I know I promised you more on Hummingbird and Coleen in my last post, and I am going to bring it, but we need to talk about J.Betski’s tonight. Any local friend of mine who has talked about food with me knows that J. Betski’s is my longtime favorite restaurant in the Triangle. I recommend it to anyone and everyone who’s enthusiastic about food, or looking for somewhere incredible to eat. There is no place like it anywhere around here, and there never will be another. J. Betski’s is described as an elegant restaurant that uses local ingredients to create German & Polish dishes served with wine and beer. That’s an accurate description, but being the quintessential romantic and storyteller I am, I have to tell you how my love affair with J. Betski’s began.
Take it back to 2009. Downtown Raleigh was nothing like it is today. It was not bustling with art culture (which we still need to strongly cultivate), new restaurants and cocktail bars, tech startups, and the untiring construction and growth we see today. I was a newcomer to the area, having just moved from Long Beach, California. I was in culture shock, and a sense of belonging in Raleigh didn’t come natural at the time. North Carolina has always been my home, but never this far from the ocean, and I was still settling in. So, I remember my first visit to J. Betski’s very well. My sister, Laura, brought me there for the first time, along with Josh, and their new baby, my nephew, Atticus.
It’s not just because I was still getting to know the area that J. Betski’s really stood out to me, but because this was the first time I had been to a restaurant that tasted this much like home. Both of my parents are great cooks, but I also have a Polish grandmother to thank for what my idea of home tastes like. We had a salty childhood on the Bogue Banks of Carteret County, eating raw scallops and shrimp fresh out of the water as kids, but my sister and I spent every summer with our Grandma Kordulewski in Kinston, NC. She spoiled us silly, and cooked endless feasts that nearly always included fresh vanilla ice cream drizzled with honey and peaches as a late night treat, just for us girls. She grew up in rural Poland, survived the Holocaust, and lived in Munich just before moving to the U.S. in 1949. It is very clear to me now that she always paid attention in the kitchen. She also became a great Southern cook, and knew how to delicately roast a pork shoulder or fry a trout better than many Carolina natives. 🙂 But as a child, I knew that her style was unique because you couldn’t find food like that in Carteret County, where we lived. In fact, after her death in 2000, it was at least 5 years before I ate real Polish food again, which was during a trip to Poland I took with my sister. So, here we are, in Seaboard Station in downtown Raleigh at J. Betski’s. I think I really had an awakening there. An ethereal connection to the food culture of my youth that I didn’t realize I was missing in my life. And, since Chef John Korzekwinski incorporated local ingredients into his menu even before it was popular, that means he features fresh seafood from the places I grew up on. It was like J.Betski’s captured all my favorite elements of food from my childhood, all wrapped into one magical little place tucked away in downtown Raleigh, staffed by the nicest people, with the best damn cocktails and a finely curated wine list. How could such a place exist and be so perfect?!! Enter my obsession with J. Betski’s.
Every year, they have a special prix fixe Christmas dinner. Somehow, this year was the first time I have been. It was absolutely amazing, as expected. I was joined by the most amazing woman, one of my dearest friends, my “work wife” as we affectionately refer to one another, Hayley. This was our special “work wife Christmas dinner”. There’s a photo of the menu below, but what we had was a slight deviation– we had scallops rather than veal after a change of menu followed by a special request (thanks, John! <3). We started with the beets and the charcuterie. These beets were soooo tender. The maple and rosemary, which was barely there, paired so elegantly with this goat cheese cream. That goat cheese cream… Holy shit. I want that slathered on everything I eat. It was super light and fluffy, and balanced the beets so beautifully. Bravo. Came in hot with the beets. We were really hungry and ended up ravaging that platter of cured meats, pickled veggies, and sliced sausages. Confession: I try to avoid meat most of the time for several reasons. But, J. Betski’s is somewhere I’m always willing to splurge. It is locally sourced, and I like to think that the animal I’m consuming was able to walk on grass and experience the earth as we do before they have that one really bad day. John’s pastrami is the best thing to ever happen to a charcuterie plate. You can go there for lunch and often find a Reuben burger on special–which features this pastrami. The sausages are always perfect. Can we just stop and talk about sausages for a minute? Sausages are delicious. I have jokingly said before that being Polish and German, I have sausages flowing through my veins. Sausages. Are. The. Best. And because I rarely eat them, they are really such a treat. This is where you want to go to get your sausage fix. J. Betski’s serves fresh kielbasa, also a spicy kielbasa (my personal fav) and fresh brats. My favorite appetizer there is the chicken liver mousse with fresh homemade pretzels. You need to try that next time you go. This meat and veggie platter had baby homemade pretzels, and a really unexpected, but much appreciated, little puff pastry with lightly spiced baked apple on top. Like a little dessert bite to finish your charcuterie. I dig it.
We were basically full after that. But, then came the oysters. His baked oysters are always superstars on the menu–this might be the first time I have had them with leek and fennel. I’m not sure what type of cheese was on them, but we both decided the oysters were “panty-dropper” status. Be sure not to overlook anything on a plate at J. Betski’s. The red pepper, carrot, and onion relish garnish was our perfect palate cleanser after those oysters to get us ready for the scallops. We were having a 2016 Tavel Rose from the South Rhone, but I ordered a Bourgogne Chardonnay to go with the scallops. Scallops are my favorite seafood of all time, and maybe just favorite food in general. In fact, I have decided that if I had to choose my last meal, it would be perfectly seared scallops. It is actually really hard to find a restaurant that consistently serves perfectly seared scallops. I have seen some sad iterations as of late, but J. Betski’s has never disappointed. Our scallops tonight were accompanied with little Polish dumplings, called Uszka, this time stuffed with spinach, and they really just melted in your mouth. The scallops here are always perfection. Henry, J. Betski’s bartender, and I even came to a recent agreement that he would send me a text to inform me when they feature scallops on the menu. 🙂 What an angel (pictured below).
One of the many talents Chef John Korzekwinski has is the ability to incorporate several ingredients into a dish and they layer gradually on your palate, and the dish really unfolds in your mouth. Some chefs get overzealous and get too busy with a dish, and what sounded beautiful in theory or on paper falls flat into a mashed up flavor blob in your mouth in real life. A lot of John’s dishes sound complex, but are always elegantly and masterfully executed, and they layer beautifully, as intended. All around a truly world class dinner and only $48/person… We ate hours ago and I am still so full I cannot even talk about the dessert plate, but I will tell you that they have a special pastry chef who makes some really cool Eastern European desserts. The gingerbread is definitely worth pulling out a stop for– it was different than any I think I’ve had. It was so light and with the perfect amount of warming spices. For me though, the best part of the dessert was the description sheet the pastry chef had made for Henry that morning. Highly recommend sitting at the bar with Henry, by the way, if you don’t have a large group. He is a hoot. I noticed Henry reading from this piece of paper and caught a glimpse of the illustrations, and asked to see it. I found it hilariously adorable that the pastry chef drew it for Henry. We probably aren’t supposed to be seeing it, but I thought the descriptions were great, and since you’re reading my stuff, I think you’re special, so I don’t mind divulging Henry’s dessert tray description. 🙂
Thank you/ dziekuje bardzo/, J. Betski’s, for another perfect night with perfect food, and for always making my foodie dreams come true. I hope I’m in town for the New Year’s Eve Prix Fixe Dinner at J. Betski’s! You can see that menu here and call for reservations–> http://mailchi.mp/jbetskis/2018nyedinner Otherwise, you can visit OpenTable or their website for reservations, or just pop in and grab a seat at the bar. http://jbetskis.com/
Na zdrowie and dobranoc!