Eating On The Fly: Raleigh, North Carolina

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Hillsborough, which is not far from Raleigh, N.C. Since Durham was recently named the "Tastiest Town in the South" by Southern Living, and since Raleigh has its own unique food culture and a vast array of haute cuisine, I thought it would be best to write about these cities separately.

With The Pit winning award upon award for its North Carolina-style barbecue, and Ashley Christensen's group of restaurants (Christensen was recently nominated for a 2013 James Beard Award for "Best Chef in the South"), Raleigh has a lot to brag about.     

The "Triangle" region of North Carolina celebrates Triangle Restaurant Week June 3 to 9, but I jumped the gun a bit and got a head start last Saturday. My friend and I made a reservation at Mandolin last Saturday night. Chef Sean Fowler opened this contemporary Southern restaurant in 2011 in the Five Points area of Raleigh. After having our car valet parked (which is complimentary), we were greeted by a very friendly hostess who provided us with a table for two at the window.  I started with a cocktail, "Leaves of Spring," which was concocted with bourbon, basil, mint, honey, lemon, and Fernet Branca. It was perfect: not overly sweet, yet extremely refreshing. My friend had the classic Caesar and I had the charcuterie plate to start.  The salad was tasty — a very strong anchovy presence and crisp, sweet romaine. The charcuterie plate was a standout: house-cured country ham, guanciale, and chicken liver pâté with sourdough croutes, whole-grain mustard, smoked quail eggs, and house-made pickles. The pâté was smooth, clean, and flavorful, although I could have used a few more croutes to scoop up more of that deliciousness.

For my entrée I chose the grilled North Carolina pork chop, which was served with potato gnocchi, snap peas, North Cove mushrooms, and madeira. My pork chop was lean, yet juicy and full of the perfect amount of flavor and seasoning. My friend opted for the hickory-grilled skirt steak, served with asparagus, shitake mushrooms, pickled ramps, confit potatoes, and a poached Cane Creek duck egg. (She gave the duck egg to me, and I savored that little piece of runny, gooey heaven.)  I think if I had to choose, I would have picked the steak. The hickory flavor was unique and distinctive, providing a mouthwatering twist to a tender piece of meat. Regrettably, we skipped dessert, but if I could do it all over again, I would have picked the strawberry shortcake, prepared with rosemary, lavender, and vanilla. I thoroughly enjoyed my dining experience at Mandolin, especially the emphasis on North Carolina farmers and their bountiful harvests. 

It would feel incomplete to write about Raleigh without mentioning J. Betski's, perhaps my favorite Raleigh restaurant. Both Polish and German, J. Betski's is a meat lover's paradise. If you like hearty, rich, savory meals, Betski's is for you. Palatable pierogies, extraordinary charcuterie plates, succulent schnitzels, vinegar-based potato salad, rich chocolate hazelnut tortes that include sea salt, caramel, and bacon... this is the kind of food that you expect to eat when you die. And go to heaven. The smoked beef and pork kielbasa with sauerkraut and spicy mustard knocks my socks off! Braised veal pierogies? I can barely think about them without getting dizzy. The Beet Jammer (roasted beet-infused vodka, apple cider, and Blenheim's spicy ginger ale) washes it all down.

My mouth is watering so much, I can barely type anymore. I think my next plan of action will be to get back to J. Betski's as soon as humanly possible.  

City of Oaks, is it too soon to tell you that I love you? 

Hugs and hickory-infused kisses,

Laurie Vesalo