Crispy frogs’ legs. Calves’ liver with sweet onions. Poached eggs on brioche with a chanterelle gravy. This is the food of the French countryside, food that you could get from a farmhouse restaurant in Normandy. And now you can get it in Raleigh with the opening of Ashley Christensen’s Poole’s Downtown Diner. The old Poole’s vibe is still the same, but this ain’t no diner. The huge bar remains, the seating arrangement hasn’t been modified, and it’s as hard to get in the bathrooms as it ever was, but the food is unlike anything you’ll find in Raleigh. Braises. Confit. Thick, hearty soups. And mounds of simple, bright salads. Poole’s has arrived, and if you like rich, heavy French comfort food, you’re in for a treat.
On Tuesday, shortly after they were given the green light to open, Ashley told me that the first night wouldn’t be until Thursday. “You know how I cook, Dean. I need a full day to prepare.” That’s because she had to make stocks where after extracting the flavor from one pot of chicken bones, she removes them and adds more chicken. She had to make duck confit. She had to prepare fruit juices for their specialty cocktails (alas, their liquor license was granted too late in the day yesterday to be able to serve any of these cocktails).
The service last night was fairly typical for a restaurant’s opening night, it was woefully slow. And they ran out of some items, including the duck confit, which was a huge disappointment, having had Ashley’s confit several times over the years. But one should never truly judge a restaurant based on its first day; one should merely look at its potential. And this place has tons of potential with flavor oozing from every corner. Ashley Christensen wants Poole’s to be a place to get a quick bite of great French food, a glass or two of nice wine, or maybe a late-night cocktail. This is not food with pretension. It’s classic all the way around.
This will be a place for the hipsters, but Poole’s reminds folks that this isn’t a rowdy scene. I’m not sure whether it was done with tongue firmly planted in her cheek, but there’s a message painted on the back wall of the restaurant, with only partial letters visible between doorways and ceilings, that reads, “If you don’t use profanity, you will not offend anyone.” After spending 5 minutes trying to figure out this message, I felt like an idiot when I saw the same message clearly posted above the bar. Regardless, it’s an interesting sentiment in this day when patrons at bars use the f-word like a comma. I need to ask Ashley the story behind this line.
Poole’s only has a handful of wines, all offered not by the glass, but the quartino, the quarter-bottle size that Mario Batali popularized at his New York restaurants. At 6 bucks a quartino, this is a very nice value. But Christensen doesn’t skimp on the stemware, using Riedel glasses.
There are no paper menus at Poole’s, and I think that may be a mistake. The menu is written on two chalkboards located near the bar area, but it’s unreadable from most of the tables. You have to get up to review the chalkboards to see what’s available that day. I understand that the use of a chalkboard is very traditional and quaint, but it’s inappropriate to have to stand in the middle of the place with a group of other diners, trying to figure out what you’re going to eat that night. Maybe they just need another blackboard in the rear of the restaurant.
We sampled a ton of food — most of the menu, in fact. The appetizers were the strongest, and my favorite was a poached egg served on buttered, toasted brioche with an ultra-rich chanterelle gravy. I’ll have two next time. My friend’s mussels in Dijon mustard and cream were exquisite. It’s hard to cook mussels in aromatics in a manner where the broth doesn’t overwhelm the flavor of the mussels, but Ashley did a great job. The pumpkin soup was ultra-thick, ultra-rich, and ultra-flavorful. I guess it was the ultra-pumpkin soup.
A simple avocado salad with a light vinaigrette was unique in that the avocados actually had tons of flavor. The orange-roasted beets with Humboldt Fog bleu cheese was excellent, with a great combination of sweet beets, a tart vinaigrette, and the earthiness of the cheese.
The main courses that we tried were good, but not great. If you’ve had Ashley’s short ribs at Vin, then you’ll get a good idea of what her version of pot roast is. The fried fish had a great crust, a delightfully tender center, but the kicker was the “tomato slaw” it was served on. Thin strips of tomato, lightly dressed, complemented the fish wonderfully. I surprised myself and ordered the calves’ liver. I don’t like calves’ liver, but it’s been 25 years since I last tried it. I figured if I was every going to like liver and onions, it would be Ashley’s version. Well, I liked the onions a lot. I’m just not a calf liver person, but if I were . . . .
The two best sides were the macaroni au gratin, a very adult version of mac n’ cheese made with, I believe, some sort of Swiss cheese (actually, Gruyère and parmesan) and the braised greens, that had a slight taste of mustard in them (well, it tasted like mustard).
Only two desserts were offered, both very simple puddings. A vanilla bean panna cotta with dark cherries and a dark chocolate pots de creme. Very nice endings.
It’s going to take a few weeks for Poole’s to work out their kinks, but that’s standard for any new restaurant. Moreover, this will give the kitchen the necessary time to catch up during their days off, to start making more confit. To make sausages and meatloafs and other complex stocks. I’m pleased to have Poole’s in Raleigh, as I was tired of all the hip, chef-owned joints being in Durham and Chapel Hill. We now have something cool right here in the Capital City, and with it comes a taste of rustic France.