When The Mint opened several months ago on Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh, I was incredibly skeptical of the place. The menu appeared to be tired and derivative. The decor appeared to be chintzy and downright tacky. The chef appeared to have a pedigree of having worked at a couple of Rocky Top Hospitality establishments, which might be a fine job, but it’s not something to base your resume on.
Folks, I was dead wrong, and I’m now ready to eat crow. Cooked en sous vide, of course, medium rare.
I first suspected my initial impressions may have been wrong when Andrea Weigl of the N&O told me that The Mint’s chefs were using some molecular gastronomy techniques that haven’t really been seen in Raleigh. I then got a detailed version of the menu from one of the restaurant’s co-owners, Robert Royster. I then went to The Mint to get a behind the scenes look at how they use molecular gastronomy in some of their dishes. I was blown away. Chefs Jeremy Clayman and Eric Foster are not the second coming of Grant Achatz or Ferran Adria, but they know how to use a water bath for sous vide cooking. They have fun with liquid nitrogen. Using starch derivatives such as maltodextrin is not a foreign concept. But these toys and substances do not define the cooking at The Mint. They supplement it, making the food incredibly tasty and a little bit fun.
I first got to witness the making of The Mint’s version of strawberry shortcake. Pastry chef Eric Foster, who until recently was all but attached at the hip to wunderkind Sean Brock of Charleston’s McGrady’s, showed me his rendition this classic and simple dessert. The steps are displayed below with detailed photos, but you’ll see that this ain’t your grandmother’s shortcake.
I then got to sample a dish described as “Butter Poached Lobster — popcorn, bourbon caramel, peanut.” OK, sounds interesting, with a twist on Thomas Keller’s now classic technique of cooking lobster tails in hot clarified butter. But that’s not what this is — the lobster tails are cooked en sous vide (i.e., in a vacuum bag in a warm but not hot water bag). The lobster is surrounded by butter, salt and thyme and nothing else, slowly cooking for a couple of hours. Then the fun begins. The lobster is served with a popcorn-flavored puree and a smear of caramel enhanced with miso. Holy crustaceans, Batman, this dish rocks!
The third and final dish I sampled was what Chef Jeremy Clayman referred to as his version of a Spanish omelet. A poulet rouge chicken breast is poached en sous vide with butter, thyme and salt and then pan roasted to crisp up the skin. Chorizo is sauteed with fingerling potatoes, Vidalia onions and roasted peppers. The dish is accompanied by a “64 degree egg”, an egg which is cooked in its shell at 64 degrees Celsius, such that the white and the yolk have the same viscosity throughout. It’s a very elegant version of a poached egg. Unbelievably delicious.
So knowing that these guys could cook, I was looking forward to eating a regular meal at The Mint. The chefs and owners knew that I was coming with my wife and another couple. They initially offered shortly after opening to comp our entire meal, but I refused. Instead, they were gracious enough to provide us with a few complementary appetizers, which I appreciated. However, they knew that they couldn’t buy a good review. They had to earn it. And earn it, they did.
Let me quote my wife to sum up our meal: “This is the best meal I’ve had in a long, long time.” My wife is not easily impressed, but she, and the rest of us, loved every bite.
We each ordered a different salad, and they were fairly traditional versions with one exception: the heirloom tomato and buffalo mozzarella salad. Heirloom tomatoes are served with thin, house-made mozzarella sheets, stacked on a basil gelee. They garnish the plate with an extra virgin olive oil powder and a smear of balsamic vinegar/chocolate syrup (yeah, it sounds gross, but it really works). The salad was gorgeous, unlike any Caprese I’ve ever seen, but it really tasted great, too. Again, the bit of whimsy worked.
For what it’s worth, my salad of baby greens with a leatherwood honey vinaigrette, candied pecans and goat cheese was also super.
The complementary appetizers came out, one of which was the lobster with the popcorn puree. I let my dining companions keep that to themselves, listening to their approving moans, while I tried the beef tartare. This was a bunoise of filet mignon mixed with shallot, herbs, black truffle shavings, and white truffle oil. The tartare is garnished with a quail egg and a Maytag Bleu cheese foam and is served with house made yogurt crackers. This was easily the best steak tartare I’ve ever had. We also had two small crab cakes, that were mildly flavored with lavender flowers and herbs, all served with fennel. What made this dish different was the use of a vanilla sauce, which sounds bizarre at first but is a great accompaniment to the sweet crab.
We then got to try two separate mini-appetizers that weren’t on the menu. The first was a small piece of octopus served with blackberry, rosewater gelee, and a grapfruit sauce. It’s a one bite dish, but a great bite it was. We then received the double duck treat: a small piece of duck “tenderloin” served with duck heart, parsnip, parsnip puree, ramps, fava bean and a demiglace of some sort. If they could only convert this to a large course, they’d sell out every night.
We then moved onto the entrees. My wife and one of our guests both ordered tuna. The Mint has its tuna flown in from Hawaii regularly, and this was quickly seared and served rare. Black-eyed peas cooked in a vegetable stock accompany the tuna, along with olive oil-poached tomato “petals,” tomato jam, and yellow squash puree. Another knock-out dish.
A second entree was seared halibut served with sauteed morel mushrooms, peas, and celery root. The dish was plated with separate purees of pea and celery root and was sauced with a truffle froth. This was a fantastic dish, tasting like “spring” and “the sea.”
I went the Southern route and ordered the double Kurobuta pork chop that was cooked en sous vide and then grilled. The chop was served with whipped sweet potatoes, seared candied apples, and slow-cooked collard greens. The dish was plated with a sorghum/demiglace jus. Very Southern. Very tasty.
The desserts were also superb. In addition to the strawberry shortcake, we had the brown butter cake, a coconut cake and a “PB&J.” My friend called the coconut cake the best she ever had. It’s not a traditional coconut cake, of course, as it’s described as “Coconut coconut coconut,” so you might just call it the crack of coconut cakes. My wife was again incredibly and uncharacteristically effusive regarding her brown butter cake. And then there was my PB&J. If I recall correctly, this was a small brick of sweetened and toasted brioche, served with peanut butter ice cream, peanut butter powder, and house-made mulberry (or was it huckleberry?) jam. At this point, I couldn’t keep track. Oh, and the dish is served with a shot of milk! Damn, if it wasn’t a deconstructed PB&J — with ice cream!
The service at The Mint is as good as you’ll find in the Triangle. The waitstaff is very attentive, keeping water glasses full. The wine service is also great, even when there might be a hiccup. I ordered a Chaeauneuf-du-Pape, and they had run out of it. The sommelier suggested another wine at the same price, to which I agreed. The wine tasted flat, with little fruit or body. The sommelier instantly saw that I didn’t like it and got me his last bottle of Chapoutier Chateauneuf-du-pape, which was perfect. Now some might say that this was special treatment, but I don’t think so. The Mint is really dedicated to providing a complete dining experience. And it’s the only place where the waiter gave me his business card when he presented the check. Ask for Kevin Barrett, and tell him Varmint sent you!
The Mint is not cheap. The cheapest salad is $10, and appetizers are in the $13-16 range. With a couple of less expensive exceptions, the entrees are generally $30 or slightly more. Desserts are all less than $10. The vast majority of wines are above $50 a bottle, but the cheaper options are well selected. Our dinner for four, including wine and tax, but without tip, was almost $360. And remember, we weren’t charged for our appetizers.
Finally, the space. A lot has been written about how The Mint received a windfall from the City of Raleigh to open up this space. That’s not really fair to this restaurant and its owners. The City gave the The Mint a million dollar tenant improvement/upfitting allowance. That allowance has been built into the rent that The Mint has to pay, and the lease is personally guaranteed by the owners. This is very similar to what any other landlord would do with a prospective tenant. It’s just that municipalities aren’t landlords to restaurants very often.
The restaurant is quite a sight. It has lots of eye-catching details, from the heavy glass chargers on the tables to the “champagne” sculpture near the entrance. The banquettes are big and comfortable. Ultimately, however, I get the sense that the designers almost tried too hard. It’s a visually impressive space, but you almost feel as if it should belong in Vegas rather than Raleigh. And maybe that’s not a bad thing in this market.
And so, now for the apologies. First, I apologize to Chef Jeremy Clayman, the culinary mastermind to all the great food this restaurant puts out. He is indeed a talent, and we’re very lucky to have him in Raleigh. The same can be said about his chef du cuisine/pastry chef, Eric Foster. These guys truly know their stuff, know when to have fun with the food, and know when to be serious.
I owe them a second apology for criticizing the “old-school, protein heavy” menu. In my defense, I can only claim that it still fails to describe the delights coming out of this kitchen.
To the owners: I’m sorry for judging a restaurant on things other than the food, the service and the ambiance. I’ll learn my lesson one of these days.
And to my readers, I offer no apologies. Just a suggestion to save your money and take it to the bank at The Mint.
Here are photos of the preparation of the strawberry shortcake and lobster.
Eric Foster holding a disc of honey gelee.
A closer and poorly focused shot of the honey gelee.
The gelee is centered on the plate, topped with vanilla pound cake crumbs.
Fresh strawberries macerated in sugar and St. Germain liqueur are added onto one end of the crumbs.
The plate is decorated with some vanilla syrup, which is made with Tahitian vanilla beans, simple syrup and Ultra-Tex (a tapioca starch derivative).
A quenelle of mascarpone ice cream is placed on top of the crumbs.
Time for some liquid nitrogen. Eric tosses slices of dehydrated strawberries in the nitro.
The dish is finished by pouring liquid nitrogen onto the plate. It is then garnished with some micro-mint leaves and powdered sugar.
The final product.
Now this dessert isn’t “whacked out.” It’s just a different way of presenting a very traditional dish — a very fun way at that — but damn, if the flavors aren’t clean and harmonious. This really is a super dish, and it’s not defined by the use of liquid nitrogen or Ultra-Tex.
Chef Jeremy Clayman showing us one of his lobster tails sealed in a vacuum bag with butter and thyme.
The caramel-miso combination is spread onto a bowl.
Popcorn puree is added. Then the warm lobster is plated and one of its antennae is added as a garnish. So simple. So damn good.
Here’s a video of Eric and Jeremy playing with liquid nitrogen. Do not try this at home!
Here’s a video of Eric adding liquid nitrogen to his plated strawberry shortcake while the N&O photographer snaps away.