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Dining Review: A cafe and a cocktail bar. The beauty of Hummingbird is it's difficult to pin down.

The Po'boy at Hummingbird is a choice between cornmeal fried oyster or shrimp with lettuce, tomato, Duke's mayo and hot sauce served on Leidenheimer french bread.
The Po'boy at Hummingbird is a choice between cornmeal fried oyster or shrimp with lettuce, tomato, Duke's mayo and hot sauce served on Leidenheimer french bread. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Hummingbird’s dining room isn’t much bigger than its namesake — just 15 seats, plus a dozen at the bar — so the first time my wife and I ate there, I figured we’d beat the prime time crowd by arriving right when the kitchen opened at 5 p.m.

As luck would have it, we stumbled into a Saturday special crawfish boil that had been going on all afternoon — and coincided with the opening of the restaurant’s patio for the season. I kicked myself for not following my own advice and checking social media in advance for special events. Still, after standing around for several minutes before corralling a server who informed us we could sit wherever we liked (note to management: a “Please Seat Yourself” sign would be welcome), we managed by some miracle to snag a two-top.

Then we waited several more minutes before a waiter appeared. This gave us time to take in our surroundings: an eclectic collection of portrait paintings on a dark charcoal gray wall, gilt-framed mirrors on the other walls painted to give a timeworn peeled-paint effect, soft lighting, exposed ductwork and electric circuitry — all conspiring to create a mood that’s at once romantic and urban-industrial chic.

But clearly, the crawfish boil — not to mention the patio opening, which tripled the number of seats at the restaurant — had rocked the staff back on its heels.

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The Petal Guru, an elegant riff on a martini made with equal parts Conniption gin and dry vermouth tinged a pale, translucent pink with a few drops of rosewater and garnished with a rose petal. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

You might say “we waited” became a recurring theme for the evening. Our cocktails (a recurring floral motif distinguishes Hummingbird’s list from the crowd) were slow in coming. But all was forgiven as I sipped my Petal Guru, an elegant riff on a martini made with equal parts Conniption gin and dry vermouth tinged a pale, translucent pink with a few drops of rosewater and garnished with a rose petal.

The pace picked up as the meal wore on, and it became evident that the kitchen was firing on all cylinders as it cranked out round after round of small plates. Hummingbird doesn’t serve entrees, billing itself as a cafe by day, small-plates-and-cocktails place by night. Charbroiled oysters, spangled with chopped parsley and crushed red pepper in a splash of lemon, butter and garlic, were on point.

So was a chicory and arugula salad with roasted beets and smoked almonds in a lush, creamy lemon cashew dressing. And an addictive shrimp dip with house-made potato chips. And fat, juicy chicken wings roasted with a garam masala spice rub. By the time we we were halfway through dessert — sugar-dusted ricotta fritters, nestled on a cloud of mascarpone cream — I decided to make allowances for the service.

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The sugar-dusted ricotta fritters at Hummingbird are nestled on a cloud of mascarpone. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

That decision was vindicated on our second visit. We ate at the bar, and — notwithstanding another full house — service was attentive and pacing measured. Watching an obviously experienced bartender turn out a colorful assortment of cocktails was a bonus. As we perched on retro chrome barstools with egg yolk yellow vinyl upholstery at a marble top bar, and took in the soft hues of an aqua tile backbar and wall-spanning hummingbird mural, it struck me that the vibe was utterly different from the dining room where we’d sat last time.

The one common thread woven throughout both visits was the quality of the food. Pickled shrimp with dill aioli, pickled red onions and fennel, artfully arranged on triangles of Boulted rye bread, were first-rate. So were lamb meatballs, a charred romaine salad and a rich, silk-smooth apple brandy chicken liver paté, served under a sparkling veneer of red wine gelée in a miniature mason jar.

The only misfire — buttermilk fried quail that could have been crisper — I chalked up as an anomaly, given the number of raves about the dish on social media, and my own experience of the kitchen’s track record.

My third visit to Hummingbird was yet again utterly different from the first two. This time, I came for lunch and dined solo on the patio, where the view is mostly of the parking lot surrounding Dock 1053, a complex that was originally an A&P grocery distribution center, and now is home to a mix of retail, office and warehouse spaces.

The late April weather was delightfully balmy, though, and the food once again delivered big time. I had the best po’ boy I’ve had in recent memory, crammed with so many cornmeal-breaded oysters and shrimp (the menu lists them as an either/or proposition, but the kitchen will honor a request for a half-and-half) that I wound up finishing it with a fork.

Oh, and I had a bloody Mary. And it was a Monday. Talk about decadent.

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Pair a Vanilla Latte with a Butterscotch Sticky Bun for breakfast at Hummingbird in Raleigh. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Then it got even more decadent. Since the breakfast menu was still in effect (it runs from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., overlapping the 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. lunch service), I treated myself to the butterscotch sticky bun I’d heard so much about. What the menu doesn’t tell you is that that sinfully rich butterscotch sauce is studded with more pecans than your average slice of pecan pie.

Open since last November, Hummingbird is the brain child of Coleen Speaks, who had already earned a dedicated following as owner/chef of PoshNosh Catering. A native of St. Louis, Speaks lived in New Orleans, where she worked for Emeril Lagasse’s NOLA before moving to Raleigh in 2000. She added Bloomsbury Bistro, Bistro 607 and Enoteca Vin to her resume before setting out on her own. Next to Hummingbird is her event space, Whitaker & Atlantic.

Speaks has just rolled out a new menu for spring with new options, including her takes on a couple of Italian classics (bagna cauda, cacio e pepe) and a handful of smoky temptations (oysters, chicken wings, pimento cheese). Most of the dishes I enjoyed are still available, though some have been tweaked for the season. There are some new cocktails as well.

Regardless of what you order, you can count on the food delivering the goods — though the overall experience can vary widely depending on the time of day and where you’re sitting. In short, it’s as difficult to pin Hummingbird the restaurant down to a single description as it is to catch a hummingbird in flight. And that’s the beauty of it.

Hummingbird

1053 E. Whitaker Mill Road, Suite 111, Raleigh

919-301-8900

hummingbirdraleigh.com

Cuisine: small plates

Rating: 3.5 stars

Prices: $$

Atmosphere: mashup of casually romantic and urban-industrial chic

Noise level: moderate to high

Service: still working out the kinks, improving

Recommended: pickled shrimp, charbroiled oysters, shrimp dip, wings, lamb meatballs, ricotta fritters, sticky bun

Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.

Reservations: accepted for parties of six or more

Other: full bar; get a sitter; good 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: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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