An Amazing Event for an Amazing Organization

September 12, 2011

You like Herons restaurant in the Umstead, don’t you?

And you love the Shimmer Wall, Marbles Museum and the cool ring sculpture on the lawn behind the North Carolina Museum of Art, right (it’s called Gyre, for what it’s worth)?

Well, what would you think about an event where that particular artist, Raleigh’s own Thomas Sayre, and the Herons’ chef, Scott Crawford, combine forces for a once in a lifetime event? An event where Chef Crawford, and some other amazing guest chefs (including Colin Bedford from the Fearrington House and Matthew Medure of Jacksonville, FL) create food inspired by Sayre’s art? Where the chefs and the artists come together and talk about how they inspire each other?

This event — Expressions, A Celebration of Food and Art —  is happening on Friday, September 23rd at the Umstead Hotel and Spa. This event benefits the Lucy Daniels Center, and I need you, my readers, to step up and buy a seat or two. You’ll be the recipient of some amazing food and wine that will knock your socks off. You’ll learn about the creative process for chefs and artists. And you’ll be helping out an amazing organization — the Lucy Daniels Center — the Triangle’s leading provider of mental health services to children.

I’m begging you to come to this event (I’m the chair of the board of the Center), and you won’t regret it. Heck, if you buy a seat at this dinner, I’ll double your value. I’ll cook a special dinner for anyone who buys a seat and mentions that they heard about it through VarmintBites. So, that means you get the dinner at Herons and then a dinner at my house. Yes, the Herons dinner will be better, but mine won’t be too shabby, either.  We’ll have to work out the logistics, but if 24 people buy seats and mention my site, then I’ll have to figure out a way to cook another dinner for 24. Yes, I might have to break it into three dinners of eight, but we’ll get it done.

To buy tickets online, go here:  And when you list the guests, mention “Referred by Varmint” to be added to the dinner list. We’ll follow up with you.

If you have questions, call the Center at 919-459-1611 and ask for Patti Wilt.

Bella Mia — Restaurant of the Year

January 21, 2011

Greg Cox of the News & Observer named Bella Mia his “Restaurant of the Year.” Now some people have asked, “A pizza joint?  Restaurant of the year? Seriously?”

My response: Most definitely.

Note that Cox did not say Bella Mia was the best restaurant of the year.  Nor did he give it his highest rating of 5 stars — it only received 4 stars.

So why does Bella Mia deserve to be called the Restaurant of the Year?  When one looks at the state of pizza in the Triangle a year ago, there are a lot of places that make a decent pie.  Some have wood-fired ovens, some use great ingredients, and you could always get a solid pizza.  But could you get a transcendent pizza?  No.

Bella Mia makes a transcendent pizza.  Their coal-fired oven hits temperatures of nearly 1,000 degrees.  The Guerra brothers, Louis and Anthony, use the finest ingredients and cook those pizzas with just the right amount of char.  There is no place in North Carolina that comes close to this play.  Some individuals may disagree, but the consensus is that Bella Mia is unlike any pizzeria that came before it in our area.  And because it is so much better than anyone else makes it worthy of the ROTY designation.

This is the only restaurant with which I am totally obsessed.  I’ve probably eaten there 30-40 times since they opened.  I’ve gotten to know the Guerra family fairly well, and when you think of how big of a chance they took, investing in beautiful tile-laden coal-fired ovens in the back of a Cary strip mall, I can’t help but smile over their success.  They dared to raise the bar for an iconic food like pizza, and they blew away the competition in doing so.

So congratulations to Bella Mia and the Guerra family.  And a big thumbs up to Greg Cox to have the balls to pick a pizza joint as his Restaurant of the Year.  Who’da thunk it?

Restaurant Review Roulette: Chef’s Palette

November 10, 2010

You know how many restaurants’ menus just list a few ingredients to describe a dish?  Like Alinea, with these examples: Short Rib, Guiness, peanut, fried broccoli.  Or Sardine, black olive, tomato, arugula (and note their use of the Oxford comma).  Yes, this gives you some idea of what might be in the dish, but it gives you no clue of what the dish actually is.

This week’s contestant in our game of Restaurant Review Roulette doesn’t have this exact problem, as the menu thoroughly describes each dish (more on that later).  However, Cary’s Chef’s Palette uses a different approach to confuse the diner: they make up names for dishes that leave you guessing as to what they are.  Let’s have a quiz.  I’m going to list five menu items, and you try to tell me what they are:

  • Tidal Pool Rendezvous
  • The Mad Hatter
  • Earth and Sky
  • Vesuvius
  • The Howling Wolf

Have at it.  Now you might be able to figure out that the Tidal Pool Rendezvous is seafood-based, and probably some form of crustacean or bivalve.  The Earth and Sky involve some meat (the Earth) and some bird (the Sky).  But really, do you have a clue what these dishes really represent?  Did you even come close to establishing that The Howling Wolf is “Jumbo shrimp dredged in a spicy apple butter barbeque sauce, served over a crawfish and sweet basil infused potato cake and drizzled with a white remoulade nestled in a pool of corn soubise.”

The other thing that sticks out about this menu is how detailed the actual descriptions are.  Here’s your answer for the Tidal Pool Rendezvous: ” Colossal Scallops wrapped in rosemary-peppered bacon and lightly seared.  Served with creamy stone ground gouda grits and grilled asparagus.”  OK, that sounds pretty good, except for the damn bacon around the scallops.  Folks, contrary to popular belief, bacon does NOT make everything better.  A rosemary-peppered bacon would overwhelm a decent scallop, so keep it away.  Here’s the description of Vesuvius: “House made marinara ladled over a nest of angel hair pasta, crowned with char grilled shrimp and finished with aged parmesan reggiano.”  OK, they must stack this baby up like a big-ass cone, and hope it shoots the marinara out of the middle.  Now THAT would be cool.  But I suspect it’s just a marinara pasta with shrimp.

So what about the food?  Beats me.  I never heard of this place until this morning.  Like most places, some people appear to love it, and it’s just “meh” for others.  To me, this place looks like an acceptable option for a strip mall.  They look like they’re trying to be all things to all people, and that’s a very tough task.  In the end, I suspect Greg Cox liked it just fine, but he didn’t love it.  And so (drumroll, please), I’m guessing this is a 3 star review.

Here are this week’s odds:

5 stars — 20 to 1

4.5 stars – 8 to 1

4 stars —  3 to 1

3.5 stars — 3 to 2

3 stars — 1 to 1

2.5 stars — 2 to 1

2 stars — 4 to 1

1.5 stars — 7 to 1

1 star — 35 to 1

And by the way, these folks do know the difference between “palette” and “palate.”  So what do you think will be the outcome of Greg Cox’s review of Chef’s Palette?  And why?


Edit, November 12, 2010 — Greg Cox gives Chef’s Palette a 3-star review.  If you bet anything other than 3 stars, I’m going to use that money on something a bit less artsy.

Restaurant Review Roulette: Lucky 32

September 1, 2010

I’ve gotten pretty good at guessing how many stars Greg Cox will give a restaurant, even when I’ve never even heard of the place.  But this week, I have a different challenge: figuring out the rating of a friend’s restaurant — in this case, Chef Jay Pierce’s Lucky 32.  I’ve previously written about this place, as Jay has invited me over twice to give him feedback on new menu items.  I like what Jay has done with the restaurant, making it a high end “meat ‘n 3” place.  Frankly, the stars of Lucky 32 are often the side dishes.

The problem with this edition of Restaurant Review Roulette is that I’m not sure how well Greg Cox will like it.  If I had to put my own money down, it would be at the 4 or 3.5 star level.  Lucky 32 has a number of dishes that are 4 star level or higher, but its menu is so large that I suspect Cox will think it’s overreaching.   I’ve also heard comments from others that love several of Lucky 32’s dishes, but they’re not enamored with others.

So, I’m going to go with 4 stars, as Lucky 32 is certainly as good as other places receiving that rating, and in some instances, even better.

Here are the odds:

5 stars — 32 to 1

4.5 stars – 32 to 9

4 stars — 32 to 23

3.5 stars — 32 to 19

3 stars — 32 to 13

2.5 stars —  32 to 5

2 stars — 32 to 4

1.5 stars — 32 to 1.2

1 star — 32 to .32

The one thing we know is that Lucky 32 won’t be getting 32 stars.  How many will Greg Cox give it?


Edit, September 3, 2010:  Greg Cox gave Lucky 32 3.5 stars in this week’s review.  This is one of those reviews where the description of the place, including the food, doesn’t really match up with the rating.  Greg is quite positive about the place across the board, with a couple of minor exceptions, which led me to think he wanted to give it 4 stars.  But I sense that Greg just couldn’t bring himself to give them that extra half star.  What I will say is that a LOT of the dishes on that menu are worthy of 4 stars,  but I also have no problem with Greg’s final verdict.

Restaurant Review Roulette: Bravo’s Mexican Grill

August 11, 2010

To be reviewed this week is Bravo’s Mexican Grill, which appears to be a fairly standard Mexican restaurant in Cary.  Nothing stands out about the menu.  The website has the most god-awful sound ever, which I think is music, but it comes through as distortion (and I would hate it even if it were nice music).  The owners apparently have two other places in South Carolina, but I know nothing about those.

This is the type of place that screams for a review of 2 or 2.5 stars, but the teaser in today’s N&O suggests that it might be a bit better than that.  Maybe it’s their “Pollo Relleno” that is served with something called, “Creamy Broccoli Gravy.”  I have no clue, and the online reviews don’t provide any great insight, either.  Damn it, I hate guessing these places.  But I suspect that this place just might be better than mediocre, and that’s why my target is 3 stars.

5 stars — 2,000 to 1

4.5 stars – 250 to 1

4 stars — 25 to 1

3.5 stars — 3 to 1

3 stars — 5 to 4

2.5 stars —  2 to 1

2 stars — 5 to 1

1.5 stars — 7 to 1

1 star — 25 to 1

Let me know if you’ve eaten there.  And how many stars you think it will get.  And if you go back, please tell the owners to drop the music from the website!


Edit, August 13, 2010 — Hah, take that, you naysayers!  Bravo’s got 3 stars from the N&O.  And so what if there really weren’t any naysayers?  I just like to say that I’m right and create controversy when there really is none.

Restaurant Review Roulette: Courtney’s Bistro

July 14, 2010

If you ask a local for a good breakfast spot, Courtney’s will get mentioned as much as anyone else.  There are a few Courtney’s locations in the Triangle, and many people swear their breakfasts are the best in the area.  I don’t agree, as the food has always been decent, but not great, but I can understand the appeal.  Courtney’s also serves lunch, offering soups, salads and sandwiches.  Courtney’s has not, however, traditionally served dinner.  Until recently.

Enter Chef Orobosa John Uwagbai.  And Courtney’s Bistro.  Chef Orobosa is a native Nigerian who has been cooking low country fare in the Charleston area for some time, and then worked at Gregory’s in Cary.  The Courtney’s Bistro website claims he’s listed as one of the top 25 chefs in the country (although they don’t list the source of that list).  He’s now partnered with the owners of Courtney’s to offer a “unique and exquisite dinner service.”  Now this is quite a combination, combining crystal and linen with the diner-like feel of Courtney’s.  The menu certainly focuses on low country specialties such as shrimp and grits and gumbo, but he also offers traditional fare such as rack of lamb and pasta dishes.

And now Greg Cox gets to review this bizarre combination.

I have no clue how good the food is.  I have no clue how this concept works.  I have no clue if Greg Cox will love or loathe the place.  What to do, oh, what to do?

Punt.  That’s what I need to do.  But, alas, this being Restaurant Review Roulette, I cannot run away.  I have to establish the odds.  There is a substantial amount of betting going on, I’m sure (snicker), and so I offer this week’s prognostication: Courtney’s Bistro will garner 3 stars.

5 stars — 200 to 1

4.5 stars – 20 to 1

4 stars — 9 to 2

3.5 stars — 2 to 1

3 stars — 3 to 2

2.5 stars —  5 to 2

2 stars — 3 to 1

1.5 stars — 7 to 1

1 star — 17 to 1

I don’t know a soul who has tried Courtney’s Bistro.  Let me know your thoughts.  And your predictions.


Edit, July 16, 2010: Greg Cox gave Courtney’s Bistro 3 stars, just as I predicted.  However, the description of the food sounds as if Courtney’s Bistro could have merited at least another half star.  I guess the guy has a problem with formica tables.

Lucky Me Tastes the Menu at Lucky 32

July 13, 2010

Image courtesy of Lucky 32

You might have heard of Lucky 32, and you might have even eaten there over the years.  There are  two Lucky 32 locations, one in Greensboro and the other in Cary near Regency Park, and until last year, I didn’t think much about the place.  My recollections of Lucky 32 were of a glorified, slightly high-end chain restaurant in the ilk of Tripp’s.  The menu was all over the place, with food representing cuisine from just about every major country.  People who have never been have told me that they thought it was a Chinese restaurant.

Last October, while attending the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual symposium, I was waiting in line to get some grub and started talking to this guy with long hair pulled back into a pony tail and a bitchin’ goatee.  He told me his name was Jay Pierce, and that he was the chef at Lucky 32.  In a moment of Southern food snobbery, I wondered what the hell a chef of a high-end Applebee’s was doing at the SFA symposium.  I quickly learned from Chef Pierce that Lucky 32 was a completely different restaurant, that it had a focus on Southern cuisine with locally sourced ingredients.  I couldn’t believe that Lucky 32 had changed so much.

A month or two later, I got an email from Jay, asking me if I’d be willing to come over and go through a tasting of the new winter menu.  I was intrigued by what they were doing, and so I came over at lunch time and joined Jay and General Manager Shane Garrity in a whirl-wind tour of about 15 dishes.  These were dishes that were sometimes classic Southern, but always inspired by Southern traditions.  I offered my comments to Jay, telling him what I liked and what I would change slightly.  I told Chef Pierce that Lucky 32 had become a high-end “meat and 3” place, as the side dishes were as much of a feature as the mains.  He liked that concept, but frankly, I had forgotten about it until recently.

Flash forward to two weeks ago, when Jay invited me back to try to summer menu, which he was calling “Suddenly This Summer.”  I was excited to get back for two reasons.  First of all, because I had failed to write about my first tasting experience, but second, and more importantly, because I wanted to see what he was going to do with summer produce.  As I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed that the name of the restaurant had slightly changed; it’s now “Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen.”  It appears this transformation to a high end meat and 3 is complete, so I was anxious to eat.  This is what I tasted, and the comments I gave. Read the rest of this entry »