Ashley Christensen Brings the French Countryside to Raleigh with Poole’s

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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9 Responses to Ashley Christensen Brings the French Countryside to Raleigh with Poole’s

  1. Varmint says:

    Well, the story of the sign is quite simple. According to Ashley, the sign has been part of Poole’s for years and years, and old timers still remember it from long ago. They pulled it out of the rickety frame it was in and put it above the bar. Ashley kept hearing people say,”There used to be this sign, I think it said . . .” She loved the sound of the expression, so she took it one step further with the obscured mural of it on the back wall.

    Goddamn, I love that. 😉

  2. Teran says:

    I will have to check Poole’s out sometime. I was in France the first part of this summer and haven’t had any good french food since then!

  3. politipornster says:

    This place sounds great and I’m very eager to check it out. Thanks for the review and tip.

  4. Varmint says:

    Went back to Poole’s last night, and the service has picked up quite a bit. Was able to get in and out in less than 2 hours. Still some glitches with the service, but it’s dramatically better.

    The place was rocking, with the bar pretty full and not an empty table in the joint.

    I had the very nice fried frog legs, a mizuma salad and a duck confit pot pie. The food was rich and comforting. Followed with a lovely bread pudding with caramelized apples, it was a solid meal. One comment on this dessert: the bread pudding itself was not sweet at all. Instead, the sweetness came from some raisins and the apples. I really liked the non-sweet aspect of this dish.

  5. politipornster says:

    Varmint – Me and Mrs. PolitiPornster, on a whim, decided to check this place out on Friday. Mrs. PolitiPornster is always kvetching that I don’t take her out, so I manned up, and took her out to dinner at Pooles.

    The first observation is the space. I really like it and know that it will only get better as the construction projects in the area come to a close. Very much a neighborhood restaurant and I could easily forget that I was in Raleigh, pretending that I was back home sweet urban home, DC.

    The chalkboard menu has got to go. It sounds nice as an idea but in practice it’s not so good. I realize that Poole’s is still working out the kinks with regard to service, but by the time our waitress got to us, we had both forgotten what we wanted and had to take another trip to the damn chalkboards.

    Once our appetizers got there, and this took a while, we were very pleased. We indulged in the Orange Roasted Beets with Bleu Cheese as well as the Shrimp w/Mussels. The broth hidden underneath the generous portion of mussels and shrimp was incredible. The portion of bread served along with it was sizable but I really would have loved more to dip into the broth.

    Beets are not really my thing, I tried it but couldn’t pass judgment. My better-half however liked the dish but thought that it lacked acidity and could be improved by using blood oranges perhaps.

    For my main course, I had the Duck Confit PotPie. As a lover of all things potted in pie, I thought I couldn’t lose with this choice and I wasn’t disappointed. One suggestion would be to up the quantity of carrots which would balance out the bitter items in the mix. The duck was succulent and very tasty. It was very weather appropriate.

    The wife had the flounder which came with the Tomato Slaw. She reported being generally pleased with the entree, but felt that the flounder did lack seasoning. She felt that the fried to perfection being crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, but overall it lacked any real flavor.

    For the finish we shared the Pots de Creme. Words escape me here. It was the perfect finish. Word of warning, if you plan to do anything after the meal like maybe see a movie, you may want to skip dessert. We never made it to our movie and beat a path for home, bellies full and in the throughs of a full blown food coma. We are looking forward to returning to Poole’s and trying more of the menu. Maybe next time, we’ll make it to the movies.

  6. Probono says:

    First class!
    First Class!!

  7. Kelly Brink says:

    Ashley.
    I just wanted to tell you how much my friends and I have loved your place. Its warm ,romanatic, and inviting. Your food is amazing and has love in every bite.I am a district manager of five states and travel allot. Coming home on the weekends and being with my friends means allot to me
    . We enjoy eating at your establishment and having good food with good friends. I wish you success in your new adventure.
    Kelly

  8. Varmint says:

    I just got a copy of Poole’s Saturday brunch menu. I wish they had one more sweet option:

    Short rib shepherd’s pie $9

    Biscuits and duck confit gravy $9

    Eggs and bacon Niman Ranch house braised bacon with potato gratin and two eggs $11

    Omelette du jour $10

    Patty Melt half-pound house ground Niman Ranch beef served open faced with caramelized onions and gruyere on rye $11

    Ricotta and lemon dumplings with warm maple butter $9

    Egg and cheese souffle with roasted tomatoes $9

    Crispy fried trout with lettuces in vinaigrette $12

    Macaroni au gratin with egg $9

    Lettuces with red wine vinaigrette $6

  9. Watt says:

    Sounds like a great restaurant….I will try and grab a bit there this weekend!!! You may want to try eating at Coquette, it’s a great spot to have an enjoyable French meal, and since it is located in North Hills the location is extremely convenient.

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