Restaurant News & Reviews

An ode to the Triangle food scene, or the 10 things our restaurant critic is thankful for

Steam rises off a bowl of Shoyu Ramen with braised pork belly, bok choy and a soy-marinated ajisu egg in a fragrant umami-rich broth at Noodle Boulevard in Cary.
Steam rises off a bowl of Shoyu Ramen with braised pork belly, bok choy and a soy-marinated ajisu egg in a fragrant umami-rich broth at Noodle Boulevard in Cary. jleonard@newsobserver.com

As we gather around the turkey this Thanksgiving, many will express their gratitude for family and friends. You can count me among their number.

But as a foodie, I can think of a few more things that I’m thankful for. OK, a lot more. This is the Triangle, after all, a region with a burgeoning food scene that is the envy of more than a few larger metropolitan areas.

The local culinary harvest has gotten even more bountiful in recent years, as a bumper crop of chefs – including a number of rising stars who previously trained and worked in those big cities – have chosen to ply their trade in our neck of the woods.

The newcomers join a lineup that already boasts an impressive array of talents, from James Beard Award-winning chefs to self-taught cooks from all over the world. It all adds up to such a global cornucopia that I find it hard to stop naming the things I’m thankful for.

But I’ll try. How about I limit my list to a few favorites? I’ll stick to categories that, because they’ve improved so dramatically, I’m especially grateful for.

But don’t let me interrupt your own Thanksgiving feast. Feel free to go ahead and dig in before the turkey gets cold.

Cocktails in the Golden Age

Here’s to the Golden Age of the cocktail – which, thanks to these bars and a growing number like them, is now. And when I raise my glass, it’s likely to be one of these.

ALLEY2615-FE-062217-JEL
The Alley Cocktail made up of Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon, Dry Vermouth, Cynar, Luxardo Maraschino and celery bitters at Alley Twenty Six in Durham. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

▪ Alley Twenty Six, Durham (alleytwentysix.com): The Alley cocktail, the bar’s signature Cynar-spiked riff on a dry Manhattan, garnished with a flambéed orange peel.

▪ Bar Virgile, Durham (barvirgile.com): Manhattan, as classically elegant as they come, served in a historically accurate Nick and Nora glass.

▪ C. Grace, Raleigh (cgracebar.com): Negroni, the spirituous holy trinity of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth in equal parts.

▪ The Crunkleton, Chapel Hill (thecrunkleton.com): Sazerac – a pastis-perfumed rendition of an ancient elixir (some say it was the first to be called a cocktail) that will transport you to its origins in New Orleans.

▪ Fox Liquor Bar, Raleigh (ac-restaurants.com/fox): Hemingway Daiquiri, a maraschino- and grapefruit-tinged take on the rum-and-lime drink said to have been favored by Papa himself at the La Floridita bar in Havana.

Bread worth the dough

With Raleigh newcomers Boulted Bread (boultedbread.com) and Yellow Dog Bread Company (yellowdogbread.com) joining a lineup of established artisanal bakers that includes Gugulhupf in Durham (guglhupf.com), Weaver Street Market in Carrboro (weaverstreetmarket.coop) and La Farm in Cary (three locations now! lafarmbakery.com), a first-rate artisanal loaf is just minutes away, wherever you happen to find yourself in the Triangle.

LAKEWOOD14-FE-100617-JEL
Start with a sampling of Phoebe Lawless’s celebrated baking skills at The Lakewood in Durham. Her sampler of house-baked breads – recently, crusty City Wheat, classic mini-baguette and a delightful cornmeal riff on Sally Lunn buns, served with kimchi butter – is worth every penny. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Further leavening the mix are a small but growing number of restaurants that are elevating bread to a level that earns its own listing on the menu. Unlike the gratis bread service that was once almost obligatory in restaurants, these house-baked breads will set you back a few bucks. Once you’ve had the warm malted wheat rolls at Crawford & Son (crawfordandsonrestaurant.com) in downtown Raleigh, or the bread sampler at The Lakewood (thelakewooddurham.com) in Durham, I think you’ll agree they’re well worth the dough.

So much pizza

I like New York-style pizzas as much as the next person, and I’ve been known to indulge in an occasional slice or two of a Chicago deep-dish pie. But the pizza I’m most thankful for is the thin, blistery-crusted pizza known as Neapolitan style. Premium-quality toppings are essential, but they must never be allowed to upstage the crust that is the undisputed star of these 12-inch pies, which are baked in a furiously hot wood oven in about 90 seconds.

Just a few years ago, this platonic ideal of a pizza was nowhere to be found hereabouts. Now, thanks to several talented practitioners of the pizzaiolo’s art, there are worthy options scattered across the Triangle. Here are a few of my favorites.

▪ Capp’s Pizzeria, Chapel Hill (cappspizzeria.com): The white clam pie is worth planning a visit on a Friday, the only day it’s offered. Other times, I’m happy to pig out on a Porklove (house-made fennel sausage, natural casing pepperoni).

▪ Napoli, Carrboro (napolicarrboro.com): No need for Twitter to track down this food truck, which is parked every night but Monday across from Carr Mill Mall. My go-to pie is the Funghi, which features meaty crescents of portobello cap pinwheeled across a parsley-spangled base of crushed San Marzano tomatoes and fior di latte mozzarella.

▪ Pizzeria Faulisi, Cary (pizzeriafaulisi.com): The Red White and Blue – sour cherries, blue cheese and chiles on a fresh mozzarella base – now that’s what I call patriotic.

▪ Treforni, Durham (treforni.com): I’ll gladly splurge on the Margherita D.O.P., which is made with real-deal mozzarella di bufala for a $2 upcharge over the standard Margherita.

TREFORNI2-FE-060617-JEL
Treforni’s Margherita is made up of tomato sauce, mozzarella, pecorino romano and basil. The Durham pizzeria specializes in Neapolitan pizza. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Seafood gets elevated

I grew up happily eating Calabash-style seafood platters, where everything but the slaw was cornmeal-breaded and deep-fried. But I confess that one of my most fervent, long-held wishes has been for a more diverse seafood offering. In just the past few months, that wish has been granted in spades.

STROCHS9-FE-111017-JEL
Raw 1/2 dozen oysters are served with cocktail sauce, pickled banana peppers, lemon, fried saltines and mignonette at St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar in downtown Raleigh. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

At St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar (strochraleigh.com) in downtown Raleigh, I can afford to slurp all the raw oysters I want – and we’re talking prime oysters, expertly shucked – for a buck apiece during oyster happy hour, every night from 5 to 6 p.m., and all night Tuesdays. I can also tuck into some colossal Cajun-style BBQ shrimp, or a plate of fried catfish with dirty rice and collard chow chow.

Also in Raleigh, The Cortez Seafood + Cocktail (cortezraleigh.com) doubles down on oyster happy hour, offering them for a dollar a pop from 5 to 7 p.m. The eclectic seafood offering also includes a serrano-spiked lobster roll that, while not strictly authentic, is the best I’ve had this side of New England.

In the so-new-I-haven’t-yet-eaten-there category, the whole-roasted N.C. black bass at Postal Fish Company (facebook.com/PostalFishCompany) in Pittsboro looks promising. All I need to know about Saint James Seafood Restaurant (saintjamesseafood.com) in Durham is that it’s another venture by Mateo and Vin Rouge owner/chef Matt Kelly, and my mouth is watering at the prospect.

Meal-in-a-bowl soups

Others may swear by chicken soup, but my go-to cold cure has long been a big, steaming bowl of pho. The Triangle is blessed with nearly two dozen places where you can score a bowl of the classic Vietnamese noodle soup. Pho Far East (nando.com/phofar) in North Raleigh has long been a favorite, but Chapel Hill newcomer Queen of Pho (queenofpho.com) gives them a run for their money – and serves a mean banh mi to boot.

I’ve also found spicy seafood soups – Korean champong at Golden Pig (facebook.com/goldenpigcary), say, or Mexican 7 Mares at Esmeralda Grill (esmeraldagrill.com) – to have delightful sinus-clearing properties. The fact that both restaurants are in Cary, just minutes from my home, is a bonus.

I’m fortunate to live just a stone’s throw away from a first-rate bowl of ramen, too, at Noodle Boulevard in Cary (noodleblvd.com). I’m partial to the shoyu ramen, with braised pork belly, bok choy and a soy-marinated ajisu egg in a fragrant umami-rich broth.

SO.CA5.FE-091417-JEL
Colombian Remolachas Rellenas made up of braised beets stuffed with a colorful hash of chopped hardboiled local egg, capers and cilantro stand out like jewels on the slate plates they are served upon at so.ca. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Bring on the veggies

Thanks in large measure to the farm-to-fork movement and the growing popularity of the vegetarian lifestyle, many chefs have been inspired to take a fresh look at the place of vegetables on the menu. As a result, vegetarian dishes – entrees as well as side dishes – are frequently as tempting as the non-vegetarian fare. I have no plans to give up meat, but I’m happy to reap the windfall at these restaurants.

▪ Brewery Bhavana, Raleigh (brewerybhavana.com): Stir-fried Chinese broccoli (gai lan), edamame and ginger dumplings, vegetable curry puffs.

▪ The Fiction Kitchen, Raleigh (thefictionkitchen.com): Tinga tacos, farmer’s market plate, succotash farro risotto.

▪ Pizzeria Mercato, Carrboro (pizzeriamercatonc.com): Any of the half-dozen or more offerings under the Verdure heading, a seasonally evolving list that might include anything from bourbon-glazed carrots to ricotta gnocchi with fava beans, pea greens and feta.

▪ so.ca, Raleigh (socaraleigh.com): Jamaican sweet potato bisque, remolachas rellenas (braised beets stuffed with hard-boiled local egg, capers and cilantro), churrasco-style grilled cauliflower steak.

▪ Standard Foods, Raleigh (standard-foods.com): Mushroom fritti, roasted turnips and stewed greens, spoonbread with cheddar cheese and hot honey.

RAL_ COCKADOODLEMOO3-FE-042517-JEL
Cockadoodlemoo food truck turns out some seriously addictive mac and cheese - first smoked, then cut into wedges and deep-fried, trapping all that gooey goodness in a lightly crisp shell. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Food trucks keep on rolling

Who would not be thankful to have a job where an increased workload means getting an assignment to review food trucks? In the two years since first getting that assignment, I’ve tracked down more than two dozen trucks and explored a world of flavors, from gourmet hot dogs to Korean barbecue. Here are a few of the most memorable.

▪ Adobo Joe (nando.com/adobo): Pork adobo, lumpia (Filipino spring rolls), pancit bihon noodles.

▪ Belgian Waffle Crafters (belgianwafflecrafters.com): The Bouc waffle, a sweet-and-savory treat with goat cheese, apples, walnuts, honey and thyme.

▪ Chirba Chirba (chirbachirba.com): Juicy Buns, fried Bayside Chive dumplings, Chinese sweet sausage.

▪ Cocka-Doodle-Moo (cockadoodlemootruck.com): The Raven (house-smoked brisket with apple-horseradish slaw on ciabatta), smoked mac and cheese.

▪ Soomsoom Pita Pockets (soomsoompitapockets.com): Chicken shawarma pita, beef short rib ragu pita, hummus.

More scoops of ice cream

I don’t trust myself to buy ice cream at the grocery store. If I do, I know that its siren call will lure me to the kitchen repeatedly, until I’ve eaten it all – usually in less than 24 hours.

All the more reason to be thankful for these ice cream shops, where I can indulge in (relatively) reasonable portions.

▪ Andia’s Homemade Ice Cream, Cary (andiasicecream.com): Baklava sundae: two scoops of homemade baklava ice cream, topped with honey, hot chocolate, whipped cream and a piece of baklava.

▪ Goodberry’s, multiple locations (goodberrys.com). Mini Concrete, vanilla with Heath Bar mixed in. Every time I order the Mini instead of a larger size, I pat myself on the back.

▪ The Parlour, Durham (theparlour.co): Two scoops, one of which has to be salted butter caramel. The other, depending on what’s available, could be anything from Vietnamese coffee to apple butter.

A toast to the people

I’d also like to offer a Thanksgiving toast to all the people who make the Triangle such an exciting place to be a foodie: farmers and food artisans, restaurateurs and managers, chefs and line cooks, wait staff and dishwashers. Naturally, I’m raising a glass of locally brewed beer.

My wife

Finally, I’m thankful for my No. 1 dining companion, who has faithfully accompanied me to all of these restaurants and food experiences – even when I know she might prefer to stay home after a long day of teaching fourth-graders – for nearly 20 years now. I know I can count on her to jokingly tell me, “I’ll have the lobster” at the beginning of every meal – and then cheerfully order the dish that I want her to order so I can sample it.

The food and service may at times only be worthy of two stars, but the company always rates a solid five.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

  Comments