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Here is the Triangle’s Restaurant of the Year for 2019. And the winner is ...

Herons is our Restaurant of the Year for 2019

Herons' Steven Devereaux Greene discusses his time as executive chef at the Cary, N.C. restaurant.
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Herons' Steven Devereaux Greene discusses his time as executive chef at the Cary, N.C. restaurant.

In 2009, Herons at the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary became the first restaurant I gave five stars under a new rating system The News & Observer implemented in 2007.

Since then, only four other restaurants have earned the top honor — five stars out of five. Of those five, four ultimately were named Restaurant of the Year.

So I hesitated this year before I selected Herons as the 2019 Restaurant of the Year for an unprecedented second time. My natural inclination, given the wealth of sparkling candidates in the Triangle’s culinary firmament, is to spread the joy around. That explains why I can’t resist the temptation to single out two more restaurants as Honorable Mentions: Saint James and COPA, both in Durham.

N&O dining critic Greg Cox visited more than 65 restaurants in 2018. Here are some of his favorites for the year, and why they make his list.

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But when it came time to pick the best of the year, the bright constellation of reasons for naming Herons outweighed my reservations of having a repeat winner.

And executive chef Steven Devereaux Greene is the brightest reason of them all. In fact, this is the third time Greene has played a key role in a Restaurant of the Year selection. He was a young rising star chef de cuisine under executive chef Scott Crawford when Herons won the first time in 2009. (Crawford’s Crawford and Son restaurant won the top honor last year.) Four years later, in 2012, Greene had risen to the level of executive chef at An Asian Cuisine, when that restaurant earned five stars.

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Herons’ executive chef Steven Devereaux Greene on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Greene, a James Beard Award semifinalist, returned to Herons as executive chef in 2014 and has never failed to deliver a memorable meal when I’ve eaten there. But the last one was an experience that rose to the level of transcendent. I indulged in an eight-course tasting menu called The Art Tour, with each course inspired by a work of art on the premises of the Umstead Hotel.

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Playing on all the senses with rare virtuosity, the meal earned a place among the handful of most memorable meals of my life.

These are a few of the images most vividly etched in my memory:

Raw oysters, harvested that morning from Harkers Island, topped with Ossetra caviar, and served in ceramic “shells” surrounded by a liquid nitrogen cloud.

A pickled quail egg, dyed Easter egg purple (dyed naturally, that is, using butterfly pea blossoms), in a nest of crisp bacon threads.

A precisely cut rectangle of kombu-cured tuna against a study-in-green backdrop of cucumber, green tomato, fresh herbs, wasabi and a sprig of fern frond.

A rarefied riff on shrimp and grits embellished with gold leaf and a 62 degree egg (a nod to the chef’s South Carolina roots, and his signature dish).

And dessert, a miniature Japanese garden on a plate: two chocolate shell “stones,” one filled with subtly Szechwan-spiced milk chocolate, the other with a vibrant frozen cherry filling, resting on a mound of tempura crunch “moss,” garnished with tiny Japanese maple leaves that appear to have naturally drifted onto the plate.

This meal, at $150 apiece, is a special menu. But the rest of the food is truly unforgettable. Like many hotel restaurants, Herons serves food all day, including a weekend brunch.

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The beet dish from Heron’s first course on the dinner menu is made up of yuzu, walnut, sesame, goat cheese and fermented garlic. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

The food, though, is just one part of the whole package that makes Herons stand out. A decade after being named Restaurant of the Year the first time, the elegant contemporary setting in the world-class Umstead Hotel still ranks among a handful of premier fine dining destinations in the Triangle. Factor in polished but unintimidating service, and an outstanding wine list, and it’s clear that Herons is flying higher than ever.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

Herons

100 Woodland Pond Drive, in the Umstead Hotel and Spa, Cary

919-447-4000, heronsrestaurant.com

Cuisine: contemporary

Previous 5-Star Awards

A * means it was named Restaurant of the Year.

2009: Herons*

2012: Yamazushi*

2013: An

2013: One*

2016: The Durham*

PREVIOUS RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR WINNERS

2007: Bonne Soirée, Chapel Hill

2008: Fins, Raleigh

2009: Lantern, Chapel Hill

2010: Herons, Cary

2011: Bella Mia, Cary

2012: Magnolia Grill, Durham

2013: Oakleaf, Pittsboro (now Carrboro) and Yamazushi, Durham

2014: One, Chapel Hill

2015: Gocciolina, Durham

2016: Death & Taxes, Raleigh

2017: The Durham, Durham

2018: Crawford and Son, Raleigh

RAL_ 20180314_stjamesreview_2 (9)
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. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Saint James

806 W. Main St., Durham

984-219-7900, saintjamesseafood.com

Cuisine: seafood

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It should come as no surprise that Saint James instantly became the Triangle’s best seafood restaurant the day it opened its doors in late 2017. Everything that Matt Kelly has touched as a chef and restaurateur — Vin Rouge, Mateo, Mothers & Sons Trattoria, Lucky’s Delicatessen — has turned to best-in-class gold.

To set the mood for his latest Durham venture, Kelly wisely kept the vintage black and white checkerboard tile floor he inherited from Fishmonger’s, but otherwise gave the place a complete overhaul. The result is an upscale contemporary setting with a nautical accent: an airy space with brass portholes, fishnet-etched globe chandeliers, and canary yellow stools at a long marble bar. There, tiki cocktails are a specialty and the wine list is exceptionally well-suited to a seafood menu. High on the back wall, letter board menus hanging against a backdrop of glazed white tiles suggest shades of a fish market vibe.

In short, it’s the ideal setting for an extensive, eclectic offering that sails all over the chart from Calabash fried seafood platter to lobster Newberg. If you find yourself torn between, say, the Saint James seafood stew and seared NC flounder with crawfish butter over dirty rice, rest assured it’s nearly impossible to go wrong.

As for me, I’ve already got my birthday celebration meal all planned out. I’m starting with an order of those voluptuous baked oysters with bone marrow if they’re still on offer. And then I’m going to see how much damage I can do (with a little help from my wife) to the Nautilus seafood tower.

COPA co-owner Elizabeth Turnbull shares her inspiration for the La Diosa Negra cocktail.

Copa

107 W. Main St., Durham

919-973-0111, copadurham.com

Cuisine: Cuban

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Knowing that their first restaurant, Old Havana Sandwich Shop, would be a tough act to follow, owners Robert Copa Matos and Elizabeth Turnbull aimed high with their second. Copa, in downtown Durham, hit the target with a tapas menu that draws heavily on local produce (including a small but growing harvest from the couple’s 10-acre family farm), and one of the best restaurant bars in the Triangle.

The menu evolves with the seasons, but you can count on a few classic staples. Among them, you’ll find house-made Cuban sausage, queso de cabeza (pork terrine), savory pork picadillo-stuffed platanos rellenos and a paella-inspired deconstruction of arroz con pollo. At lunchtime, you can still score the excellent Cubano sandwich that made Old Havana Sandwich shop a local favorite.

But it isn’t the quality of the food per se that earns the restaurant this Honorable Mention nod. The level of execution is high, to be sure, but no higher than at several other newcomers to the local dining scene.

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COPA’s Butifaras a lo cubano are Cuban-style sausages served with a mix of spices, including cinnamon, anis and clove atop a saffron yogurt and cucumber sauce. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

What sets Copa apart is a smattering of dishes sprinkled throughout the menu that, to my knowledge, you won’t find in any other restaurant in the country. Inspired by a 19th century cookbook that Matos stumbled on a few years ago, these dishes are based on recipes that have essentially disappeared as a consequence of the Cuban revolution.

Vegetable dishes in particular celebrate a harvest that was much more varied before the revolution. Vegetales y casabe won’t return to the menu for a few months (a cornucopia of summer vegetables, including tender, pale green black-eyed peas from the family farm, spilling off of cassava flatbreads) . In the meantime, it’s well worth checking out Copa’s seasonal vegetarian offering.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a distinctive ropa vieja a la americana is another savory windfall from the chef’s historical gleanings.

In short, Copa isn’t just very good, it’s unique. And in my book, that contribution to the local dining landscape makes it worthy of special notice.

GOLD MEDAL

Chef Scott Crawford of Raleigh's Crawford and Son talks about becoming a chef.

Crawford and Son

618 N. Person St., Raleigh

919-307-4647, crawfordandsonrestaurant.com

Cuisine: contemporary

The Durham

315 E. Chapel Hill St., in The Durham Hotel, Durham

919-768-8830, thedurham.com/dining

Cuisine: American

Fearrington House

2000 Fearrington Village Center, Pittsboro

919-542-2121, fearringtonhouse.com

Cuisine: contemporary

Herons

100 Woodland Pond Drive, in the Umstead Hotel & Spa, Cary

919-447-4000, theumstead.com

Cuisine: contemporary

Lantern

423 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill

919-969-8846, lanternrestaurant.com

Cuisine: Asian

Mateo Bar de Tapas

109 W. Chapel Hill St., Durham

919-530-8700, mateotapas.com

Cuisine: Tapas (Spanish-Southern fusion)

Panciuto

110 S. Churton St., Hillsborough

919-732-6261, panciuto.com

Cuisine: contemporary Italian

Poole’s Diner

426 S. McDowell St., Raleigh

919-832-4477, ac-restaurants.com/pooles

Cuisine: American bistro

Yamazushi, run by George and Mayumi Yamazawa, is Durham's oldest Japanese restaurant and one of the only kaiseki meals in the south.

Yamazushi

4711 Hope Valley Road, Suite 6-A, Durham

919-493-7748, yamazushirestaurant.com

Cuisine: Japanese

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Chef George Yamazawa demonstrates a highly-skilled technique called katsuramuki to cut daikon radish into paper-thin sheets to create a long scroll in his Durham restaurant, Yamazushi, in 2015. The restaurant focuses on kaiseki dining which is a highly refined form of multi-course dining where every detail of the meal is artfully orchestrated, and nothing happens without careful thought and intentional purpose. 2015 News & Observer File Photo - Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

SILVER MEDAL

Bida Manda

222 S. Blount St., Raleigh

919-829-9999, bidamanda.com

Cuisine: Laotian

Bin 54

1201-M Raleigh Road, Chapel Hill

919-969-1155, bin54restaurant.com

Cuisine: Steakhouse

Death & Taxes

105 W. Hargett St., Raleigh

984-242-0218, ac-restaurants.com/death-taxes

Cuisine: contemporary grill

Elements

2110 Environ Way, Chapel Hill

919-537-8780, elementsofchapelhill.com

Cuisine: contemporary, Asian

Glenwood Grill

2603 Glenwood Ave., Suite 151, Raleigh

919-782-3102, glenwoodgrill.com

Cuisine: American

Gocciolina

3314 Guess Road, Durham

919-973-4089, gocciolina.com

Cuisine: Italian

Il Palio

1505 E. Franklin St., in the Siena Hotel, Chapel Hill

919-929-2545, ilpalio.com

Cuisine: Italian

J. Betski’s

10 W. Franklin St., Suite 120, Raleigh

919-833-7999, jbetskis.com

Cuisine: German, Polish

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St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar, opened by chef Sunny Gerhart, is an edible souvenir book of Gerhartâs life and travels. 2017 News & Observer File Photo - Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Mandolin

2519 Fairview Road, Raleigh

919-322-0365, mandolinraleigh.com

Cuisine: contemporary Southern

Mothers & Sons Trattoria

107 W. Chapel Hill St., Durham

919-294-8247, mothersandsonsnc.com

Cuisine: Italian

Oakleaf

310 E. Main St., Carrboro

984-234-3017, oakleafnc.com

Cuisine: contemporary

Saint Jacques

6112 Falls of Neuse Road, Raleigh

919-862-2770, saintjacquesfrenchcuisine.com

Cuisine: French

St. Roch Fine Oysters & Bar

223 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh

919-322-0359, strochraleigh.com

Cuisine: seafood, Cajun/Creole

Second Empire Restaurant and Tavern

330 Hillsborough St., Raleigh

919-829-3663, second-empire.com

Cuisine: contemporary

Stanbury

938 N. Blount St., Raleigh

919-977-4321, stanburyraleigh.com

Cuisine: contemporary

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Tandem’s decor is well-suited to the eclectic offering, combining modern industrial elements with the warm patina of old wood and brick walls of the historic cotton mill in Chapel Hill where the restaurant is located. 2016 News & Observer File Photo - Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

BRONZE MEDAL

18 Seaboard

18 Seaboard Ave., Suite 100, Raleigh

919-861-4318, 18restaurantgroup.com/18-seaboard/

Cuisine: contemporary Southern, grill

Angus Barn

9401 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh

919-781-2444, angusbarn.com

Cuisine: steakhouse

Bloomsbury Bistro

509 W. Whitaker Mill Road, Suite 101, Raleigh

919-834-9011, bloomsburybistro.com

Cuisine: contemporary

Brewery Bhavana

218 S. Blount St., Raleigh

919-829-9998, brewerybhavana.com

Cuisine: Chinese

Coquette Brasserie

4351 The Circle at North Hills, Raleigh

919-789-0606, coquetteraleigh.com

Cuisine: French

The Cortez

413 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh

919-342-8227, cortezraleigh.com

Cuisine: seafood (contemporary)

Crook’s Corner

610 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill

919-929-7643, crookscorner.com

Cuisine: Southern

Elaine’s on Franklin

454 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill

919-960-2770, elainesonfranklin.com

Cuisine: contemporary

Fairview Dining Room

3001 Cameron Blvd., in the Washington Duke Inn, Durham

919-493-6699, washingtondukeinn.com

Cuisine: contemporary

Garland

14 W. Martin St., Raleigh

919-833-6886, garlandraleigh.com

Cuisine: global

Guglhupf

2706 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham

919-401-2600, guglhupf.com

Cuisine: German, bakery

Kitchen

764 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill

919-537-8167, kitchenchapelhill.com

Cuisine: French, contemporary

Margaux’s

8111 Creedmoor Road, Suite 111, Raleigh

919-846-9846, margauxsrestaurant.com

Cuisine: contemporary, seafood

Plates

301 Glenwood Ave., Suite 100, Raleigh

919-828-0018, plateskitchen.com

Cuisine: contemporary

so.ca

2130 Clark Ave., Raleigh

919-322-0440, socaraleigh.com

Cuisine: Latin American, Caribbean

Tandem

200 N. Greensboro St., #1A, Carrboro

919-240-7937, tandemcarrboro.com

Cuisine: contemporary

Vidrio

500 Glenwood Ave., Suite 100, Raleigh

919-803-6033, vidrioraleigh.com

Cuisine: pan-Mediterranean

Vivace

4209 Lassiter Mill Road, Suite 115, Raleigh

919-787-7747

vivaceraleigh.com

Cuisine: Italian

Whiskey Kitchen

201 W. Martin St., Raleigh

919-803-3181, whiskey.kitchen

Cuisine: contemporary Southern

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