinary museum. Mixed in among the sausage rolls, bangers and mash, and full Irish breakfast (served all day), you’ll find healthy alternatives including hummus, spicy black bean burger and wild-caught salmon.
Happily, one thing hasn’t changed. They still know how to pull a proper pint of Guinness.
6401 Falls of Neuse Road, Raleigh
Last review: 2002 (* * 1/2 out of 4)
New rating:* * * 1/2 out of 5
Winston’s Grille got a major makeover several years ago, and the dining room – a large, casually elegant space with an open kitchen – bears little resemblance to the one that greeted the restaurant’s first customers back in 1986. The menu has evolved over the years, too, picking up signs of the times from Sriracha-sauced Jam Jam shrimp to an entire gluten-free menu.
Still, when I think of Winston’s, it’s traditional American fare that comes to mind. And that’s how I planned to order the last time I dined there. Fortunately, my daughter – who, fittingly, was born the year Winston’s opened – kept me honest by nudging things in a bit more adventurous direction.
For starters, we shared the calamari, which came with a generation-spanning trio of starters: classic marinara, brash sweet-and-spicy Thai, and – striking a happy medium between the extremes – cucumber dill. For her entree, my daughter chose a Southern-accented riff on pork loin served with creamy grits and collard greens that had clearly been cooked in house. I couldn’t resist the prime rib, which has become something of a Winston’s signature. Neither dish disappointed.
The dessert selection was presented on a doily-lined tray – an old-school presentation rarely seen nowadays, and one of many little touches that have contributed to Winston’s longstanding reputation for excellent service. Tempting as the pastries were, my daughter and I opted to share a double-scoop serving of homemade ice cream, served in a waffle bowl. She got a scoop of Almond Joy, while I passed up such newfangled flavors in favor of good old butter pecan.