When the families of Tom Allen and Joe Dunn get together at one of their homes for a cookout, it’s a given that Allen and Dunn will do the cooking. No doubt their conversation turns at some point to various grilling techniques.
But, unlike most backyard grill-meisters, these friends-turned-business-partners won’t be embroiled in the usual gas-versus-charcoal debate. They both graduated years ago to the kamado, an egg-shaped, lump charcoal-burning grill whose design is rooted in 4,000-year-old Japanese tradition. Considered by many aficionados to the be the Rolls-Royce of grills, the kamado’s highly efficient design yields extraordinarily fine temperature control, from a low-and-slow smoke to a blazing-hot sear.
Allen and Dunn are such avid fans of the kamado that in May they opened a restaurant to show off its capabilities. Billed as the first restaurant of its kind – anywhere – Kamado Grille features food cooked almost exclusively on its namesake grill. If you’re thinking about an order of fries to go with your kamado-grilled burger, think again. The kitchen doesn’t have a fryer.
Not that you’ll lack for alternatives. Smoked gouda mashed potatoes offer earthy, skin-on consolation. Baked beans, larded with Heritage Farms Cheshire pork bacon, are comfort on a plate. For a lighter – OK, healthier – option, look no further than the medley of grill-charred seasonal vegetables.
For that matter, while the burger – a tower of naturally raised Angus beef, pancetta, lettuce, basil-marinated tomato, caramelized onion, pepper jack and house “KG sauce” on a La Farm challah bun – may be the first thing that comes to mind at a restaurant inspired by backyard cookouts, it’s not the most impressive demonstration of the kamado’s exceptional capabilities. Maybe not even one of the top 10.
That list would include at least a couple of starters. Oysters Kamadofeller, for one: topped with spinach, andouille, garlic and smoked Gouda, grill-roasted on the half shell, and brought to you still sizzling on a cast iron plate. And juicy KG King Wings, so named because of their jumbo size. Unlike most wings, these aren’t separated into flats and drums, but left whole and cooked on skewers to keep them straight for even cooking. Get the Sriracha Buffalo sauce.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more convincing demonstration of the kamado’s finesse capabilities – or a better piece of fish – than the maple miso Scottish salmon on the entree list. Sustainably fished from the icy waters off the Faroe Islands, the salmon is cooked precisely to the point where the center begins to turn opaque, then brushed with a translucent glaze that complements the fish without upstaging it.
At the other end of the spectrum is the New York strip steak. On paper, it’s just 12 ounces of naturally raised beef, and a straightforward grilling method familiar to backyard barbecuers everywhere. It also happens to be the best steak I’ve had for under $30 in recent memory.
Then there’s a curious item called the “reverse seared pork bomb,” whose very name suggests that there’s some fancy cooking going on here. Inspired by a dish native to an obscure town in Germany, according to chef Eric Gephart, the dish features a pork shoulder filet that – if I understand correctly – is slow-smoked and then finished to order with a high-heat sear and a sweet bourbon glaze. Gephart says it’s the No. 1 seller, and it’s easy to understand why. Deeply smoky and fork-tender, the meat is so succulent on its own that next time I’ll try to order it without the glaze.
I say “try” because I’m not sure I’ll be successful using Kamado Grille’s iPad ordering system. The servers do a good job of explaining how to order food and drinks using the iPad on each table, and for the most part I found it easy to navigate the menus. The multiple “customize your order” options can be confusing, though. And, with limited server involvement to adjust the pacing to account for, say, a backed-up bar, you may find your appetizers arriving before your grilled bloody Marys (made with Tito’s vodka and liquefied kamado-grilled vegetables), even though you ordered the drinks first.
Promising as it is, the iPad system could stand a few tweaks. In the meantime, if you’d prefer a more traditional level of server involvement, they’re happy to accommodate.
Given the temperamental nature of cooking over live coals, it’s understandable that the kitchen needs a little fine tuning as well. Lamb lollipops could have been more tender when I tried them, and a ragout of wild mushrooms needed seasoning. My only quibble about the crab cakes is that they seem stingy given the $11.50 price.
The owners have done an impressive job of giving the long-vacant Lucky 32 building a complete makeover. The new look – a large, airy dining room with high ceilings and mostly glass walls, patio tables with wicker chairs, white china plates that look like paper plates, even a live black olive tree under a skylight – nails the backyard patio look.
Just inside the entrance is a small shop where you can buy the same Kamado Joe brand grills used in the restaurant (available in a range of sizes suitable for home use) and grill accessories. Buy one, and you can sign up for cooking classes offered on Saturday mornings at 10.
Tom Allen and Joe Dunn have also dropped hints about opening more locations. I told you these guys are avid fans.
832 Springfield Commons Drive, Raleigh; 919-803-3662
Atmosphere: open and airy with a backyard patio vibe
Noise level: moderate
Service: pleasant and attentive (though involvement somewhat reduced by iPad ordering system)
Recommended: oysters Kamadofeller, wings, salmon, New York strip steak, pork bomb
Open: Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.
Reservations: call-ahead priority seating
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
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.