Any foodie who has lived in Raleigh for any length of time knows about Ashley Christensen. And no doubt has become a fan of at least one of her restaurants. Poole’s, the flagship restaurant that was key to her winning the 2014 James Beard award for Best Chef: Southeast, is a safe bet. Subsequent ventures, all strong best-in-class candidates – Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Chuck’s (gourmet burgers), Fox Liquor Bar, and Joule Coffee & Table – have also won loyal followings.
To say that expectations were high, then, when Christensen opened Death & Taxes in June, would be an understatement. The fact that the new restaurant promised to be in many ways her most ambitious yet raised those expectations into the stratosphere.
Four months after opening, Death & Taxes is already well on its way toward living up to its lofty promise. The accomplishment is all the more impressive given the challenging concept: a menu driven almost entirely by a wood-burning grill. And we’re not talking about your standard wood-burning grill here. This is a massive custom-built beast of structural steel and firebrick that wouldn’t look out of place in a medieval dungeon. Instead, it dominates one end of the open kitchen, burning seasoned post oak (selected expressly for its balanced, moderately smoky flavor) to turn out everything from oysters to dry-aged steaks to fire-roasted okra pods.
Rather than sorting the offering into the customary appetizer and entree sections, the menu opts for three categories based on source: “Of the Sea” (seafood), “Of the Land” (vegetables, though not strictly vegetarian) and “On the Land” (meats). Meant to encourage sharing, the system can at times be confusing as to just how much food you’ll be getting. Price is usually, but not always, a guide. The $12 chicken liver toast is clearly a small plate, and the $35 whole fish will serve two as an entree. But what about the $22 soft shell crab? Or the dry-aged steak, listed at $2.50 per ounce?
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When in doubt, ask your well-trained server. In the first few weeks after opening, he would have informed you that the steak – a porterhouse, say, or a bone-in Kansas City strip – was available only in a weight in the 40-ounce range. That works out to about a hundred bucks – not out of line with the going rate for dry-aged beef, but a non-starter for many.
Wisely, Christensen has since adjusted the cut. Steaks are now typically offered in the 22-28-ounce range – still a memorable steak, and ample for two to share. Warmed gently on a rack high above the flames before being grilled to order and properly rested, this is as close to steak perfection as you’re apt to find this side of Peter Luger in New York. And the waiters here are friendly.
But steaks are by no means the only attraction. The whole fish (anything from snapper to spadefish, invariably from Carolina waters) makes an equally memorable meal. And the roasted poussin is textbook, from its mahogany skin to its succulent flesh (don’t let the slight rosy tint scare you; it’s a byproduct of grill smoke, not a sign of undercooked poultry).
Beef marrow bones, spangled with fried capers and pickled shallots and served with rustic slices of grill-toasted bread, are a gratifying tweak on a classic. Roasted oysters with preserved lemon and chili butter are inspired.
“Ember-killed salad” translates to an uptown rendition of a humble dish that many Southerners will recognize as “kilt lettuce”: brassica tops and other seasonal greens, wilted at the table when your server pours a hot dressing of cider vinegar, crunchy bits of country ham and its rendered fat over the salad.
The whole crab salad (that’s “whole” as in lump, backfin and claw meat, not “in the shell”) turns out to be a surprise package wrapped in grill-charred greens. Unwrap it to reveal a colorful pastiche of sweet white crabmeat, buttery avocado and vibrant citrus sections.
The menu evolves with the local harvest around a core of staples. You can bet the oysters, whole fish and steak aren’t going anywhere, but you’ll have to wait until next summer for the likes of heirloom tomatoes and roasted okra.
Rest assured that, regardless of season, it’s nearly impossible to make a bad choice. Over the course of two meals in which I sampled widely across the menu, the only time the kitchen let me down was an order of “foraged and fought for” mushrooms that was overwhelmed by a too-vigorous finishing spritz of lemon juice.
I certainly don’t have any quibbles with any of the desserts I sampled, though I must say my favorite was a pickled muscadine grape hull tart with N.C. peanut butter that evoked fond childhood memories of peanut butter sandwiches. Refined for an adult palate, that is, and served up on an exemplary crust.
Nor can I fault a bar that expertly mixes cocktails whose names – Dearly Departed, Prophets & Loss – play on the restaurant’s name. Or a small but thoughtfully chosen wine list that celebrates small wineries, and is cellared in a converted bank vault downstairs.
The vault is a vestige of the bank that once made its home in the building, an elegant three-story structure built in the early 1900s and restored by Christensen and her partner, developer James Goodnight. The restaurant, whose marble tables and leather banquettes combine for a look that’s at once cosmopolitan and casual (albeit noisy, though Christensen is already taking steps to correct that), is on the ground floor. A private banquet space called Bridge Club is upstairs.
The restaurant’s name is a nod to the history of the building, which at one point was also the location of a funeral home. Benjamin Franklin, whose aphorism – “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” – is painted on the front doors, would no doubt have appreciated the wit. If he were alive today, he might even add a third certainty: When Ashley Christensen opens a restaurant, it’s sure to be a winner.
105 W. Hargett St., Raleigh; 919-242-0218
Cuisine: contemporary grill
Rating: ☆☆☆☆ 1/2
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: friendly and well-trained
Recommended: oysters, poussin, steak, muscadine hull tart
Open: Dinner nightly
Other: full bar; get a sitter; good vegetarian selection; parking on street and in parking decks on South Wilmington Street.
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.