Restaurant News & Reviews

Review: The Cortez isn’t an ordinary seafood restaurant. It surprises and delights at every turn.

The Clam Chowder at Cortez is made up of house smoked chowder with littleneck clams. The Raleigh restaurant focuses on seafood with Mexican influences.
The Clam Chowder at Cortez is made up of house smoked chowder with littleneck clams. The Raleigh restaurant focuses on seafood with Mexican influences. jleonard@newsobserver.com

For more than a decade, the Ibarra family has been raising the bar for Mexican restaurants in the Triangle, and opening our eyes to the cuisine’s potential to encompass much more than tacos and refried beans.

In 2005, they opened Jibarra, which emphatically demonstrated that “gourmet” and “Mexican” are not mutually exclusive terms. A few years later came Jose and Sons – named for family patriarch Jose Ibarra and his three sons – with a menu that combines the culinary heritage of two generations in a fusion of Mexican and Southern cuisines.

So when two of the sons, Charlie and Hector Ibarra, announced that they were teaming up with Oscar Diaz (executive chef at Jose and Sons, and Jibarra before that) to open a seafood restaurant, you could bet on two things: It would not be an ordinary seafood restaurant, and it would probably be very good.

You’d win both of those bets. To say that The Cortez Seafood + Cocktail, which opened in June on Glenwood South, is a seafood restaurant with a Mexican accent doesn’t do justice to an offering that runs the gamut from serrano-spiked lobster roll to torched salmon banh mi. And those are just a couple of sandwiches that might pop up on a menu that changes frequently based on the catch and the chef’s deep well of inspiration.

In fact, about the only constant in an offering that surprises and delights at every turn is that the seafood – much of it harvested from North Carolina waters – is impeccably fresh and expertly prepared.

And by “expertly prepared,” I mean everything from the shucking of oysters (three varieties are typically offered raw, served with all the usual garnishes, plus – one of those “surprises at every turn” – a miniature bottle of hot sauce) to the precise sear of N.C. bigeye tuna in a pitch-perfect presentation with a medley of sautéed potatoes, green beans and oyster mushrooms, glazed with sesame oil and garnished with pea shoots.

The tuna is one of just a handful of entree possibilities on a menu that leans decidedly to small plates. Others might include anything from seared Outer Banks scallops to a hipster riff on Salisbury steak featuring house-ground beef, mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy.

If raw oysters aren’t your thing, consider taking the menu’s friendly suggestion and “Get ’Em Baked.” You’ll be rewarded with chef Diaz’s excellent South-of-the-Border riff on the Rockefeller theme: half a dozen oysters on the half shell, splashed with a few drops of mescal, and baked under a topping of creamed greens, cured chorizo and parmesan bread crumbs.

Or you might dip a toe into the waters of “The Raw-Ish” section of the menu. There you’ll likely find a couple of ceviche variations – yellowtail spangled with basil and cilantro, or Tiger Ceviche: bigeye tuna in a citrusy, moderately spicy Peruvian leche de tigre marinade, garnished with sea asparagus and sliced radishes, with crunchy tostadas on the side.

What’s that, you say you’ve never heard of sea asparagus? Neither had I until Charlie Ibarra told me that’s the name of the seaweed which, I now know, has an appearance and texture reminiscent of its namesake vegetable and a pleasant briny taste with a whiff of iodine.

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The Tiger Style Ceviche is made up of NC tuna, red onion, toasted Carolina corn nuts , farmer’s market aji, onion ash and cold seafood Leche De Tigre broth at The Cortez in Raleigh. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

A more familiar seaweed – nori, best known as the sushi roll wrapper – flavors the butter that’s served with an order of grilled Yellow Dog bread and gives an umami boost to a medley of sautéed mushrooms.

You’ll find both under the “Sharable” heading, along with the likes of gambas al ajillo (shell-on shrimp sautéed in garlic butter, lemon and thyme oil) and chowder of Cortez, which serves up clams in their shell (usually Middleneck) in a creamy broth riddled with shards of bacon, new potatoes, carrots and punctuated with serrano peppers. A garnishing flotsam of oyster crackers and sea asparagus puts the finishing touch on this inspired mash-up of old school and new school chowders. A lavish take on lobster mac and cheese is so popular that it has earned a semi-permanent spot on the menu.

You can count on a “Farmer’s Market” offering, too, though that one changes frequently with the local harvest. The soulful medley of field peas, butterbeans and pink lady peas – punctuated with country ham and topped with a poached egg – that I enjoyed just a few weeks ago is, sadly, no longer in the offing. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that whatever the chef gleans in the market and cooks up won’t let you down.

Located at the address formerly occupied by Cafe Helios, The Cortez is a compact space with an understated contemporary decor highlighted by tropical plants on the windowsills and banquette upholstery as blue as the Sea of Cortez on a sunny day. Behind the bar (where tiki drinks served with a pink flamingo swizzle stick and a green “bamboo” straw are a specialty), a sign proclaims that The Cortez is “YOUR (sea)WEED SPOT SINCE 2017. The wording is a sly wink at the restaurant’s location on Glenwood South, a noted late night destination.

But the underlying message is backed up by the menu’s savory evidence that the nori in our maki rolls and the kombu in our ramen bowls are not the only seaweeds that deserve a place in our diets. Leave it to the Ibarras to expand our very notion of seafood to include what experts believe is destined to become a worldwide staple.

413 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh

919-342-8227

cortezraleigh.com

Cuisine: seafood (contemporary)

Rating:

Prices: $$$

Atmosphere: casual, contemporary, understated

Noise level: moderate to high

Service: welcoming and well-trained

Recommended: menu changes frequently; feel free to dive in wherever you like

Open: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday (Sunday brunch coming soon)

Reservations: recommended

Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in the lot behind the building.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

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