Egos and Icons

September 14, 2010

I received an email the other day that included a press release about a “celebrity chef” event in Charlotte.  I looked at the list of chefs participating and didn’t recognize a single one.  Now I have to admit that I don’t watch the Food Network all that much, and I couldn’t name a lot of the personalities that they on their programs, but it’s clear that television, and the Food Network in particular, has changed the public’s perception of all chefs.  No longer does a chef have to have a big TV deal, or even a cookbook, to be a celebrity.  The only requirement, it appears from this Charlotte event, is that the chef be, well, a chef.  Now I’m as caught up in chef worship as much as the next person, but we really need to remember that these chefs are just hard-working folks.  Hell, most of the chefs who are on television regularly and can truly be considered CELEBRITIES (Bayless, Batali, Keller, Pepin) are not that much different than you, me or anyone else.  And when we talk about the local chefs who might be considered “stars,” well, once again, they’re for the most part just plain folk.  Ben and Karen Barker of Durham’s Magnolia Grill have each won a James Beard Award, but they’re as humble and nice as can be.  Sure they have egos, but the manifestation of that ego is what’s on the plate.  They bust their butt to make sure that what we eat is top-notch, night after night. Read the rest of this entry »


Fearrington House — Best Restaurant in the Triangle???

August 5, 2010

Yeah, you read that headline right, and before you get too excited about this possible claim, realize that I’m not saying The Fearrington House is definitely the best restaurant in the Triangle, but it is certainly a contender.  It’s that good.  But first, a little story of my relationship with this great Chatham County place. Read the rest of this entry »

Restaurant Review Roulette: Market Restaurant

August 4, 2010

Did you miss me?  Sorry, but I’ve been on vacation and really haven’t even thought about writing.  My timing was pretty good, however, as the N&O didn’t have a review last week, with it being the fifth Friday of the month.

This week’s contestant is Market Restaurant, the hip place in Raleigh’s Mordecai neighborhood that focuses on local, organic fare.  This place has  been favorably reviewed by Urbanspoon reviewers and the omnipresent Yelpsters.  It has a chef who is committed to things that foodies (and food critics) like: flavorful, local ingredients, simply prepared, well-presented.  It’s in a cool neighborhood.  And the prices are reasonable, with the most expensive thing on the menu (except for the fish of the day) will run you 16 bucks.

Based on these considerations, I expect Market to get a decent review from Greg Cox.  It’s his type of place, and the on-line reviews have been pretty favorable.  Once again, this is a place I haven’t visited yet (do you get the sense that I really don’t get out all that much?), but I’m feeling that Market will garner 4 stars.

Here are the odds:

5 stars — 25 to 1

4.5 stars –  2 to 1

4 stars — 1 to 1

3.5 stars — 5 to 2

3 stars — 4 to 1

2.5 stars —  7 to 1

2 stars — 13 to 1

1.5 stars — 27 to 1

1 star — 75 to 1

How many stars would you give Market?  And how many stars will Greg Cox give it?


Edit, August 6, 2010 — Nailed this one!  Market got 4 stars from Greg Cox in today’s N&O, with Cox praising the seafood options in particular.

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 »

Coal-Fired Pizza Finally Here

June 30, 2010

I love pizza, and even mediocre pizza is pretty damn good.  But great pizza is so hard to find — the Triangle has not had a great pizza place.  And when I say “great”, I mean the pizza is hauntingly memorable, where you can’t get the taste out of your head.  I’ve had great pizza in New York, New Haven and Phoenix.  This pizza is all about the crust, with a slight char, where the toppings almost melt into oblivion.  Moreover, these pizzas (or pizze) are inevitably cooked in super-hot ovens, typically 900 degrees or more and fired with coal.  Most pizza joints have gas-fueled pizza ovens, which can get up to 500 degrees or so, but still far cooler than what’s needed.  Wood-fired ovens get a bit hotter, but not quite enough.  Coal is where it’s at.  And we now have a coal-fired pizza oven in the Triangle.  In Cary, of all places.  And very close to my home.

This place is Bella Mia, in the Arboretum at the corner of Weston Parkway and Harrison Avenue.  The place is owned by Rick Guerra, a New Yorker if there ever was one.   Guerra is friendly and passionate about what he does.  His sons man the two ovens that are fueled initially with oak, and then hard coal to bring up the heat.  The flour is imported “00” grade.  The tomatoes, San Marzano.  The mozzarella, from water buffaloes.  This place doesn’t put second rate ingredients on its pies, and damn, the crust is so good.

We’re talking fairly thin-crust Neapolitan-style pizza here.  And as I said above, it’s all about the crust — perfectly charred, with just the right amount of texture and salt (and not even the slightest bit of sweetness, thank you very much).  I’d prefer it just slightly thinner, but I’m not complaining.  This is the real deal, folks, and I suspect Bella Mia will soon have lines snaking out the door, as NO ONE in the Triangle has a pizza this good.  Just order the Margherita and enjoy.  I just finished an hour ago, and I’m already wanting to get back.

Bella Mia
2015 Renaissance Park Place (in the Arboretum off Westin Pkwy)
Cary, NC

Restaurant Review Roulette: Carini

June 30, 2010

Another week, another review of a restaurant that I may never visit.  Oh, the glamorous life of a restaurant reviewer!  Seriously, I know Greg Cox’s primary objective is to be a consumer advocate.  He’s trying to help his readers make dining decisions, but for god’s sake, wouldn’t it be maddening to have to go to middling places day after day?  Places that are new not in concept or cuisine, but only in name?

This week’s subject: Carini, an Italian place in Cary (warning: home page has music that cannot be turned off).  Now this is the exact type of restaurant I look for in unfamiliar towns when I’m trying to line up a team meal for one of my kids’ soccer teams during a tournament.  I want the tried and true Italian-American menu, with lots of inexpensive pasta offerings and the availability of pizza.  There are thousands of places like this across the country (maybe even the state), and rarely does one stand out, on either the good or the bad side.  But this is not the type of place I generally want to visit on a night out in the Triangle.  I’m sure it’s just fine — but that’s the problem.  I want more than “just fine” when dining in the area.

I don’t know the history of Carini.  I don’t know the owners.  I don’t know how long they’ve been around.  I don’t know what type of pizza they offer or whether their red sauce is piquant or sweet.  I don’t know if their desserts are made in house or purchased from a supplier (I suspect the latter based on the pictures).

What I’m pretty sure of is that you can probably get a very reliable meal at Carini, just like most other Italian joints.  I base this on a couple of diner reviews floating around the internet.  It’s not great and not bad.

So, I’m guessing it gets 3 stars.  Not great.  Not bad.  Here are this week’s odds:

5 stars — 150 to 1

4.5 stars – 80 to 1

4 stars — 14 to 1

3.5 stars — 3 to 1

3 stars — 2 to 1

2.5 stars — 3 to 1

2 stars — 7 to 1

1.5 stars — 25 to 1

1 star — 45 to 1

If website design were part of the review, I would have given the place less than 2 stars, but even Greg Cox doesn’t use that in his process.  How many stars do you think Carini will get?


Edit — July 2, 2010: As predicted, Carini received 3 stars.  No, it’s not that I’m that good in predicting what Greg Cox will do, it’s just that this restaurant was so predictable.

Iconic Restaurants of the Triangle

June 24, 2010

I’m about to start a series of articles on the iconic restaurants of the Triangle.  I’ve visited two of those places in the past week: The Irregardless Cafe and The Fearrington House.  To make my list of “iconic”, the restaurant had to have opened no later than the 80’s, when I was in school at Chapel Hill.  Some of these places are owned by friends, such as Crook’s Corner and Magnolia Grill.  Others are institutions that I haven’t visited in 20 or more years, such as The Angus Barn or La Residence (and, until last night, the fantastic Fearrington House).  I’ll probably not write about the cheap-eats places like Cooper’s or The Roast Grill or the Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen, but then again, I might.

What restaurants would you consider to be iconic in this area, based on my temporal qualifications specified above?  And frankly, any place that has survived for over 20 years is iconic by definition.  Here’s a list that I just started (and again, just because it’s on this list doesn’t mean I’m going to write about it).

  • Magnolia Grill
  • Crook’s Corner
  • La Residence
  • Spanky’s
  • The Angus Barn
  • Irregardless
  • The Fearrington House
  • Casa Carbone
  • Fishmonger’s
  • Mecca
  • Bullock’s
  • Roast Grill
  • Carolina Coffee Shop
  • Ye Olde Waffle Shop
  • Time Out
  • Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen
  • Cooper’s
  • Mama Dip’s
  • Breadman’s

I haven’t listed places that are hotel restaurants such as the Carolina Inn or Il Palio (and Fearrington is a bit different).  I know I’m missing lots of places, as I just thought about this idea 10 minutes ago,  so I’d love your help putting together this list.