No Brainer of the Year: N&O Gives Fins 4 Stars

I’m certainly not going to get in the habit of writing about Greg Cox’s reviews, but in today’s N&O, he gave Fins, one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, a 4-star rating. Duh! I’ve always loved William D’Auvray’s cooking, and the new space in downtown Raleigh is stunning. I’ve eaten similar fare across the country (Beard Award-winning Shawn McClain’s Spring in Chicago comes to mind), but no one does as good of a job as D’Auvray at Fins.  I have to admit that I’ve yet to eat dinner in the new space, but I’ve had lunch twice. The lunch menu is completely different from dinner, but D’Auvray’s style and commitment to great ingredients remains a constant. As the cold weather approaches, their hot pot for 2 will be on my regular lunch rotation!

Anyhow, when I grab dinner at Fins, I’ll be sure to report back, but in the meantime, you can read my description of a family dinner at the old location from a couple years ago — just click on the link below.

From a post on May 5, 2005 from the eG Forums of the eGullet Society.

I’ve said for years that Fins is hands-down my favorite restaurant in Raleigh, and after eight of us dined there last night, I’m happy to conclude that it’s still my number one. What is Fins? Well, several years ago, you might have referred to it as a “fusion” restaurant in that it combines Asian flavors with Western technique. For some reason unbeknownst to me, the term “fusion” is completely out of favor, so let me try to describe Chef William D’Auvray’s cuisine as contemporary East Asian-American. Gee, that’s so much better, right? Rather than wasting time trying to tag some sort of label on the food that comes out of Fins’ kitchen, I urge you to head to North Raleigh and sample it yourself.

D’Auvray’s style of cooking comes naturally, as he spent time as a young child in East Asia and learned his chops in the kitchens of Southern California. Most of his dishes contain some form of Asian influence, including Thai, Indonesian, Japanese, and Indian flavors. He combines sweet, sour, salty, and piquant. No one has accused D’Auvray of being subtle (although the flavors of some of his dishes actually are). He’s willing to challenge the diner, without going over the top with ridiculous combinations. D’Auvray knows these flavors and how they work together.

D’Auvray prefers to source his ingredients from local purveyors, but he is by no means a slave to that approach — he doesn’t hesitate to spend whatever is necessary to have the best products flown in from afar. Seafood, microgreens, and specialty meats come from across the country and beyond. We’re the beneficiaries of this extra effort (and cost), as diners at Fins know that they’ll get the freshest fish – as evidenced by the sashimi platter Fins offers as an appetizer every day. This emphasis on the best and the freshest resounds throughout the meal. Yes, the prices at Fins are somewhat steep, but that doesn’t bother me when I know what goes into the dishes.

I was fortunate to be dining with a large group celebrating my wife’s birthday, so although I was able to sample a lot of dishes, I focused more on the company than the food. Thus, if my descriptions are a bit cryptic, it’s because I wasn’t wearing my analytical hat. Moreover, I didn’t bring a camera.

We started with an amuse of a vegetarian spring roll with a sweet dipping sauce. This has been a standard item served by Fins, and I always look forward to it.

A special appetizer was lightly seared bluefin tuna served on a bed of seaweed salad with shiitake mushrooms, with some sort of sweet and sour vinaigrette. This was a perfect example of how Chef D’Auvray is able to perfectly balance the sweet, sour and hot with the earthiness of the seaweed, mushroom and tuna.

Mrs. Varmint had a bowl of roasted tomato with peekytoe crab and a plantain chip. I only regret that I had one spoonful of this delightfully simple, but incredibly tasty, dish.

I ordered a grilled octopus salad with preserved lemon, Thai chili, sunflower tendrils, toasted almond and tomato water vinaigrette. Although I was worried that the flavors of the salad would overpower the octopus, that was not the case. It was an extremely delicate dressing with very muted flavors, enough to make you wonder what it contained while recognizing how it enhanced the flavor of the octopus.

My sister-in-law and her husband had the donabe-style hot pot, but other than using a Japanese donabe, this dish is all Thai — lime leaf broth and coconut milk with roasted tomato, crab, spinach and chili-basil pesto. This soup alone would make a great meal.

All but one of the entrees were smash hits. Lamb was served rare in noisettes in a wide cylinder of wild mushroom-Lyonnaise potato hash, surrounded by roasted red curry cream. My mother-in-law, who claimed she hates curries but loves lamb, raved about this dish. After tasting it, I could see why. The lamb pieces had a crust of mint and pine nuts which alone would have made this a great way to serve the meat. However, adding the potatoes, mushroom, and the curry brought everything together. I don’t know why, but this again was not overkill – the dish worked exactly as Chef D’Auvray had planned. I wonder how he comes up with these combinations.

Mrs. Varmint ordered black bass with a tamarind glaze, served with asparagus, trumpet royale mushrooms, tomato conserve, and topped with a tempura-battered lobster tail. The black bass may have been the best piece of fish I’ve eaten in the last several years, with its shatteringly crisp skin. I’m as guilty as the next guy of not eating fish skin, but I’d be glad to eat black bass skin sandwiches all the time if D’Auvray made them for me. I’m also not a big fan of lobster tails, as they’re so frequently overcooked and tough, but frying the crustacean in tempura batter is an excellent way to protect its fragile flesh. The batter itself also offered a great textural balance to the overall dish. Did I mention that the fish skin was perfect?

Perhaps the greatest complement to D’Auvray’s cooking, however, came from my 70 year old father-in-law after he dug into roasted pork tenderloin with roasted tropical fruit, Indonesian sambal bakal risotto, and adobo sauce. My F-I-L, a native North Carolinian who has eaten more pork in his lifetime than I’ll every consume, interrupted our dinner conversation to inform all of us that this was the single best prepared piece of pork tenderloin he’s ever tasted. Unfortunately, he truly meant this as he never offered anyone else at the table a taste. I think we can take his word on this.

A staple on the menu, plantain-crusted Chilean sea bass, was served with caramelized noodle squash, green mango salad, and a brown butter and tropical fruit vinaigrette. This dish was the only item I sampled that pushed the sweet and sour elements too far without greater balance from earthy flavors — the brown butter alone didn’t accomplish this. It was a tasty dish, but after several bites, the flavor of the fish was lost.

Desserts are all made by D’Auvray (he does everything in this kitchen, including baking his own great breads), and he sticks more to the tried and true Western-style sweets — usually with a twist. Mrs. Varmint had a rum baba with a caramelized honey pecan topping served with fried banana ice cream while I ordered D’Auvray’s take on tiramisu, which appears to be some sort of cake, lightened marscapone, and dark chocolate served in a tall parfait glass. The coffee element of this tiramisu is not in the glass, however, as the dessert is served with a small bowl of Kahlua and espresso. You take a long spoon, dig in the middle, and pour the coffee mixture into the hole on an “as-needed” basis. It’s fun, original, and, of course, delicious. Even the typical crème brulee offering is slightly different at Fins, as you receive a trio of flavors served in individual sake cups, including vanilla, chocolate, and a clean-flavored ginger. The kitchen was gracious enough to send out a sample of four very good sorbets, including mango, guava, raspberry and strawberry.

Unfortunately, Fins still does not have a web presence. D’Auvray’s delightful wife Lisa, who runs the front of the house, informed me that they’re working on building a website, but it just hasn’t been a priority. However, if you want to see a copy of Fins’ menu, they’ll be happy to fax you one.

I’ve often said that when I go out to eat at a fairly expensive restaurant, I want to eat something that I wouldn’t or couldn’t make at home. Fins is just that type of restaurant. I don’t have the creativity to put together such complex flavors as William D’Auvray. I can’t get the same ingredients as he does. This is restaurant cooking taken to another level, so if you want to have fun with different flavors, head out Lead Mine Road to Fins. And don’t forget to get some of that crunchy skin.


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