Herons 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