Living

We're halfway through 2018. Here are the best reviewed restaurants of the year so far.

The USS Nimitz towers above the table with its three tiers of lobster, oysters, shrimp, clams, mussels, crab claws, king crab, ceviche, tartare and smoked fish dip at Saint James Seafood on Thursday, Mar. 14, 2018, in Durham, NC.
The USS Nimitz towers above the table with its three tiers of lobster, oysters, shrimp, clams, mussels, crab claws, king crab, ceviche, tartare and smoked fish dip at Saint James Seafood on Thursday, Mar. 14, 2018, in Durham, NC. ctoth@newsobserver.com

Man, what a grind! One night it’s foie gras and lobster, the next it’s oysters Rockefeller and a dry-aged porterhouse. Sometimes I even have to eat out two meals in the same day.

Then there are the grueling hours. On mornings when I have a deadline looming or a Sunday brunch on the schedule, I have to roll out of bed at the crack of 9 .m.

And don’t get me started on clothes. Every time I leave the office (aka the converted second bedroom in our home), I have to put on clothes with no holes in them. If it’s a nice restaurant, I might even wear long pants and a shirt with a collar.

Yeah, I know. You feel my pain. So I’m sure you’ll understand when I say I’ve decided to kick back a little this week. Indulge in a verbal palate cleanser, if you will, in which I savor the highlights of the best restaurants I’ve visited so far this year, and share them with you in the form of excerpts from my reviews.

By “best” I mean restaurants I’ve rated 4 stars or better. And by “4 stars or better” I mean, “Wow! I didn’t realize how well I’ve been eating lately.”

Looking back over the first six months of 2018, four restaurants have earned a 4-star rating, and a fifth (Saint James) scored 4 1/2 stars.

Then there’s Saltbox Seafood Joint, in a class by itself. Because it isn’t a full-table service restaurant, I wrote a mini review (which doesn’t include a star rating) about that in June. But if I awarded stars based on the food alone, Saltbox would be a slam dunk 4 stars.

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That’s a veritable galaxy of stars — or in mathematical terms, an average of one stellar restaurant a month. The fact that half of these places specialize in fresh seafood — a category that has long been underrepresented in these parts — is icing on the cake.

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And to think I ate at least twice in each one. Guess my job isn’t so bad after all.

Here are the restaurants listed chronologically by publication date and excerpts of the original review.

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With dozens of sweet temptations from dainty macarons in pastel hues to rustic apple, sour cherry and frangipane hand pies to utterly decadent chocolate-dipped cream puffs, the only way you can go wrong is to skip dessert at Rose’s Noodles, Dumplings & Sweets. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Rose's Noodles, Dumplings & Sweets

121 N. Gregson St., Durham

919-797-2233 or rosesmeatandsweets.com

Cuisine: Asian-inspired contemporary, desserts

Highlights (Reviewed Jan. 11)

Roasted pork — local, pasture-raised and butchered in house — with sautéed mustard greens, a fried egg and Korean gochujang chile sauce between thick slices of house-baked sourdough.

Katsu Sando, which piles Japanese style panko-crusted pork cutlets, shredded cabbage and tonkatsu sauce between slices of light, subtly sweet milk bread.

There’s also a house made Shan-Xi noodle dish — two variations, actually, one pairing the broad, very long wheat noodles (their Chinese name means “belt”) with an animal protein such as stir-fried pork belly or braised monkfish, and the other a vegetarian alternative.

If ever there was a grownup version of “a kid in a candy shop,” it’s the feeling you’ll get when you’re looking at the display of Katie Meddis’ pastries. With dozens of sweet temptations from dainty macarons in pastel hues to rustic apple, sour cherry and frangipane hand pies to utterly decadent chocolate-dipped cream puffs, the only way you can go wrong is to skip dessert.

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Swagat

9549 Chapel Hill Road, Morrisville

919-378-9090 or swagatnc.com

Cuisine: Indian

Highlights (Reviewed March 1)

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Chicken tikka won’t let you down, nor will any of the other familiar favorites at Swagat Indian Cuisine. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Chicken 65, a shareable starter of spicy fried nuggets spangled with curry leaves, is exemplary. So is cauliflower Manchurian, an Indo-Chinese curveball that serves up a mound of florets, deep-fried and sautéed in a medley of soy sauce, ginger, garlic and chiles, under a shower of chopped cilantro and green onion.

Lobster masala in a fragrant tomato cream sauce whose spices somehow manage not to upstage the star ingredient.

Lamb vindaloo, on point in every aspect from the lean and tender chunks of lamb to the spicy vinegar-tinged bite of the gravy.

Punjabi kadhi serves up chickpea fritters in an earthy turmeric-tinted curry, garnished with fresh ginger and cilantro. Bhindi masala is India’s spice-perfumed answer to the Southern classic, stewed okra and tomatoes.

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Laura Perez, the hostess, arranges menus at the hostess stand before opening for dinner at Saint James Seafood on Thursday, Mar. 14, 2018, in Durham, NC. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

Saint James

806 W. Main St., Durham

984-219-7900 or saintjamesseafood.com

Cuisine: seafood

Highlights (Reviewed March 22)

The oyster bar selection alone is enough to keep me coming back, with nine or 10 varieties on a typical night ranging from briny-sweet Jarrett Bays from North Carolina to minerally Beau Soleils from Canada, with an occasional cameo appearance from the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

Shellfish towers raise the ante (figuratively and literally) with jaw-dropping presentations of raw and steamed seafood. Minimum bid is $46 for the Jon Boat, which nets you a catch — ample for two as a starter — of oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp, crab claws (cracked for easy nibbling), and Kelly’s bright riff on coctel de camaron, served with fried saltines.

Baked oysters, voluptuous with bone marrow and maître d’ butter beneath a delicate crust of parmesan and bread crumbs.

When is the last time you saw lobster Newberg on a restaurant menu? You can relive the memory here with a respectful rendition that’s tweaked only slightly with a touch of paprika to reinforce the lobster shell color in its sherry cream sauce. Or roll up your sleeves and dig into an old-fashioned steam pot (OK, technically it’s a Le Creuset braising pan), redolent of Old Bay and brimming with half a lobster, shrimp, clams, oysters, andouille, potatoes and corn on the cob.

Exemplary key lime pie on a crushed saltine crust (shades of North Carolina’s own Atlantic Beach pie).

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The Honeycomb Oysters are a half dozen oysters, gently warmed and finished with honey butter, apple mignonette, espelette pepper, and a garnishing crown of Honeycomb cereal. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Postmaster

160 E. Cedar St., Suite 100, Cary

919-378-9493 or postmastercary.com

Cuisine: contemporary Southern

Highlights (Reviewed April 26)

Hominy hushpuppies, a fine nibbling companion for the tasty beverage of your choice from a small but thoughtfully curated list of craft beers, wines and cocktails.

Half a dozen oysters, gently warmed and finished with honey butter, espelette pepper, and (are you ready, Cary?) a garnishing crown of Honeycomb cereal.

Hot Hot Wings, which owe their name to their double-barreled source of heat: Carolina white sauce, a riff on the Alabama original spiked with local chocolate habanero; and a generous sprinkle of crushed red chiles.

Regardless of the season, the market catch (“market” translating to “Locals Seafood,” generally speaking) is sure to be a keeper. I recently landed a striped bass “taco kit” featuring a whole roasted fish and roll-your-own fixings that was almost as much fun to assemble as it was to eat. On another night, you might net anything from pan-seared monkfish to vermillion snapper to swordfish with gin-pickled root vegetables and fried leek straws.

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POSTALFISHCO7-FE-050918-JEL
The wood-grilled sunburst trout is a generous fillet, grilled to a sweetly succulent turn, is half submerged beneath a tangle of shaved fennel, radish, red onion, arugula and cornbread crumbles in a charred citrus and burnt honey vinaigrette. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Postal Fish Company

75 W. Salisbury St., Pittsboro

919-704-8612

postalfishcompany.com

Cuisine: seafood

Highlights (Reviewed May 17)

Sunburst trout from the cold mountain waters of western North Carolina. A generous fillet, grilled to a sweetly succulent turn, the fish recently landed on the plate half submerged beneath a tangle of shaved fennel, radish, red onion, arugula and cornbread crumbles in a charred citrus and burnt honey vinaigrette.

Or you might hook a fish seldom seen this far inland: wood-grilled Southport cobia, say, or black drum, or pan-roasted NC sheepshead with sugar snap peas, cardoon and carrot puree, and a crab roe velouté. The unusual variety of the offering is palatable proof of the owners’ passion for showcasing under-appreciated fish — which, precisely because they’re unfamiliar to the general public, also happen to be bargains.

Shrimp and grits with country ham madeira gravy is a plateful of Southern comfort with a touch of Old World elegance.

Vegetarians won’t go hungry, either, with options like butterbean hummus, spinach and local strawberry salad, and the excellent asparagus salad that was offered recently, served over mixed greens in a sparkling Creole mustard vinaigrette and topped with goat cheese crumbles and a sunnyside up duck egg.

I would give serious consideration to driving all the way to Pittsboro just for an encore presentation of the black walnut tart I enjoyed a few weeks ago, or the superb, flaky-crusted strawberry hand pie I had more recently.

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Durham chef Ricky Moore, owner of the Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham, tops orders with spices while adding finishing touches to each dish in 2016. 2016 News & Observer File Photo - Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Saltbox Seafood Joint

Two Durham locations: 608 N. Mangum St. (walkup window only) and 2637 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd.

919-908-8970 (Mangum); 919-237-3499 (Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard)

saltboxseafoodjoint.com

Cuisine: seafood

Highlights (Reviewed June 14)

I couldn’t say how many times I’ve been to Saltbox. . . But as luck would have it, the few times I’ve been there on a Saturday, crab grits (owner/chef Ricky Moore’s signature dish, available only on Saturdays in crab season) weren’t in the offing. And every time, my disappointment has lasted only the few minutes it took to get whatever it was I wound up ordering instead.

A few weeks ago, I took the hint from the WAHOO SEASON sign out front and scored a roll filled with so many grilled finger-size filets it came with a fork. More recently, I’ve had fried black drum, flawless soft shell crabs, and mackerel (an oily fish that notoriously develops a fishy taste soon after it’s pulled out of the water) so fresh my mackerel-averse wife didn’t wrinkle her nose when I offered her a bite.

Really, though, it doesn’t matter what you order — flounder, oysters, scallops, grouper, black bass, bone-in croaker, you name it. You can count on it being irreproachably fresh and expertly prepared by a loyal staff (some of whom have been with Moore since he opened the first Saltbox) who, in the chef’s words, “share the vision.”

The only advice I can give is to order the fried broccoli as a side if it’s available. Also hush honeys. Moore’s other signature dish, these are what they sound like: hushpuppies drizzled with honey. You can try to save them for dessert, but I assure you resistance is futile.

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