Herons, the ultra-swank restaurant in the even ritzier Umstead Hotel in Cary, must be the “poor” stepchild of the Triangle’s restaurant community. It gets no love at all from the foodie community. Greg Cox didn’t include it in his top 20 restaurants in the Triangle. There’s been little discussion of Herons from the local food blogging community, or at Chowhound or eGullet. Quite frankly, Herons has been overlooked, dismissed, and cast aside by the same folks who debate endlessly about the local food scene (myself included). And that’s a crying shame, as this is one of the finest restaurants in North Carolina, let alone the Triangle.
I’ve now eaten three lunches and a dinner at Herons, and when it comes to upscale dining, there may not be another restaurant in the area that can match the full package Herons offers: the decor, the ambience, the service, the wine selection, and, of course, the food. The Umstead Hotel is essentially one big, plush art gallery. This carries over to Herons, where that plushness is complemented by the most comfortable chairs and banquettes anywhere. The staff is extremely attentive, with a touch of formality, but not overly so and never intrusive. The wine list, put together by sommelier Steven Eudy is top-notch. Chef Phil Evans is extremely talented and has put together a well-rounded, very tasty menu, featuring mostly local ingredients. Pastry chef Daniel Benjamin creates whimsical desserts such as a chestnut “Moon Pie” or a somewhat deconstructed version of key lime pie. Everything about this restaurant is great, not good. But where is the love?
The lack of attention can be attributed to two things: (1) Herons is a hotel restaurant, and frankly, foodies don’t like hotel restaurants. They like small, chef-owned eateries; and (2) the price. Yes, Herons is expensive — probably the priciest place in the region. When Greg Cox published his list of the top 20 restaurants in the Triangle recently, one notable absence was Herons. He stated that although the restaurant had “top 20 potential,” he didn’t include it in his list because, “especially given the price – [Herons] didn’t quite live up to expectations.”
I myself have been taken aback by the prices, at one point saying they weren’t just New York prices, but in excess of those. But let’s take another look. A three course dinner at Herons, excluding wine, will cost you about $60, before tax and tip. That’s based on an average appetizer of $15, entree of $35 and dessert of $10. Oh, don’t forget that Herons will throw in an amuse and petits fours afterwards. Now let’s look at a few restaurants awarded two stars by the New York Times (and frankly, I’m thinking that Herons is probably more closely aligned with a three star establishment). Nothing ultra-deluxe, but something remarkably good. A three course dinner at Danny Meyer’s The Modern, which is actually in an honest to goodness art museum (and not a hotel posing as one) will run you $85 for those same three courses. Charlie Palmer’s Aureole charges $84 for its prix fixe three course dinner. Heck, Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50, where the food is certainly more avant garde, but is occasionally not all that tasty (and where the service and comfort are nowhere close to what you’ll get at Herons) will cost 59 bucks on average. I’ll gladly put the food at Heron’s up against any of those NYC restaurants.
So, could it be that we folks in the Triangle just won’t pay that kind of money for a dining experience here, when we’ll gladly pay it (and more) in New York? Maybe they need to go to a prix fixe menu, where you choose three courses for a set price. Would we be taken aback as much by a $60 fixed price dinner, that includes three courses, an amuse and petits fours? I don’t have an answer to that.
With Greg Cox, I just don’t understand. Go back and read his review from last June. With the exception of a couple of minor miscues, he raves about the place (and I want to know if some of those miscues came on his initial visit: Valentine’s Day, when restaurants always struggle, but particularly when they’ve only been open a month!). So why no love? I say because Cox set his expectations unbelievably (and perhaps unrealistically) high, he downgraded it. He awarded Herons 3-1/2 stars (now 4-1/2 under the new rating system), when even the review appears to come off as if the place warranted his highest rating. Compared to other 4-1/2 star restaurants on Cox’s list, can we truly say that Vin Rouge is objectively better than Herons? Of course not. Can we say that if someone else were footing the bill, is Vivace better? No, no, no! I love Vin Rouge and Vivace, but Herons is in an altogether different league than them. I may be wrong, but Herons may have been the only 4-1/2 star restaurant not to make Cox’s top 20 list, with some lower ranked places finding their way on his favorites.
A similar phenomenon occurred in New York several years ago when Alaine Ducasse opened his restaurant in the Essex House Hotel. People were looking for flaws, rather than just sitting back and enjoying the restaurant in all its glory. In the end, the initial criticism may have been a major factor in its ultimate demise.
Just like Ben Barker, Andrea Reusing, and Ashley Christensen, Chef Phil Evans reaches out to local artisanal vendors and farmers. Hell, he even names them on his menu and grows his own herbs. But he sure isn’t getting the love from the media, print or electronic. The food is creative. It is tasty. And just order the cheese plate to really shock you, making you forget that you’re in Cary (I want a set of those cheese knives). You’ll notice little touches such as serving a dainty pitcher of simple syrup to accompany your iced tea. And if you want a lower priced bargain, go to the bar and order their wine flights paired with food. You’ll get three healthy pours of either red or white, each paired with a small dish. For 30 bucks. In a beautiful room. With beautiful art. And a piano player, to boot.
So maybe Herons will never be the darling of the region. But if you have an out of town guest, particularly one from a big city, take them to Herons and see what they say. I did that recently with some individuals from Boston, both of whom travel extensively and seek out the top dining destinations across the country. They told me after the dinner concluded that they had no idea that this region had such an amazing restaurant. They were impressed, and so am I.