From time to time, I take a break from checking out new restaurants, and pay return visits to ones I haven’t reviewed in a while.
This time around, I drop in on three longtime favorites: Elaine’s on Franklin in Chapel Hill, Oakleaf in Carrboro, Sono in Raleigh, with two of those undergoing major changes in recent years.
Note: In December 2007, ratings changed from a 4-star scale to a 5-star scale.
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Elaine’s on Franklin
454 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
Last review: 4 stars out of 4 in 2003
New rating: 4 stars (now out of 5 stars)
Returning to Elaine’s, several years after my last visit (and I was shocked to realize, even longer since my last review) felt like paying a visit to an old friend. The cozy dining room looked pretty much the same as it always has, from the linen-draped tables to the exuberant, larger-than-life paintings of fruits and vegetables on the walls.
But I’m afraid our reunion didn’t get off to a promising start. After being seated, several minutes passed before we were greeted by our server — who turned out to be the person who had passed by our table a number of times without so much as a quick “I’ll be with you in a moment.” Happily, things picked up after that, as our server proved to be well-trained and efficient, if perfunctory.
If the service left me feeling like my old friend had cooled on our relationship, chef/proprietor Bret Jennings and his kitchen crew laid my fears to rest. An amuse-bouche of chestnut bisque, served in a demitasse cup, was a warm welcome, promptly followed by a complimentary bread service — an old school touch that’s sadly seen less and less these days, even in fine dining establishments.
Pan-seared duck foie gras, expertly trimmed and served on banana-walnut French toast with Vermont maple syrup, made for a starter that was at once elegant and homey. And a first course special of fried soft shell crab (it was May, and they were in season), beached on a small dune of red cabbage slaw and a splash of Tabasco aioli, was a keeper.
My only quibble with an entree offering of NC wild striped bass with crispy penne, greens and bacon is that the presentation included only three miserly penne. But a grilled filet mignon, served over sautéed greens with garlic-escargot butter and flanked by a triangular tower of crispy potato cake, scored on all points.
A shared dessert — pineapple upside down cake with basil ice cream — struck a reassuring note that chef Jennings still has a knack for putting a fresh spin on the classics. It was the perfect finishing touch on a meal that reassured me that my longstanding relationship with Elaine’s on Franklin is as strong as ever.
310 E. Main St., Carrboro
Last review: 4 1/2 stars in 2012
New rating: 4 stars
When I reviewed Oakleaf a few months after the restaurant opened in a converted textile mill in Pittsboro, I liked the place so much I named it Restaurant of the Year.
A friendly, well-trained wait staff, a casually elegant setting, and in inventive seasonally changing menu that heralded owner/chef Brendan Cox, then a new arrival from Washington, DC, as a serious culinary talent — all added up to a rare trifecta of an experience I deemed well worth the 45-minute drive.
That drive time was cut dramatically early this year, when Oakleaf relocated to Carrboro. I was eager to check out the new digs, and as you might imagine, my expectations were sky-high.
I must say I was initially stunned by how dramatically the decor has changed. Pittsboro’s airy, sunlit space couldn’t be transported, naturally, but the entire mood has been transformed, with the rustic warmth of botanic prints and earth tones giving way to the cool sophistication of bold abstract paintings and porthole mirrors on midnight blue walls. Still, there’s no denying it’s a suitably elegant setting for what remains an excellent fine dining experience.
The last time I visited in September, that experience started with a complimentary bread service of crusty sourdough and house-cultured butter. Everything that followed lived up to my expectations, with one small exception (which I will address shortly).
Chickpea panisses, delicately crusted fritters stacked like Jenga blocks on a puddle of smoked paprika crème fraîche, were first-rate. So were deviled eggs, each topped with a flake of applewood-smoked wild salmon.
Entrees were also on point: pan-seared scamp grouper, sandwiched between a cloud of shaved fennel and a fragrant pool of saffron-shellfish jus; and roasted culotte steak with smoked marble potatoes and charred Nardello peppers.
And desserts maintained the high standard: maple mascarpone cheesecake with figs and pistachio shortbread, and a witty riff on a Dark & Stormy cocktail pairing lime chiffon cake and ginger ice cream.
As for that one small exception, it occurred during the pasta course (this being Oakleaf, we felt a little splurge between the first course and entrees was in order). Spaghetti cacio e pepe and tagliatelle with jumbo lump crabmeat, both otherwise flawless, arrived at a temperature flirting with lukewarm and beginning to dry out on top.
Clearly, this was not the fault of the kitchen — which brings me to the fact that service doesn’t quite measure up to the high expectations set by the food and setting. And an attitude bordering on smug superiority doesn’t help. A hostess balking at our request for a different table (in a dining room that never got half full while we were there) comes to mind. And a friendly tip for servers: bragging to customers about how much better your restaurant is than a competitor is generally not a good idea.
Don’t get me wrong, the wait staff are attentive and reasonably knowledgeable, by and large. But, much as it pains me to say it about what is still one of my favorite restaurants, it could — and should — be better.
319 Fayetteville St., Suite 101, Raleigh
Last review: 3 1/2 stars out of 4 in 2008
New rating: 3 1/2 stars (now out of 5 stars)
Talk about change. About the only thing that hasn’t changed about Sono since the last time I reviewed the restaurant is the name.
OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. The address is still the same, and it’s still a Japanese restaurant. But Mike Lee, the owner/chef whose culinary skills mightily impressed me back then has since pulled up stakes and gone on to open M Sushi, M Kokko and M Tempura in Durham.
The new owners are Clean Plate Group, whose eclectic holdings are scattered across the country, from a fish camp in Texas to a Mediterranean cafe in Ohio. Evidently they believe in local management, because they hired a veteran team — including several from An, the acclaimed Asian restaurant in Cary that recently had closed — to run Sono.
A key member of that team is executive chef Hyun-Woo Kim — who, as I was happy to learn (but not surprised, given his resume), is doing his part to keep Sono among the upper echelon of Japanese restaurants in the area.
My “research” took the form of an eight-course “Grand Tasting” omakase in late July, which allowed me to sample widely from both sushi bar and kitchen. Both were up to the challenge, as my course-by-course tasting notes (edited slightly for clarity) show:
Course 1: seaweed salad — pretty presentation — cucumber, tomato, julienne beets and carrots
Course 2: sashimi — six pieces (two each bluefin, yellowtail, octopus), scattered over shredded daikon on a narrow oval plate; lemon slices, fish roe, microgreens, Sriracha, ponzu, sesame — colorful, a bit too busy.
Course 3: torched beef tataki — buttery texture, spangled with black and white sesame seeds, floating in spicy broth (inspired by Peruvian tiradito, confirmed by sushi chef).
Course 4: handmade pork gyoza — wrappers dainty, lightly browned; filling typical.
Course 5: Yakitori chicken — crunchy batter, yakiniku sauce more sweet than savory
Course 6: nigiri sushi — otoro, chutoro, uni, salmon belly, snapper, yellowtail, negimaki, all clean, rice proper temperature — lavish selection, highlight of the meal.
Course 7: rib-eye — miniature “steak” exceptionally tender; served with small molded cylinder of rice, house-pickled cucumbers.
Course 8: green tea mochi ice cream — maraschino cherry, pocky stick garnish.
The dining room has gotten a makeover — yet another change — since I last reviewed Sono. Gone is the sultry vibe with its wall-spanning mural of a reclining woman reaching for an orchid. In its place, bamboo and samurai prints give a more traditional (but still sleek and chic) feel to the space.
The Grand Tasting is no longer offered, according to the menu on Sono’s website, but a couple of abbreviated omakase variations are available. Whether you spring for the omakase experience or go the a la carte route, Sono — for all its changes — still won’t let you down.