When Standard Foods opened last fall in Person Street Plaza after more than a year of tantalizing delays, the level of pent-up anticipation among local foodies was extraordinarily high. You might even say they were doubly excited over the prospects of a restaurant with a local superstar chef in the kitchen and a boutique grocery with a whole animal butcher and shelves laden with local produce, both under one roof.
Compounding the excitement were a couple of burning questions. Could Scott Crawford, a three-time James Beard Foundation semi-finalist for Best Chef: Southeast, translate the grocery’s wares (supplemented by the harvest from Raleigh City Farm, located directly behind the restaurant, and by products of other mostly North Carolina farmers, fishermen and artisans) to a menu billed as being inspired by “obsessive sourcing”? Could Crawford, a classically trained chef who has left a trail of five-star resort hotels in his wake over a 20-plus-year career, transition smoothly to Standard Foods’ decidedly more casual style?
The TL;DR version: He most certainly can. And he does so in a style that, with apologies to the long-running MTV series, might be called “Scott Crawford Unplugged.”
The details: Crawford left Herons, the restaurant in the posh Umstead Hotel in Cary where he was executive chef, to open Standard Foods in partnership with developer John Holmes – in large measure because he wanted to work in a restaurant that people could afford to frequent more often than on a special-occasion basis. And he wanted to accomplish this feat without sacrificing quality.
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By applying his considerable talent and experience to a seasonally evolving menu that emphasizes full utilization (“not wasting food is a big part of what we’re about”), the chef turns out dishes that won’t disappoint his many fans from Herons. He does this at prices (most snacks and small plates in the $8-$12 range, entrees in the mid-$20s) matched to Standard Foods’ relaxed neighborhood-restaurant atmosphere, a rustic-modern pastiche of thick-sawn burnished wood tables (some of them communal), concrete floors, decorative knotty pine “rafters” and an open kitchen.
Plate presentations echo that casual style, with frequent thoughtful touches serving as reminders that food doesn’t have to be extravagant to be special. Deviled eggs, humble staple of picnics and potlucks, are elevated with a dab of ham hock rillette tucked between yolk and white, and a garnish of chicken skin cracklings. At the other end of the meal, smoked cocoa nib panna cotta is served in a glass tumbler so you can see the layers of chocolate mousse, panna cotta, crumbled buckwheat speculoos cookies and snowcap peaks of meringue in all their silky, smoky, chocolatey, crunchy glory. A French press pot of coffee is delivered with an hourglass timer.
From start to finish, virtually every dish is as delightful to look at as it is to eat, in a way that manages to be fun without being fussy. Raw Cedar Island oysters might be showcased in a bowl of Vichyssoise (the quintessence of inexpensive elegance), its surface spangled with chopped chives, fennel fronds and finely diced house-cured bacon. Beef tartare arrives under a shower of blistery house-fried potato chips. “It’s often tenderloin,” says Crawford, “but not always. I just walk over to the grocery and ask Steven (Goff, the house butcher) what’s the freshest cut he’s got, and we use that.”
Goff also contributes a first-rate selection of charcuterie to the menu, served on butcher paper with the name of each item thoughtfully written beneath it. The changing selection typically includes chicken liver paté and Johnston County ham, and might be rounded out with anything from head cheese to beef bacon. You’ll also want to keep an eye peeled for the “Butcher Shop Special” paper-clipped to the menu – which recently turned out to be the Louisiana native’s killer rendition of fried boudin balls.
The lingering influence of chef Crawford’s fine dining past is evident in a number of dishes sauced at the table by the server. The practice is clearly justified in a presentation of pan-seared catfish served over a boiled peanut hash, where a ham nage is poured over the dish at the last-minute to minimize softening of the delicate crisp surface of the fish. But I’m not sure why a beef-bacon jus needs to be applied tableside to braised short rib of grass-fed beef. The beef is already spoon-tender, as is the sweet potato hash it’s served on (in a flame orange Le Creuset baking dish, another of the chef’s special touches). On the other hand, I suppose a little gratuitous showmanship doesn’t hurt anything, and it’s fun to watch.
Given the kitchen’s high overall level of execution, misfires can be jarring – tough, dry chicken breast, say, or crunchy undercooked red beans in an otherwise spot-on presentation of braised pork shoulder – but are mercifully infrequent. As a rule, I think you’re safe in ordering whatever strikes your fancy.
Very few wrinkles remain to be ironed out in the dining room, either. Fluorescent lighting spilling over from the grocery into the main dining area can be distracting in the evenings, until the store closes at 7 p.m. Crawford is working on a solution, but in the meantime I find the smaller lounge area (to the left as you enter) to be cozier. If there’s a full house (as is often the case) and you don’t have reservations, there’s always the slate and marble bar, where you can settle in with a craft cocktail, local beer or wine from a list curated by certified master sommelier Fred Dexheimer.
The wait staff are uniformly eager to please, in my experience, and commendably well-trained for a restaurant just over four months after opening. At the end of the meal, your server may bring your check tucked into a miniature composition book, along with an invitation to write your comments in the book. The check presentation is, you might say, the philosophical opposite of the bill that longtime Herons fans will remember being delivered in an elegant ostrich skin wallet. But, as the raves written on the ruled pages of the little book attest, a meal at Standard Foods is every bit as satisfying in its own way.
205 E. Franklin St., Raleigh; 919-307-4652
Atmosphere: rustic-modern, with a boutique grocery bonus
Noise level: moderate to high
Recommended: follow your whim (but don’t miss the deviled eggs, and don’t skip dessert)
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Reservations: recommended (accepted for dinner only)
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot and on 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.