I make it a rule not to let my mood affect my assessment of a restaurant, but the first time I dine at Cave 1912, I can tell it’s going to be a challenge. My inner Grinch has been threatening to break out all day, and I feel the snark level rise as I take in the surroundings: midcentury modern furniture, a turntable sitting on the poured concrete bar (no doubt just waiting to spin some vintage ABBA), man buns in the open kitchen at the back of the room.
Just what we need, I think. Another hipster hotspot.
A quick look at the menu confirms my suspicions. The streamlined offering lists 10 items, all lumped together under the heading of “Savory” with no distinction between small and large plates. Presumably, the dividing line is somewhere around the $12 house-made fettuccine. Descriptions of dishes are essentially just a list of ingredients with little or no hint as to how they were prepared. Here’s the description for swordfish: “Shunkyo radish, prosciutto, bitter orange, baby ginger, mole verde.”
My attitude softens a bit when a well-trained server is able to explain that the sashimi-grade fish is barely seared in a Japanese-inflected presentation. Then the food starts coming, and it isn’t long before my thoughts of stealing children’s presents start to fade.
The beet salad surprises and delights with a deconstructed “deviled egg,” the sous vide yolk transformed into creamy yellow clouds of foam tinged with mayo and Dijon mustard, and the whites into delicate shards scattered across the plate. This is the first of several signs that chef Michael Pryor learned a trick or two while working for Grant Achatz, a nationally acclaimed pioneer of molecular gastronomy. More recently, Pryor worked for several months at Herons in the Umstead Hotel.
The meat and cheese board needs no interpretation. Silky, herb-spangled disks of scallop boudin on housemade crackers are first-rate, as is beef tartare topped with a puff pastry “biscuit.” Lamb Chopper, a semi-firm sheep’s milk cheese, stands out among the trio of local and imported cheeses. But the consensus hit at the table is a robust housemade head cheese. The board (actually, it’s a stainless steel cafeteria-style tray – a playful touch of hipster irony that by now I’m finding thoroughly charming) is served in ample portion for sharing, with crusty house-baked bread.
The fettuccine turns out to be a smallish entree, but the supple noodles deliver big time flavor in a ragu that’s chunky with diced pork belly, oyster mushrooms, pearl onions and a sprinkle of chopped pistachios.
The biggest surprise of all, on a night filled with surprises, is a dish with the cryptic name of “Chestnut” and a description of “goat cheese, butternut squash, persimmon, shiitake mushrooms.” The name of the dish notwithstanding, chestnut puree makes an almost surreptitious appearance on the plate, tucked in beneath a layered terrine of butternut squash and the other listed ingredients. An earthy mound of black barley and a cluster of baby purple and orange carrots round out the most memorable vegetarian dish in recent memory.
“Dark Chocolate Bar: maple, peanuts, tonka bean ice cream” should have included the words “too hard to penetrate with the provided spoon.” It’s the only clunker in an otherwise first-rate meal – and, given that it’s the only dessert option other than a cheese board and a chocolate martini, it’s also evidence that desserts are the weak link in the chain here. But it doesn’t spoil a mood that by now borders on euphoric.
Nor does it discourage me from a return visit a few nights later. I’m rewarded right off the bat with a shrimp bisque, amped up with black garlic, fresh horseradish, two enormous head-on shrimp and a swirl of tarragon-infused oil, that lives up to the high expectations set by my first experience.
I try the swordfish this time around, and find that the number of boldly flavored ingredients in the dish comes perilously close to being overwrought. But seared Virginia scallops adroitly walk a tightrope of “parsnip, hazelnut, Anaheim peppers, blood orange.” (The parsnip chips, produced by the alchemy of dehydration followed by frying, would make a stellar standalone bar snack.)
Grilled strip steak (credit a pre-grilling sous vide for the buttery texture and even color) is a winner, too. Well-trimmed and sliced into two pieces weighing in at a total of a mere 6 ounces or so, it’s hardly a steakhouse cut. But it is a well-executed contemporary riff on the theme, served with roasted baby carrots, potato puree, king trumpet mushrooms and rainbow chard.
Owner Brian Wellman opened Cave 1912 in September in High Park Shopping Center, giving it a name inspired by the address and the deep, narrow strip mall space that reminded him of a cave. He reinforced that image with low lighting and a concrete veneer “stone” wall, and softened the look with Persian rugs and natural wood tables. Wellman hired Marco Rosa, a wine expert from Milan by way of New York, to run the front of the house and manage the beverage program.
Taking his cue from the restaurant’s name, Rosa is assembling an eclectic collection of reasonably priced wines that currently runs to over four dozen labels (including many available for retail sale), with 15 or so offered by the glass.
The wine list isn’t the only thing that’s evolving. Hours have expanded to included Sunday brunch, and Pryor recently introduced a bar menu that includes a Reuben, a burger and a pork belly sandwich. Given the chef’s reputation for making “everything but the cheeses” in house, that’s enough to make a critic’s heart grow three sizes.
1912 Bernard St., Raleigh; 919-977-3864
Atmosphere: casual, eclectic mix of midcentury modern furniture and Persian rugs
Noise level: moderate
Service: attentive and knowledgeable
Recommended: shrimp bisque, beet salad, meat and cheese board, chestnut, seared scallops
Open: dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Sunday
Reservations: recommended on weekends
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest 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.