From time to time, I return to restaurants I haven’t reviewed in a while. This time around, I go for seconds at a couple of landmark hotel restaurants in Chapel Hill, both of which have recently undergone extensive renovations.
Note: In December 2007, ratings changed from a 4-star scale to a 5-star scale.
Crossroads Chapel Hill
211 Pittsboro St., in the Carolina Inn, Chapel Hill
Last review: 2008 (4 stars)
New rating: 3.5 stars
In my 2008 review of Crossroads, I noted that the dining room decor had not noticeably changed in well over a decade. I went on to say that, of course, you wouldn’t expect major changes in a local institution whose stock in trade is tradition.
Well, color my face red. It’s hard to imagine a more complete makeover than the one that was recently completed at the restaurant in the venerable Carolina Inn. Even the name has changed. Formerly known as Carolina Crossroads, it’s now Crossroads Chapel Hill, signifying a widening embrace beyond the University of North Carolina community with which the name has been associated since the hotel opened in 1924.
The dining room is now where the bar used to be, and the bar is where the restaurant used to be. Sort of. Actually, the two spaces merge together now, so that the distinction between them is blurred. Gone are the skirted Chippendale chairs, the grandfather clock and the vintage oil paintings. In their place is a sleek contemporary space in fashionably muted shades of mushroom and cream. Tablecloths are gone, too, and woven metallic fiber placemats on bare wood tabletops now set a decidedly more casual feel. A marble fireplace, sepia architectural drawings of the Carolina Inn and framed Daily Tar Heel cartoons from decades past are subtle reminders of the restaurant’s history.
The menu has taken on a new flavor, too. Executive chef James Clark, who came on board in 2012, caters to 21st century tastes with a seasonally changing menu that covers all the bases, from an expanded selection of sharing options (including the obligatory charcuterie and cheese plates) to elevated re-imaginings of comfort food classics such as wild boar meatloaf and smoked cheddar mac and cheese with roasted pork belly. An impressive list of “Farm Partners” is printed on the menu as testament to the kitchen’s farm-to-fork bona fides.
A complimentary bowl of black pepper biscuits and a tableside drizzle of local honey got our meal off to a promising start on a Sunday night in early November. The meal that followed delivered on on that promise, with a couple of notable exceptions. “Seared” scallops were clean and fresh, but too thin to take on a proper sear without overcooking. It appeared that a single jumbo scallop had been sliced to make the three “scallops” that arrived on a slate platter with a smear of sunchoke puree – not a suitable portion, to say the least, for a $12 dish listed under the “Sharing Plates” heading.
But the fried oysters, paired with a country ham-leek reduction and artichoke relish, were first rate. So was the expertly seared filet of North Carolina drum, served over Carolina Gold rice and seasonal vegetables. The other entree, short rib pot roast, was a mixed bag of flavorful but dry beef and a soul-satisfying medley of roasted beets, Brussels sprouts and duck fat potatoes. Desserts – toffee and fig bundt cake and pistachio pie (think pecan pie, but with pistachios) – ended the meal on a perfect pitch high note.
Whether you’ll like Crossroads’ new look might well depend on how far back your memories of the old place go. But, given a little time to iron out the kitchen’s performance wrinkles (service could stand a pressing, too), the new version has the potential to start creating some fond memories of its own.
1505 E. Franklin St., in the Siena Hotel, Chapel Hill
Last review: 2000 (4 stars out of 4)
New rating: 4.5 stars
Ever since its opening in 1987, the name of Il Palio, the restaurant in the Siena Hotel, has been synonymous with Italian fine dining in an elegant setting. Fluted columns, still life paintings in ornate gilded frames, fresh flowers on tables draped in crisp white linens and polished service created a formal Old World mood where jackets for gentlemen, while not strictly required, seemed the proper thing to wear.
All that changed in a big way in September, when Il Palio reopened after major renovations. The new look is unapologetically modern with a midcentury accent, from the marble cheese display in front of the window into an open kitchen to the globe pendant lights suspended over deep curved banquettes upholstered in geometric patterns. New lighted wine display cabinets near the entrance offer convincing evidence that Il Palio’s commitment to a first-rate selection of Italian wines is stronger than ever.
The kitchen got a makeover, too – notably the installation of a wood-burning grill that is the inspiration for much of executive chef Teddy Diggs’ new, re-imagined menu. To showcase the versatility of his new toy, Diggs added two entirely new categories to the menu.
The first, labeled “Wood Grilled Crostini,” offers a dozen or so variations on the theme, from salt cod baccala to beefsteak drippings and sea salt – the best-seller, according to our waiter, and deservedly so. He also told us that, even before the new oven arrived, the chef was hard at work preserving local tomatoes for the tomato conserva and pecorino crostini.
The other category, “Alla Bistecchiera,” offers an assortment of wood-grilled steaks, chops and seafood. Judging by the whole grilled sea bass I ordered with an a la carte side of wood-grilled broccoli (and, OK, the lamb chops I kept shamelessly begging “just one more taste” of from my wife), it’s safe to say that the chef knows his way around a wood-fired grill.
Diggs, a 2004 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who worked in Washington, D.C., and Martha’s Vineyard before coming to Chapel Hill last year, is also clearly up to the task of keeping longtime loyal fans happy. The familiar categories – Antipasti, Prime e Pasta, and Secondi – are still well-represented with an offering that runs the gamut from deceptively simple braised pork and veal meatballs to the hay-smoked gnocchi that garnered praise for the chef during his tenure in D.C.
Attention to detail is evident at every turn: in the house-made ricotta that accompanies the meatballs in a bright pomodoro sauce; in duck egg carbonara with house-made pancetta and spaghetti con curva, a pasta whose rough texture is ideally suited to hold the sauce; and in actual bits of shaved truffle in the black truffle-porcini butter that dresses a dish of hand-cut taglierini.
Only a slightly overcooked chocolate soufflé missed the mark on a recent Saturday night. Given the otherwise near-flawless experience – service remains top-notch, if somewhat more relaxed than in the past – I think it’s safe to say that Il Palio remains one of the area’s premier fine dining destinations. And now you won’t feel out of place if you’re not wearing a jacket.
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.