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.
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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.
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.
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.
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
100 Woodland Pond Drive, in the Umstead Hotel and Spa, Cary
Previous 5-Star Awards
A * means it was named Restaurant of the Year.
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
806 W. Main St., Durham
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.
107 W. Main St., Durham
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.
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.
Crawford and Son
618 N. Person St., Raleigh
315 E. Chapel Hill St., in The Durham Hotel, Durham
2000 Fearrington Village Center, Pittsboro
100 Woodland Pond Drive, in the Umstead Hotel & Spa, Cary
423 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
Mateo Bar de Tapas
109 W. Chapel Hill St., Durham
Cuisine: Tapas (Spanish-Southern fusion)
110 S. Churton St., Hillsborough
Cuisine: contemporary Italian
426 S. McDowell St., Raleigh
Cuisine: American bistro
4711 Hope Valley Road, Suite 6-A, Durham
222 S. Blount St., Raleigh
1201-M Raleigh Road, Chapel Hill
Death & Taxes
105 W. Hargett St., Raleigh
Cuisine: contemporary grill
2110 Environ Way, Chapel Hill
Cuisine: contemporary, Asian
2603 Glenwood Ave., Suite 151, Raleigh
3314 Guess Road, Durham
1505 E. Franklin St., in the Siena Hotel, Chapel Hill
10 W. Franklin St., Suite 120, Raleigh
Cuisine: German, Polish
2519 Fairview Road, Raleigh
Cuisine: contemporary Southern
Mothers & Sons Trattoria
107 W. Chapel Hill St., Durham
310 E. Main St., Carrboro
6112 Falls of Neuse Road, Raleigh
St. Roch Fine Oysters & Bar
223 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh
Cuisine: seafood, Cajun/Creole
Second Empire Restaurant and Tavern
330 Hillsborough St., Raleigh
938 N. Blount St., Raleigh
18 Seaboard Ave., Suite 100, Raleigh
Cuisine: contemporary Southern, grill
9401 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh
509 W. Whitaker Mill Road, Suite 101, Raleigh
218 S. Blount St., Raleigh
4351 The Circle at North Hills, Raleigh
413 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh
Cuisine: seafood (contemporary)
610 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
Elaine’s on Franklin
454 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
Fairview Dining Room
3001 Cameron Blvd., in the Washington Duke Inn, Durham
14 W. Martin St., Raleigh
2706 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham
Cuisine: German, bakery
764 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill
Cuisine: French, contemporary
8111 Creedmoor Road, Suite 111, Raleigh
Cuisine: contemporary, seafood
301 Glenwood Ave., Suite 100, Raleigh
2130 Clark Ave., Raleigh
Cuisine: Latin American, Caribbean
200 N. Greensboro St., #1A, Carrboro
500 Glenwood Ave., Suite 100, Raleigh
4209 Lassiter Mill Road, Suite 115, Raleigh
201 W. Martin St., Raleigh
Cuisine: contemporary Southern