When Raleigh native Jason Smith returned home a few years ago to open his first restaurant, expectations were high. The young chef had worked in some of the most celebrated restaurants on the East Coast, after all, from Magnolia Grill in Durham to Gramercy Tavern in New York.
18 Seaboard, which Smith opened in 2006, did not disappoint. The seasonally changing menu of contemporary American fare was consistently rewarding and occasionally even inspired. Service was well-trained, exceptionally so for a first venture. Most impressive of all, 18 Seaboard managed to offer a dining experience that rivaled some of the best in the Triangle at chain restaurant prices.
The menu has evolved over the past three years, and that marinated flat-iron steak that cost $16 in 2006 will now set you back $18. But prices are still remarkably reasonable, with most appetizers $6 to $8 and all but a handful of entrees going for $18 or less. That's for a selection, mind you, whose starter options recently included Pamlico Sound grilled shrimp and watermelon skewers, a salad of local peaches and field greens and a she-crab soup (made with live blue crabs and their roe) that would put a number of renditions I've had in Charleston to shame. Entree options are no less tantalizing and range from crab-crusted mahi mahi with black bean cake and avocado mousse to bourbon-glazed shrimp cooked over a hardwood fire.
The stunning heirloom tomato sampler that I enjoyed is, sadly, gone until tomato season returns. Local peaches have given way to pears on the early fall menu, and other changes will doubtless follow. But whatever Jason Smith and his crew cook up, you can be sure it will be well worth the money. And, now more than ever, that's a precious commodity.