Herons: New Chef, New Food, New Heart

lambHerons Restaurant in Cary’s Umstead Hotel has been a bit of an enigma since it opened a couple of years ago.  It’s one of my favorite dining rooms, with warm wood decor and the most comfortable seats around.  The service has always been top-notch and efficient, although sometimes a bit overzealous.  At one point I wrote that Herons was the most underrated restaurant in the Triangle, but over time, I began to see why folks had a problem with it.  First, dining at Herons was a ridiculously expensive proposition with entrees in the high 30s and 40s.  Second, the food was wildly inconsistent, which could be directly tied to their chefs.  Phil Evans opened Herons, and although he was capable of putting out some good food, I thought he lacked direction and soul.  What I mean was that the food would taste good, but it just didn’t excite me.  I don’t need to be excited with everything I eat, but at 4o bucks, that plate should be somewhat memorable.  The second chef, Paul Kellum, went downhill from there.  I had two meals at Herons under Kellum, and both of them were lackluster, with one dish — Kellum’s version of chicken and waffles — being practically inedible.

I had no reason to go back to Herons, except for a business lunch, perhaps.  And then, with the economy gone bad, Herons wasn’t even a good proposition for business.  Ostentation is out.  Frugality is in.

I had no plans to eat at Herons again.  Then they had to go hire a new chef.  A chef who had previously turned around hotel restaurants across the country.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I’ve heard that story before.  I reluctantly headed over to Cary to interview this new chef, Scott Crawford, but only gave myself a half-hour time slot for this encounter.  I really didn’t want to talk to this guy.

I ended up being there for over two hours.  We really hit it off.

And I wrote about him, with a measure of excitement.   I wanted to eat Crawford’s cooking.  He wanted to know what I thought.  See, we are from the same county in western Pennsylvania, you know.

So my wife and I ended up at Herons last week, as guests of the restaurant (yes, they paid for our meal — I believe this is the first time I’ve ever accepted a comp like this, but the economy has forced me to cut back my dining budget).  I had the chef’s tasting menu and my wife ordered off the regular dinner menu.  What did we think?

Scott Crawford is simply in a different league than the prior two chefs.  He knows his flavors.  He has a sense of refinement that his predecessors lacked.  He knows when to dazzle, but he also knows when the simplest combinations are best left alone and shouldn’t be messed with.  For example, a classic pairing of asparagus and morels was complemented with duck ham, aged sherry and a “crispy” poached egg.  This is a dish that worked perfectly, with the yolk of the egg combining with the sherry to form a sauce that went perfectly with the asparagus and mushrooms.  It was a balance of texture, flavors and colors.  Give me a big plate of this for dinner, and I won’t get much happier.

Another great dish was smoked butterfish that was served with three acidic elements: pickeled fennel, tangerine, and heirloom tomatoes.   The unctious nature of the fish, ramped up with the smoke, was a fantastic balancing act with the acids.  Each element played off the other.

Not only was each dish great, but the overall tasting menu was presented perfectly in its progressions — the Kobe beef tartare starter was very light, tart and ideal to begin a meal.  That smoked butterfish dish was a most appropriate interlude between the asparagus/morels and a lamb course.

I’m not the most knowledgeable wine guy around, but the new sommelier, Justin Tilley, threw me a few curveballs, starting when he paired a Washington State riesling blend with the beef tartare.  It worked great, as did the combination of an Oregonian pinot noir with the butterfish.   White wine with beef?  A pinot with fish?  Yup.

So now I’ve been to Herons six different times.  I’ve paid for my meals for all but the last go-around.  The service has hardly changed, as the front of the house has  always been extremely attentive and knowledgeable.  This is a restaurant that prides itself on its service.  The decor is the same, too.  But the food is where it’s at now.  The prices have come down somewhat, but they’re still high — at least with respect to the regular dinner menu.  But the chef’s tasting menu, which I’ve copied below, is actually well priced at $70 (or a bargain at $100 with wine pairings).  Included in that tasting menu is an amuse, great bread (including a sourdough roll with bacon in it!), and mignardise from pastry chef Daniel Benjamin.

When I’ve eaten at Herons previously, the one word that kept coming to me was “potential.”  The place had the potential to be fantastic, to be a dining destination.  It was never worth the price, particularly compared to the other dining options available, and over time, the quality of the food declined.  Not only was Herons not worth it at the prices they charged, it wasn’t worth it at any price.  Herons became a shell of a restaurant, a place without direction or a soul.

That has changed.  This sounds corny, but Scott Crawford cooks with his brain, and perhaps more importantly,  his heart and soul.   And, my friends, it’s reflected on the plate.

********************************

Kobe Beef Tartare, Kanzuri, Lime, White Soy, Peanuts, Cilantro

Waterbrook, “Melange”, Columbia Valley, Washington 2007

Poached Asparagus, Morel Mushrooms, Duck Ham, Aged Sherry

Domaine Henri Perrusset, Chardonnay, Macon-Villages, Bourgogne, France 2006

Smoked Butter Fish, Heirloom Tomato, Pickled Fennel, Tangerine

Silvan Ridge, Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon 2006

Roast Lamb Loin, Curried Sweet Peas & Pine Nuts, Shallot Confit

Grant Burge, “Holy Trinity”, GSM, Barossa Valley, Australia 2002

Three Preparations of Olive Oil Cake

Chocolate-Cherry, Lemon-Pistachio, Almond-Apricot, Crème Fraiche

Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne, Sauternes, France 2001

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12 Responses to Herons: New Chef, New Food, New Heart

  1. VaNC says:

    I have to back Varmint up on this. My hubby and I went to Herons on Monday and had the exact same tasting menu with wines. And we paid for it ourselves. It was the best meal we have had in quite a while. As Varmint says, each dish was stellar, although I will have to say that the butterfish was my favorite, well, maybe. The wines were perfectly paired. I am glad he posted the wine pairings, as we meant to write a few of them down (the Waterbrook and Grant Burge were particulary favorites).

    I will have to say that if there was a weak link for me, it was dessert. WIth the exception of the almond-apricot, the olive oil cakes were very dry and weren’t so great.

    I also commend their bartender. We both had a cocktail before dinner and they were both perfectly mixed. Yes, after cocktails, all that wine (poured fairly heavily I think) and the prosecco they brought us at the end of the meal ……we were moving a little slow the next morning!

    Oh, and the bread. When we were there, it was not bacon, it was BBQ in the bread. Very yummy. But not as yummy as the pimento cheese scone!

  2. Varmint says:

    The desserts have been a strong point at Herons over my visits, and the pastry chef has been there throughout. Moreover, he usually doesn’t make things overly sweet. I will, however, have to admit that the olive oil cakes weren’t fantastic. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t memorable, either.

  3. Vanessa says:

    I love the whole vibe at The Umstead but had been disappointed with our last dinner at Herons, too, so we haven’t been back since September. Now we will definitely go after Restaurant Week!

  4. burgeoningfoodie says:

    I took my girlfriend to Heron’s when her birthday rolled around and while the restaurant was under Evan’s eye. The food was good and the prices were high so we will have to see how the food is different and try something new. I’m not sure we will make it during Restaurant Week as I’d like to try some places in Raleigh.

  5. Varmint says:

    Word has it that the prices will come down — but just a bit, so no entree will be in the 40s. It will still be the most expensive restaurant in the Triangle, outside of high-end steak houses. If there is a more expensive place, please let me know.

  6. ap1 says:

    Unfortunately, Heron’s has a lot of ground to make up. I have been there twice, both times prior to Mr. Crawford’s employment, and the food was weak for any price point and shameful for where it was priced. I may get around to eating there again, but am in no hurry to do so.

  7. jeremyclayman says:

    it is good to see that chef crawford is getting a good reception. the guy is talented and is in a place where he can shine. i applaud him and the umstead for recapturing an audience that can be a tough crowd. can’t wait to go eat…

  8. blueheron says:

    in response to ap1’s comment about being in no hurry to eat at Heron’s again even under Crawford’s helm, you have to remember that a chef is so integral to the quality of a restaurant that for all intents and purposes this should be considered a completely new and different restaurant. I believe one should follow chefs instead of following restaurants. No restaurant should be able to rest on the laurels of a previous chef who longer leads it, but neither should it be biased against the new leader.

    I’ve eaten Crawford’s food at Woodlands in Summerville, SC when he led there. It was a tremendous experience and deserving of the 5-star Mobil rating that he received while there. He then went to the Cloister on Sea Island and earned that place a new 5-star Mobil rating. and just for comparison’s sake – the Triangle doesn’t currently have a 5-star Mobil restaurant. You see where I’m going with this in terms of what Crawford could mean for our dining scene…

  9. Amanda says:

    I had the real privilege of getting to eat in Chef Crawford’s previous restaurant in February when he was still at The Georgian Room at Sea Island, a Mobil 5-Star restaurant, and it is an experience that I will never forget. The food was wonderful, truly wonderful. If you’re thinking about trying Herons, do it! You will not regret it. I can’t wait to get up to North Carolina and get a taste of this new menu, myself. Chef Scott Crawford is a food genius. It is true that his brain and his heart and soul for cooking come out in his dishes. Every component in each dish is necessary; each part needs the other, and it creates a perfect harmony of flavor. That is a skill and a gift that Chef Crawford has. Do not hesitate to splurge just a tad, because you will find it worth every penny for such fine cuisine.

  10. Matt Huffman says:

    It is so exciting to hear that the restaurant is blooming so well. Even with the previous talent that inhabited that place, it was still some of the coolest dining in the area.

    Having been there several times for lunch and dinner, I never felt like I received anything but the best value for my money. And the comments about the service, atmosphere and dessert are exactly right: they have been the highlights of each visit.

  11. burgeoningfoodie says:

    Without looking and comparing.. other expensive restaurants that I can think of would be Four Square, Bonn Soiree, Second Empire, Revolution and Il Palio. Again I’m not looking right at the menus and so I can’t compare as to whether they are as expensive or just slightly less so than Heron’s.

  12. Anonymous says:

    u rock

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