Highlighting the finest food and drink in the Triangle
Author: Sarah Kordulewski
Welcome to Come-Eat-With-Me! I’m Sarah, a North Carolina native residing in downtown Raleigh. I’m a shameless foodie and wine collector. I love to tell stories and nerd out over really thoughtfully executed food. This site is where those things converge.
Wow. It’s been awhile since I sat down to write… so here goes. Feels good, though I’ll admit I’m a bit distracted. 🙂 I’m excited to share GringoAGoGo with you guys. It’s such a special place that I am lucky to have in my neighborhood for the past five years. I’ll not forget the first time I set foot inside Gringo. I don’t remember what I ate or who I was with, but I remember how at home I felt. It actually felt like I escaped downtown Raleigh and transported to Mexico for a split second. I love that about Gringo. Eclectic as hell, with a disco-western Mexican vibe going on. The building is an old auto service station, hence the verified lubrication signage that was preserved. The other thing I really dig about this place is the tropical vibe with the vegetation on the patio. Benjy, Gringo owner, has a mega-green thumb and transforms the patio into a lush jungle-taco paradise in the summer. In winter months, he pulls out these fake cacti for the effect.
What most people may not know about this place is that everything is made from scratch and locally sourced, from the corn tortillas, to all the salsas, and the margarita mix, which is fresh citrus. After all, friends don’t let friends drink sour mix. Part of this may be because of how conscientious of food ingredients Benjy is due to his own food allergies. Just look at this cranberry margarita. He makes these from fresh cranberries when they are in season, which are the winter months around Christmas– ummm, now! Go get one! Not too sweet, kinda tart like you would expect from a cranberry, and absolutely perfect.
Something else that isn’t well known about this place is that it’s a vegan/vegetarian paradise. Listen, I was a Mexican in my former life. If there’s one thing I could live off of, forever, it’s Mexican food. And not the Americanized, I’ll have the #7 enchilada and taco combo, I mean real Mexican food. It’s hard to come by in NC. In downtown Raleigh, you’ll get as close as you can here or at Taqueria el Toro. See my April, 2018 post about Toro, if you haven’t been there.
One thing you should know is that, unlike other Mexican restaurants, they won’t bring chips and salsa to the table by default. You have to order them. Since that’s the case, just order guacamole. Or better yet, chorizo con queso. This is served with warm flour tortillas and roasted chiles on top. So good, and if you’re needing comfort food, you for sure need this.
I am such a creature of habit when it comes to Gringo. I had the vegan chorizo tacos once, and well, I just kinda never looked back. Haha. Granted, I am not vegan (but I would be really impressed if I were), but I just feel better when I am not in a meat coma. And when I eat fake meat and I don’t even miss the real thing, I feel like I won. 🙂 So, I tend to always order the vegan chorizo taco and the vegan carnitas taco. I challenge you to do the same and I promise you will not miss it. One thing I will add, if you are ordering tacos of any kind on this menu, you MUST order a condiment tray. It’s a plate with onions and jalapeños served three ways (pickled, raw, and caramelized/roasted) also some shredded cabbage and radishes. This is a must have with the tacos. Pro tip: you will have leftovers of the condiment tray. Take it home and put it on top of huevos rancheros for breakfast.
Do not sleep on anything else on the menu, though. The green enchiladas are amazing. I am not usually one to think about quesadillas, but this steak quesadilla has turned me into a person who thinks about quesadillas. The fish tacos are so good (condiment tray non-negotiable when ordering this). My time spent in Southern California brings something very specific to mind when I think of fish tacos. I have planned entire vacations around those things. A lifeblood, a love affair, a magical little succulent treasure wrapped up in a fresh corn tortilla brimming with memories of salty summers and beaches. I am not talking about Gringo’s style of fish tacos, though. They are different. I asked Benjy before, pleaded more like it, “how come you don’t make your fish tacos like the kind you’ll find at the fish taco joints in Southern Cal?” He tells me, “Because those are tourists tacos! They don’t eat that in Mexico!” Hahahaha fair enough. But either way, you can’t go wrong. Benjy uses fried catfish in his. They are great, but different from the Baja style fish tacos. What I have come to realize is the fish tacos I fantasize about were probably invented by some surfer named Chad on a surfing trip to Baja, Mexico.
I had to remind myself that I named this blog Come Eat With Me. For me, this isn’t just about the food, but the company with whom it is shared. I have so many memories at Gringo with different friends over the years. One memory that comes to mind is that time I had several girlfriends come to stay with me for a weekend and we went to Gringo for dinner and just took over the bar. I love these ladies, and I am so lucky to call them mine. Man, that place didn’t stand a chance that night! Haha!
The last time I ate at Gringo, I was accompanied by a very dear group of friends who I’ll refer to as my barn family. Our horses brought us together, and our friendship has kept us together. We have laughed together, we have cried together, we have shared some of the most incredible moments on horseback (and challenging moments on horseback) or around the picnic table at our famous barn picnics, and we have been there to lean on each other and support one another in such a way that is, well, overwhelmingly amazing. I love you girls and am beyond grateful for you!
It’s kind of melancholic finishing this post. I started it in summer of 2019 and then put it on the back burner for a while. A week or so ago, Benjy announced he was looking to sell Gringo. So, I am not sure how the future may change it, but it sure has been great. Aside from the stellar food, there’s just always something totally interesting and ever changing inside. I really appreciate that. He keeps it weird, and I am just not sure a new owner can or will want to replicate that, sadly. In the meantime, if you haven’t been here yet, I am not sure what you’re waiting for. Better hurry.
That’s basically what dining at Alinea was like. Chef Grant Achatz has earned three Michelin Stars with this highly creative restaurant located in the Ranch Triangle neighborhood of Chicago. And if you’re going to go, go big, right? So, my family and I, along with a couple friends, flew to Chicago for the weekend to celebrate my and my Mother’s birthdays. Alinea is argued by some as one of the world’s best restaurants. The thing about rating food is that, to an extent, some level of subjectivism comes into play. Is Alinea my favorite restaurant in the world? Absolutely not. Is it one of the most unique and creative dining experiences I have ever experienced in my life? Absolutely. As such, if you make it to Chicago and dine at Alinea, forget all the rules you ever learned about food, open your mind (and your wallet), and enjoy the ride. Our dining party is pictured below, minus one Mr. John Rozycki, a good friend and former colleague who lives in Chicago. L to R, me, my vivacious mother, Brenda, my sister, Laura, dear friend, Coleen, and my nephew, Atticus. I was very proud of Atticus for trying everything and keeping his mind open during this culinary adventure. He is a purist and, well… a 9 year old.
Remember when I said go big or go home?
If you are going to fly to Chicago solely for a dining experience, then why not opt for the most exclusive seat in the house and sit at the kitchen table? If you go, I’d say it’s totally worth it to be able to observe the team of chefs doing their thing. Our meal consisted of 14 courses. I will not go into describing each course in great detail, but rather highlight my favorites. I have included photos of each course, as well as the menu, so you can live vicariously through our evening if you want.
One of the first things you notice is that the chef is intentionally playing mind tricks with the food. The snozberries taste like snozberries, but what looks like a banana and tastes like a banana, is not, in fact, a banana.
The service at Alinea was over the top. There were multiple people tending to our table at a time, all ensuring the six of us had the exact same experience at the same time. This type of timing and execution from a service perspective is often what defines a dining experience. Like my good friend and local restaurateur, Corbett Monica, says, “if people wanted to worry about doing it themselves, they would stay at home and eat.” I couldn’t agree more, and you don’t have to be a three Michelin Star restaurant to grasp a service standard. There were certainly courses at Alinea that I wasn’t blown away by, but the quality of service and attentiveness promised it all worthwhile. I will also note that they have the coolest freaking china I have ever seen in my life. Our plates were all eclectic, mostly mismatched, grandiose, and beautiful.
Step 1. Forget all the rules.
After we were seated and settled, we were greeted with a glass of Austrian Grüner Veltliner Federspiel, and a beautiful plate of herbs and flowers that are reminiscent of what a woodland troll or his whimsical fairy friends might eat on a hot, summer, Chicago day. It was described as a terrarium and had avocado, kiwi, and little clear cubes that looked like jello but were actually… pickled cucumbers… we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
They really captured my attention two courses in when we were invited into the kitchen for our “root beer” and “pizza pocket”. Remember what I said, right? Mind games with the food. That is the recurring theme and often the object of molecular gastronomy.
This gentleman below whipped up a boozy version of root beer in that super cool shaker machine where he inserted the shakers and then he spun the wheel. The shakers were all mechanically shaken rapidly, then he poured. Atticus had a virgin version of this drink, naturally. He then served us what I can only describe as a magical pepperoni pizza puff. It was light and airy, just completely melted in your mouth and tasted just like a savory bite of pepperoni pizza. Again, forget all the rules. I can walk you through the principles of a traditional handmade pizza, but I cannot accurately describe what they have done to create this dish. Something about distilling the essence of the pepperoni, incorporating mozzarella, sprinkling magic fairy dust and fennel flowers on top, and voila. I immediately decided that if I could order a late night munchie box of Alinea eats, we would definitely want a dozen of these. I actually wouldn’t mind if that chef delivered them. He was kinda cute. I like that tattooed, yet freshly bathed look. Anyway, I digress.
My next favorite course happened to be the course that followed this one. We were ushered back to our table, and seated. Our table had taken on a completely new personality while we were gone, and now boasted a beautiful bowl of oranges. It was a welcomed change since the stunning and elegant floral arrangement that was there previously was 1) so tall we couldn’t see each other across the table and 2) it had a beautiful variety of eucalyptus in it to which my mother is deathly allergic. I have a pretty serious reaction to eucalyptus as well, but my mom’s is paralyzing, so that arrangement had to go. 🙂 Little did we know, the bowl of oranges served a purpose in an upcoming course. There were surprises around every corner at Alinea. It kept your senses and your imagination both running wild and on its toes.
The next course was brought in little covered pots, which when opened in front of us (all at the same time of course), smoke escaped and carried your olfactory senses on an earthy, smoky journey, only to reveal delicate sunflower petals meticulously placed into a paste made of sunflower seeds beneath, and in place of real sunflower seeds on the face of this “sunflower” was Osetra, which is caviar of sturgeon. Osetra is one of the most prized types of caviar, Beluga being the most exclusive. This dish ended up being my favorite. The delicate flavors of lemon and onion lingered in ways that are difficult to describe. It was beautiful and mysterious. This dish was paired with a Samuel Billard Premier Cru Chablis Burgundy, 2015.
The next course, which was Ranina Ranina, or Spanner Crab which is found in tropical waters, was accentuated with coconut, and curry glow. This was where the bowl of oranges came into play. To our surprise, the oranges had been resting on a block of dried ice. Just before serving the crab course, our server, Bradley (who Atticus affectionately dubbed Sir Bradley The Third) came in and gently poured hot water into the bowl, causing a citrusy aroma to slowly drift around the room and flirt with our senses. It was super cool. If there was anyone at our table who wasn’t impressed by this point, that definitely changed.
The next big highlight was the palate cleanser that came with the crab course. Notice the glowing blue bowls with little mini oranges? We were instructed to eat these at the end of the course, and “once you put it in your mouth and bite, keep your mouth closed…” Hmmm… At this point, Atticus’ guard was slightly up with this whole food adventure, and when he learned he had to commit to the little orange ball by putting the whole thing in his mouth, he grew a little skeptical. I assured him that if he tasted it and couldn’t handle it, he could politely remove it from his mouth into his napkin. The important thing was that he tried it. I wish I had taken a picture of his face when he bit into that orange ball. It wasn’t in fact an orange at all. It was a fragile little white chocolate shell, filled with freshly squeezed, slightly spiced, orange juice. It was pretty impressive how they were able to craft that–seemingly impossible. It really gushed in your mouth once you bit it, and I think that surprised him because he quickly held his mouth over his bowl like he was going to spit it out, then he paused, and slowly chewed and swallowed. He looked up at us with a grin and asked, “can I have a whole bowl of those?” 🙂 Lesson learned. Always try it, you just might like it. I know a few adults who could take this advice… hehe. These oranges were absolutely rad, and we decided to add them to our wishlist box of late night munchie Alinea eats.
The next course was started with a fire. That’s right. Bradley brought in a bowl of salt and lit it on fire, then came back with a plate of black river stones which had ‘olived’ artichokes placed on top that blended in with the rocks. How does one olive an artichoke, you may ask? It’s just magic. I missed the instructions on these coming back from the restroom and Coleen simply advised me, “Don’t eat the rocks.” Never overlook such sage advice, friends. See if you can tell which two below are actually not rocks.
This course also was accompanied with barbecued octopus brushed with Korean barbecue sauce, and Bradley then expressed black lime on it. At this point, Atticus had realized that he had already eaten fish eggs and in a voice of slight concern he asked Bradley if the octopus was covered in “fish saliva”. Haha! Quite the imagination that child has. My sister called this the Beetlejuice course. Nailed it. Bradley agreed. Fire, slimy tentacle-like arms, and black rocks. It was served with one of the finest Zinfandels I have ever had. My Mom, the Nationally Certified Wine Judge, agreed. It was a Grgich Hills “Estate” Zinfandel, Napa Valley, 2013.
Cue the Banana Boat song.
The fire slowly burned on.
And the dinner continued. Our food took a turn to calmer waters with a langoustine broth. I forgot to eat the crunchy paper so I totally screwed up the juxtaposition of silky broth and crunchy texture, but I wasn’t too bummed. This dish was not one of my favs.
After this course, a female chef brought a beautiful bundle of dried lavender and placed it on the fire. It smoldered a bit and the scent of lavender wafted around the room. So relaxing. They then brought out these little baby scallop dumplings, which sat on top. Just gorgeous, and succulent, too. Ugh. So bummed so many of these pics are blurry.
Alinea really threw us for a loop after they cleared this course.
Ol’ Brad came in and carefully situated what appeared to be items needed for an old fashioned shave in a barber shop, with some onions and bacon to boot. Also, some homemade oyster crackers.
I think our surprise at what happened next is best described on Coleen’s face in the photos below.
That entire time the fire had been burning, a Yukon Gold potato had been cooking in the salt. Bradley, you little devil. Bradley then proceeds to make a table side clam chowder, the clams were moussed out of a handheld nitrous pressurized whipped cream pump. Was it the best clam chowder I ever had in my life? Hell no. I’m from Carteret County, remember? Was it the most surprised I have ever been to realize that I was about to eat clam chowder? 100%. It was paired with a Gaston Chiquet “Special Club” Brut, Aÿ, Champagne, France 2009. “Special Club” is an elitist group of Champagne makers who formed in 1971 to craft the finest Champagnes on Earth. God bless them. This is the first time I have had a “Special Club” wine in my life. It may have been the finest champagne to have ever graced my palate. It was the highlight of this course from a flavor profile perspective, in my opinion. The bubbles were so delicate and perfect. It was just exquisite. I wish I could afford a case. I’d bring it to the barn for me and my friends to drink at our barn picnics. Here’s a snippet on the “Special Club”
I know what you’re thinking. Is the meal almost done? Nope, but we are just passed the halfway mark. Then came the mushroom tea. Yeahhhhh… If I said this tea didn’t make us all as giggly as a bunch of prepubescent girls at a sleepover, I’d be lying. We laughed at something my Mom said until most of us had tears in our eyes. This tea was served with a morel mushroom dish with ramp and parmesan. The morel mushroom was AMAZING. Bradley explained that these mushrooms were just foraged in Oregon, and the day prior was the final day they could be found, so we got the last of the season. After every course, they encouraged us to ” as always, have fun”. Noted.
We are nearing an end, friends. They busted out the Syrah and served us…squab. That’s right. Some young, unfledged, Sonoma County pigeon. I was personally hoping for wagyu or something more decadent as our final savory course. I will say that I had never eaten squab prior to August 4, 2018, so I guess I can check that off my list… It was presented with the burning coal on top, which they removed table-side. It was a little anticlimactic but I did rather enjoy the little beet roll with mustard at the finish. That was most excellent, and a brilliant palate cleanser. Oh yeah, they also served us homemade beef tenderloin jerky with this course. Hands down the best beef jerky, ever. Ingredient list on the jar below.
Time for dessert!
To kick off our dessert courses, they brought us an heirloom peach and begonia sorbet thingy. It tasted kind of like a wheatgrass shot. Not sweet at all–we were eased into sweet flavor profiles. It did come with a shot of pineapple, aloe, and shiso that blasted Atticus to another planet, though. We learned on this trip to Chicago that pineapple gets him jacked like nothing else… I think his expression below says it all. I mean, seriously, he had sat through 3.5 hours of dining at this point. He deserved to blast off.
This is just after the pineapple hit the bloodstream.
Then came my favorite dessert course. The Still Life cherry distillation. It was essentially cherries in a glass. Freaking AMAZING. Banana is my favorite fruit to be featured in a dessert, and the cherry distillation came with a single baby banana. Psych. Remember? To quote one of our server staff, “What looks like a banana and tastes like a banana, is not, in fact, a banana.” It was basically nutella-ish banana ice cream inside of this little chocolate banana shell. Totally wild and delicious. I could eat this course over and over. Add it to the late night munchie list.
After the banana, came the course that Atticus had been looking forward to the most all night. He had been watching the staff carry these balloons out of the kitchen. They were balloons made out of sugar, filled with helium, and tied to a string made of green apple “taffy”. These were a lot of fun, and we were instructed to puncture the balloons with our tongues, inhale some helium, and talk like the Chipmunks. Bradley threw a caution to the wind that he has seen children get overzealous with the helium and pass out, so he urged Atticus to be careful. Atticus was so careful that he never achieved Chipmunk pitch. He was a little bummed, so he asked for an apple juice as a consolation since his helium huffing session was a bust. They didn’t have apple juice, so they whipped him up the best chocolate milk in the world.
What happened next was without question the best part of our time at Alinea (says the thrill seeker). They removed this large disc from the ceiling that was decor before this, and laid it on the table. Then they turned off the lights, and this happened. Be sure to watch in full screen mode.
This crazy pile of delicious fun was the finished product. The stuff that looks like cocaine was freeze dried cake batter or something totally insane. It was so good!!! I wish we could have taken it with us so we could have eaten it later as a midnight snack. There are macarons, baby flan squares, gelato, cotton candy, and some other magical stuff. They brought my Mom and I glasses of champagne with distilled Betty Crocker cake batter added in for our birthdays. Could you ever imagine? Betty Crocker cake batter in a glass. Not too sweet, but perfectly captured that essence. Only at Alinea.
To finish, golden nuggets of chocolate, of course.
This concludes the Willy Wonka adventure for adults (and adventurous kids). We knew we wouldn’t get a box of pizza rolls and orange balls, but thankfully, the night before, Coleen and I tore up the town and totally ordered a Chicago deep dish pizza at 2am to our hotel room. Since it was my first Chicago deep dish pizza, I thought it deserved a place in the blog. 🙂 Life is short, friends. Live it up.
Last night, we went to Durham to celebrate my Sister’s graduation from design school, and what better way to celebrate than with a raw seafood tower. How could something be so perfect? While we waited for our Mom to arrive, we ordered a round of cocktails. I love the tiki drinks at Saint James and I wanted something beachy. I went for their take on the piña colada. It was served over pebbled ice with a fresh mint sprig, nice and rum forward like I like it, with house-made cream of coconut. I somehow forgot to capture a photo of it. Whoops. Guess you’ll just have to go order one. It was perfect.
Saint James serves raw towers in 3 sizes, depending on the size of your party (or appetite). We went with the mid-sized tower, The Nautilus, suggested for 3-4 people. It’s precursor was a few dishes of accoutrement consisting of cocktail sauce, a simple mignonette, drawn butter, and a thick and creamy hollandaise sauce. Raw towers, which are always served chilled, are a dramatic and extravagant way to present these gorgeous shellfish and crustaceans. And that’s all the more reason to love them. The Nautilus is studded with raw oysters, raw clams, perfectly steamed mussels, a perfectly cooked lobster, shrimp, and 3 types of ceviches–with lemon and hot sauce, of course. These shellfish were mostly from Carteret County and were briny, sweet, and tasted like the Sound I grew up swimming in. There’s really nothing better.
Let me know if you find the origin of the raw tower, or the first place in history it was created, but my mind is taking me to the Mediterranean coastline of the French Riviera on this one. I once visited Nice, France in the late 90s. Nice sits on the pebbly shores of the Baie des Anges, on the French Riviera. I wish I had stories to tell of decadent seafood towers that I enjoyed with cold champagne in Nice, but instead, I was a far less food cultured 16 year old, traveling with my family with a freshly fractured ankle, newly outfitted with a pile of plates and screws, two weeks in to our European tour. The pain from the altitude on planes, bumpy rides in my wheelchair along cobblestone streets, hopping platform gaps into trains on crutches, and a fall down the stairs of a Stuttgart train station had rendered me grumpy as hell. So, here my Mother and I sat for lunch, in this gorgeous town at this posh yet cozy café with the Côte d’Azur as our backdrop. Two weeks into a European trip can start to get a little rough on any American kid from the South (in the way of cuisine). I would have loved a shrimp burger, even a cheeseburger. Anything that tasted like home to my little, under-cultured palate would have been just the comfort I needed. I ordered a plate of seafood–and to my disappointment, it was basically a baby raw tower. Teenage Sarah wished they would have just fried everything on the plate. haha. I reluctantly picked through it, homesick and dazed from my pain meds. Modern day Sarah would have ordered a bottle of champagne, and upped the size of the tower. I’ll have to go back there someday to do just that.
Speaking of champagne…
We were trying to figure out what wine to order after our cocktails. Saint James has done well with providing wines that go well with seafood for everyone to choose from no matter which way your palate leans. Being the adventurous imbibers that we are, we chose a blanco from the Canary Islands of Spain–which are really closer to Morocco than they are to Spain. Who even knew they grew vines on the Canary Islands? Our server promised a unique wine with salinity and minerality–which is perfect for seafood. These vines grow on the northern side of Tenerife, right along the oceanside. As a result, this wine takes on the intense characteristics of the sea and make it perfect for enjoying with chilled & raw seafood. Check out the color of the bottle–really unique. White wines are usually served in green bottles, or clear. Cobalt blue for some Rieslings. This glass was amber colored. The wine was beautiful and highly recommended.
We moved on to dinner, though we were nearing fullness. I ordered a roasted beet salad with strawberries, goat cheese mousse, passionfruit, and candied pecans. It was absolutely divine. I had to get the ‘unagi’ dish again. Check out my February post of Saint James to learn more about this dish, the Japanese technique, and why it reminds me of home. This time, it featured Cobia. It was every bit as delicious as I remembered it, and just as beautiful. Laura and Zeke both ordered a fried oyster salad with romaine. That salad was amazing. I should have taken a picture of it. It has the decadence of a seafood platter with the oysters, and all of the crisp hydration of a chilled salad that you need on a hot Memorial Day weekend. The dressing was similar to a caesar dressing with roasted garlic puréed in. It was so perfect. I am getting that salad next time I go. Our Mom also ordered a fried oyster “calabash style” plate–served with fries and cole slaw. Their tartar sauce is maybe the best tartar sauce I have ever had. It breaks my fried-seafood-loving heart when I learn that a seafood restaurant serves some store bought brand of tartar that uses corn syrup as the main ingredient…like El’s Drive-In does these days… but we won’t focus on that. We’ll instead focus on how Saint James has taken the high road and made fresh tartar sauce–which only has about 5 or 6 ingredients anyway, and the flavor of homemade tartar is far superior to anything that comes in a plastic squeeze pack. Everything that we ordered at Saint James was absolutely perfect, and is the next best thing to having my Dad open raw oysters and clams for me on the cut-banks of the Bogue Sound.
For dessert, we had the baba au rhum “donut”– the name never attracts me to this one because I am not that into donuts, but if you see what it looks like, it’s clear that it is just a creative version of a luscious banana pudding. A fluffy homemade, cake-y donut is sliced in half, bottom half doused with rum, loaded with fresh banana pudding and barely brûléed banana slices, then topped with the other half of the donut, which is brushed with honey, and dusted with confectioners sugar. Absolutely out of this world. You can’t not order key lime pie after a seafood dinner, so we also enjoyed this one which is made with a saltine cracker crust vs graham cracker. So good.
This place is epic. I still haven’t had the Lobster Newburg. It’s on my list for next time… If you come here, you simply must order a raw tower. It is now your mission. And if you are the type that likes complex white wines, try it with the Tajinaste.
I faced what I would call a “champagne problem”as I sat down to write this blog post. I have had so many awesome dining experiences lately, I have a backlog of inspiration. I had to pick one for now, though. And you know it wasn’t hard to do given the memories of this past weekend. I dedicate this blog post to some of my closest and longest female friends. And oyster po’ boys. The month of May for me is a nonstop celebration of life of some of the greatest friends I have. I started noticing it about 5 or 6 years ago. I am undeniably drawn to Taurus women. They make up about 90% of my closest girlfriends! I can certainly draw a parallel between them all. They are grounded. They are women of substance. They are determined, self-reliant, and perseverant. They believe that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, and I deeply revere that about them. I am drawn to their strength and loyalty, and I am thankful that somehow, I stand back and notice that I am surrounded by them. Just like I am pictured below. You ladies are such a treasure and I love you.
There are some friends in life (if you’re lucky) who have known you through your best, your worst, and everything in between. And they still love and respect you unconditionally. You can put thousands of miles and several years between you, and when you finally connect again, it’s as if no time passed at all. You meet each other right where you are, with love and gratitude, and in our case, raucous laughter and strong cocktails. So, when Andrea flew in from D.C. for the weekend, I knew where I needed to take her. It’s funny–not knowing that I had picked Andrea up from the airport and was planning the day, Maribeth sent me a text that read: “Hummingbird?” Great minds. Hummingbird on a Saturday afternoon is kind of our thing. What a pleasant realization to arrive and see the Queen of Hummingbird, Coleen, sitting on the patio enjoying a snack and a cappuccino. She’s also a Taurus, naturally. She and Maribeth actually have the same birthday. Two of my best friends born on the same day. Imagine that.
Maribeth and I always know what we will be having when we go to Hummingbird on our Saturday visits. I remember our first Hummingbird Saturday distinctly. I had the muffuletta and Maribeth had the oyster po’boy and we split them. The muffuletta was damn fine, but that oyster po’boy… Just wow. Greg Cox, local N&O food critic who hands out praise sparingly cannot help but agree. You know those Saturdays when you sleep in, make a French press, start your day at a gloriously leisurely pace, then decide you are hungry and call your best friend to go out for a little hair of the dog and some lunch? Hummingbird is our special place. Being single, childless, and thrilled about it in your 30s is rare, but y’all need some vicarious lifeforms, right? I’m fairly certain that Maribeth and I are on a solid path to becoming Patsy and Edina from Absolutely Fabulous. I first saw that show when I was a teen, and I immediately admired them and wanted to be just like them when I grew up. Wild and free, with lots of champagne. So far, so good! I like to add extra hot sauce to my Bloody Mary. Hummingbird serves pickled shrimp in theirs (yum!!). Depending on my mood, Aperol spritz is my other favorite day drink. That’s what I had this time. I was trying to stay on the lighter side since we had a big day ahead. We had already had a bottle of sparkling rosé during our pedi/mani right before lunch immediately after Andrea’s touchdown in RDU (yes, I know how to host a friend who rarely gets away from her young children for girl time;)).
Y’all already know how I feel about oysters. I like them anyway I can get ’em. I have a secret. I never really paid much attention to a po’ boy sandwich my entire life until now. And I know why. It’s the bread. I’ve tried a few po ‘boys here and there in my day. They are usually served on some dry-ass hoagie roll passed off as a french loaf. Nope. Nope. Nope. I don’t even really care for bread all that much. The secret to Coleen’s po’ boy is Leidenheimer French bread and that Duke’s mayonnaise, baby. If you are from the South, then you know that Duke’s mayo is a standard. Miracle Whip is a sham that should be banished. I once ordered an egg & cheddar with mayo bagel in some Midwestern U.S. airport and they put Miracle Whip on it… Much to my chagrin after a bite, I noticed that it was not mayo at all, it was the bogus sham spread. I scraped it off and tried to forget about it. Alas, I have been scarred. People seem to be pretty passionately divided on this topic. Either you love or hate Miracle Whip, or you love or hate mayo, or you are a vegan. I believe that Duke’s mayo is the finest thing to ever happen to a tomato… A summertime homegrown tomato sandwich with Duke’s mayo, and salt & pepper is a delicacy. Clearly, I am passionate about mayo. It’s my favorite condiment. Duke’s or bust, baby.
Coleen gets it–despite the fact that she’s from the Midwest. She orders the bread for her po’ boys from New Orleans, where the Leidenheimer family has been making it for over 100 years. They invented the po’ boy sandwich, so it is proper that she insists on this standard. I’ll tell you that there simply isn’t any other way. Check out the history of the po’ boy, born in NOLA. Her po’ boy is simple, it’s fresh, and the fried oysters on top of ripe tomatoes layered on a slathering of Duke’s on that bread with some shaved iceberg and a few shakes of hot sauce… dayum. Is your mouth watering yet? Mine sure is as I lay in bed typing this. I crave this sandwich at least once a week, and I am so glad it’s become our Saturday tradition. Move over, Bojangles. There’s a new hangover cure in town. And it’s served with Zapp’s New Orleans kettle style potato chips.
Person Street has never been better than it is now for my Oakwood area neighbors and I. The food scene was highly elevated when Crawford & Son opened its doors in late 2016. This neighborhood restaurant is no secret to many, especially since it was deemed Triangle’s Best Restaurant of 2018 by Greg Cox. I’ve had several delightful dinners there since Chef Crawford graced our neighborhood with his brainchild, and I’m delighted to share my experience from last Friday night with y’all.
I usually like to start my dinner with an apéritif when dining out– preferably a stiff one. It also just feels like good manners to order a cocktail when you sit down at a bar, which is where we dined. The vodka lemongrass gimlet was perfect on this gorgeous spring night. Refreshing, not sweet, and nice and tart. My lovely Mother, Brenda E. Weeks, joined me shortly thereafter and she followed suit with the gimlet. We started with the beef tartare. This edition of his tartare was served with horseradish aioli (if you guys haven’t figured it out by now I am obsessed with aiolis of any kind), crispy garlic, and radish. The garlic was sliced and fried like little potato chips– a perfectly crunchy complement to the tartare. This dish is easy to sum up: it tasted like sour cream & onion potato chips! Probably my favorite type of potato chip. We decided to order a bottle of wine that we thought would work with the tartare and the other things we were planning to order, and we landed on a beautiful Matthiasson Grenache/Syrah rosé. The name was ringing a bell, and it hit us both at about the same moment. We had been to this vineyard in 2007! My Mom and my Sister, Laura, came to visit me one May when I lived in Long Beach. The three of us drove up the coast to Napa for some quality time together. Laura has always had a knack for researching cool spots when we are visiting someplace new, and she had read about Matthiasson Wines, so we checked it out. This was just a couple years after winemaker, Steve Matthiasson, devoted his efforts to his family vineyard’s wine production. It was super quaint. In fact, as I look back on our visit, we pulled up to the farm to their house. There was no tasting room–we actually rang their doorbell at their backdoor to let them know we were there. His wife, Jill, who runs the business part of the vineyard, answered the door. Steve wasn’t home when we stopped by. You could tell that they weren’t very well known at that time and they didn’t get many visitors for tastings. She asked us with pleasant surprise how we found their vineyard. She led us out to a picnic table, vineyard-side, and brought out some fruit and cheese for our tasting. It was a gorgeous spring Napa day, and there were butterflies and honeybees floating around the vineyard while we tasted their wines. So beautiful. Matthiasson wines are exceptionally balanced. I am pleased to see how they have grown and the press they’ve received since our humble tasting, including being named Winemakers of the Year multiple times by Food & Wine. Well deserved. I love seeing people pursue their passions the way the Matthiassons have. We were so happy to see this wine featured on Crawford’s list. It layered on and on with acidity that makes this wine impossible to forget. On the nose, we found strawberry, cherry, and wet stones–also light smoke. On the palate, there was sour cherry, tart strawberry, and very ripe pink grapefruit. Look at that color in the photo below. This color in wine is called salmon. You don’t see that color very often. There was a flash of tannins and lush acidity. Definitely order a bottle when you go. This rosé was such a lovely and unexpected memory of that sunny day in Napa 11 years ago with my Mom and Laura. ❤
For our next course, we ordered the shaved baby turnips and the golden beet salad. I always order the featured raw veggie dish when I got to Crawford & Son. I am always so excited to see how elegantly he will feature whatever vegetable he has chosen from the season. It’s usually a root vegetable. I recall having watermelon radish once, then baby carrots another time, and the baby turnips this time. First of all, just look at the picture below. It’s the seventh one in, just to the right of the golden beet and strawberry salad. I absolutely love how he presents these raw dishes in such a way that they’re almost too pretty to eat. So delicate and ornate–it’s like a little fairy of sorts fluttered by and sprinkled flower petals on the plate just before it made it’s way to our table. I suppose that magical fairy is none other than full sleeve tattooed, motorcycle riding, Chef Crawford. I encourage you not to pass by the raw veggie dish when you go. I always look forward to seeing how he will showcase something so simple in such a dainty and colorful, insanely flavorful expression. The beet salad was life changing. It had wisteria dressing–yes, you read that right. Wisteria has been in peak bloom around here, and my neighborhood strolls with Daisy have been perfumed with the intoxicating fragrance of this lavender colored flowered vine. I love the South in the springtime–nothing smells sweeter. Honeysuckle, magnolia, jasmine, and wisteria will romance you during a nighttime drive with the windows down. Choosing wisteria for this spring salad was brilliant. Bravo, Chef. The rosé paired flawlessly with this golden beet and strawberry salad.
I saw the stuffed pappardelle pasta when I first arrived and I knew that was exactly what I needed for dinner. The pappardelle was impeccable. I think pappardelle may be my favorite pasta. Wait, maybe its tagliatelle. Then again, I love fettuccine. OK, let’s face it, any handmade fresh pasta is the most amazing thing on the planet. And since I rarely eat pasta, this was such a delicacy. Somewhere, someone’s Italian grandmother is nodding in approval at his handmade pasta skills. The fact that it was stuffed with buttered clams basically sung directly to my heart. I could have eaten two of these dishes. It was perfect. Mom ordered the olive oil poached sea bass, which is known for melting in your mouth like butter on its own, but I am fairly certain it was sous-vide’d. The sea bass was paired vibrantly with leek, fennel, tomato confit, and Meyer lemon. It was very elegantly balanced.
If you have ever dined with my Mother, then you know you are not getting out of a restaurant without dessert. She has a wicked sweet tooth, which I think she came by honest as her Dad seems to have the same sweet tooth. It seems to hit each generation…and Atticus came by it super honest. We went with the Grasshopper Brownie, which was served with matcha mint ice cream. Mom ordered sherry for us to have with dessert. Mom is a nationally certified wine judge, and one of her friends who studies wine works at Crawford & Son. Greg was kind enough to share a 1948 Solera with us. This year stuck out to me as it’s the year my Dad was born. The wine is actually an average of the year 1948, meaning it is comprised of wines from different vintages, 1948 being the average of the different years. She knew all about this super rare dessert wine. It’s actually not a sherry as sherry is made with white grapes, and this wine is made with Monastrell. It is made in Andalusia region of Southern Spain where an indigenous yeast called flor grows. This yeast grows in the barrel and forms a layer on the wine which leaves an oxidized note and delicious nutty flavors. Mom identified toasted walnuts on the nose of this Solera, pictured below. Flor is kind of a phenomenon. Winemakers have tried to take it to California and Australia to replicate what it does, but it never survives there. It is indigenous to Jerez de la Frontera, and that very exclusive coastal biome is where you have to go to find it, making these wines unlike any other of their kind.
Before I wrap up here, I should also note the decor in this place as it really gives it so much of its character. I became connected to Chef Crawford at some point on Instagram, and learned that he is also a fellow Leo. The decor kind of says Leo in a charmingly bold and masculine way, while still being low key flashy like one would expect from a Leo. haha. His glassware is smoky grey, the bathroom walls are wallpapered in old school tattoo designs. One touch I really love are the family portraits in the hallway. I learned that these people in the photos are the real family members of the restaurant’s staff. There’s that lion-heart! Thanks for another exquisite dinner, Chef Crawford. Everything we had was a gorgeous representation of springtime, and we are so thrilled to have you in the ‘hood.
Well, according to Gary Chapman’s book, my love language used to be gifts–it has evolved to physical touch, but oysters are a gift though, right? A gift from the marsh, if you will. And the first thing we ordered when we arrived at St. Roch were the Cedar Island Selects–straight from the marsh of my homeland in Carteret County. I like all oysters, but nothing compares to the salty oysters from home. They taste just like our beautiful ocean. My dear friend, Bill Jackson, accompanied me for dinner at St. Roch. His grandmother was originally from the area around Cedar Island, so Bill has the marsh running through his veins, too, whether he’ll admit it or not. 😉
After catching up and dusting off the raw oysters, we decided to move on to the roasted oysters. We ordered pimiento’d (smoked pimiento cheese, bread crumbs, pickled jalapeno), and BBQ’d (lemon, rosemary, cayenne, parmesan). Chef Sunny sent us out a few collar’d (smoked tomato, collards, tasso ham, tobasco) oysters to make it complete. He knows Bill from his regular status at Poole’s. Fun fact: my Sister and Josh used to live in a house on Peace St. across from Broughton years ago when I still lived in California (circa 2007ish). Sunny was new to Raleigh and became their roommate. He had just completed culinary school at Johnson and Wales and began working at Enoteca Vin, a late restaurant co-owned by Louis Cherry, famous Raleigh architect. Lots of local famous restaurateurs and chefs worked there during that time including Coleen Speaks, Josh Young, and Ashley Christensen, to name a few. Ashley took Sunny under her wing at Vin and he then went on to be her sous chef at Poole’s until he opened his own place: St. Roch, which is located in the space on Wilmington St. previously occupied by Joule.
Back to the oysters.
It was love at first bite for me with the pimiento’d oysters. First of all, I love pimiento cheese. Love it. The spicier, the better. I am from the South, so it is my duty to have an appreciation for pimiento cheese. I want to thank the genius who looked at a block of cheese and thought, “we ought to shred this and add mayonnaise and peppers to it.” Thank you. I love you. It is a perfect picnic food, or a pool or beach snack. Or dinner. You could just eat it for dinner–which is basically what we did on this night. The BBQ’d oysters were so flavorful and fresh with the rosemary and cayenne. Bravo. Bill decided at this point that the collar’d oysters were his favorite because they had tasso ham and he freaking loves tasso ham. We gobbled up the roasted oysters and then went on to analyze our wine in deeper detail.
I introduced Bill to you guys in a previously featured post when we went to Saint James in Durham. So, you may remember that he owns Westgate Wine. Bill always brings wines for us to have with dinner. Sometimes we will order something else off the menu if we feel there’s a better pairing being offered. He nailed it with this Punggl Pinot Grigio from South Tyrol, Alto Adige, an autonomous province of Northeastern Italy. I think the people are a blend of Swiss, German, and Italian, but technically located in the country of Italy, so they follow Italian viticulture and winemaking law. All the better for me–Italian wines are my favorite, followed by French and then Spanish. This is hands down the finest pinot grigio I have ever had. I do not normally fancy a pinot grigio. These 80 year old vines grow along the Dolomites, not too far from the Swiss border. These mountain ranges have limestone summits. The Italians are so smart. What else are you going to do with a limestone mountain? You ski it and grow grapes on it, that’s what. You can taste and smell the clay-based sand in this wine. It has a heavy mouthfeel for a pinot grigio, which I love. It is completely unlike any New World pinot grigio. It had pear and green apple, as well as apple blossom on the nose. Bill detected a minerality and I now realize that was the clay-based sand he picked up in this wine, as well as the limestone. Good job, Bill. We also had a Sancerre, however, I have had this pinot grigio once before, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to pay attention to the Sancerre with the Punggl on deck. This vineyard is situated at a mere 82 feet altitude on a hill characterized by it’s warm temps. Punggl actually means “hill”. This wine spends 8 months in a big oak barrel. You can purchase it at Westgate. Better hurry before I get to it first ;P
I will be thinking about those pimiento’d oysters for a long time.
We did decide to add some vegetables to the mix and ordered the beet salad, and a green salad titled No Bullshit Salad. The beet salad was my favorite. It had raw, roasted, and pickled beets, homemade ricotta (swoon), sherry horseradish vinaigrette and red onion. Sunny’s pickled beets tasted just like my Dad’s. There was a lingering hint of rosemary and other warming baking spices in them. The beet salad was phenomenal.
OK, who were we kidding? We needed more of those roasted oysters. We finished with a 1/2 dozen pimiento’d and 1/2 dozen collar’d. By the end, Bill decided the pimiento’d were his favorite, too.
Thank you for a beautiful dinner boasting the fruits of our homeland, Chef Sunny. We’ll be back soon and I promise to try to order something besides oysters next time. St. Roch also serves brunch on the weekends. Sunny’s menu has a strong nod to his homeland of New Orleans. If you haven’t been there, just look for the flashing neon oyster sign with a diamond in it. Visit the website beneath the pics to make a reservation. You’ll probably need one–the secret is out about this place.
While highlighting the finest food and drink in the Triangle, I need to note that fine and fancy are not necessarily synonymous (as illustrated in my last post on Taqueria el Toro). In fact, I would argue that with some cuisine types, the chef attempts to be too fancy and in the process, the food loses its magic–its integrity, its deliciousness. It becomes something really pretty to look at and photograph, but let’s be real: presentation means nothing without flavor profile. When in doubt, keep it simple and keep it fresh. What I am highlighting today is not fancy, but it is absolutely f^%#ing delicious, and deserves a place in Come Eat With Me. I have to give a shout out to Jes Lipson for bringing this spot to my attention. Thanks, Jes.
Plaza Cafe is located at 410 Fayetteville St. across from the Sheraton. It’s a low key deli that serves breakfast and lunch. It had never caught my attention before now. But, on Wednesday and Friday during lunch service, they have an authentic Indian street food pop up. Here’s the thing about Indian food around here: it’s scarce. You can go to Cary to Chatham Square and there are a few spots. I have been to Udupi Cafe out there for lunch and had some decent food but something about buffet food that makes me wonder if it is just a never-ending pot of something they keep adding to and am I now eating 3 week old korma? Call me a snob. There’s also something about everyone who walks by it potentially breathing on the food as they are serving themselves, etc. Not a knock against Udupi, I’m just not a fan of buffets. So unfortunately, I never really eat much Indian food because I tend to hang ITB and there isn’t much to offer in the way of Indian food ITB. But now, I know one of the best kept secrets in downtown Raleigh.
I went there for the first time with some of my colleagues for lunch on Friday. Since it is a street food pop up, their Indian menu offerings are different each time. During my first time, they had momos and samosas. You could get your momo stuffed with beef, chicken, paneer, or veggies. Momo are actually native to Nepal, and they’re little flour dumplings stuffed with the aforementioned. I went with the paneer momo. Paneer is basically Indian cottage cheese. I love cottage cheese. My Mom has told me stories of her diet habits while she was pregnant with me. She actually worked at Carteret General Hospital during her pregnancy, and claims to have eaten a pear and cottage cheese salad from the cafeteria nearly every day. That may have something to do with my obsession with cottage cheese. She also admits to consuming an entire Mrs. Smith’s apple pie (a la mode of course) per week during the full term of her pregnancy. We can save the apple pie a la mode discussion for another time. 😉 OK, back to paneer momo. It was served with a red chutney pepper sauce that was kind of sweet, then with another green chutney, then I asked them to add the yoghurt. When given the choice, I never skip a yoghurt sauce. This was plain, not raita. Although, I absolutely love raita and could probably drink it. Think of tzatziki if you’re not familiar with raita. One thing I will say about the people of India: they make the most brilliant use of the things when it comes to sauces. Absolutely brilliant. This green chutney sauce on the momo was super fresh and minty. Now that I think of it, I could probably drink that, too. Then they served it with a soybean paste on the side with basmati rice. My eyes were big and I was so hungry so I also got a veggie samosa on the side. O.M.G. That veggie samosa. Dammit. I need one right now. It was PERFECT. Best samosa ever. It felt like someone’s Indian Grandma was back there. I want to take her home and eat samosas every day. Then we would have to workout together. I think they also had beef or chicken samosas, but I got the veggie. Samosas are usually filled with mashed boiled potato, onions, green peas, spices and green chili or fruits. I think Samosas fit perfectly in the Southeastern U.S. considering how much we love to fry something. It melted in my mouth and was perfumed beautifully with spices.
I told my Sister, Laura, about this place when we hung out on Friday night and she responded, “oh yeah, the Indian pop up on Wednesdays at City Plaza. That’s my shit.” She’s been holding out! She was happy to hear that the pop up is also on Fridays. I am going to have to invite her next time to join me and my Real Magic crew. I am already dreaming of what tasty homemade Indian yumminess will be there next week… Hit me up and come with!
I’ve told you guys before that I must have been Mexican in my former life. I don’t think I knew how much I appreciated their culture until I moved back to North Carolina from California in 2009. While I am much further from Mexico now than I was when I lived in CA, I’m thankful to have discovered several places around Raleigh that have super authentic Mexican food–and I am not talking the standard Americanized Mexican where every dish is basically the same thing styled differently. Pinche gringos… You have to look for these super authentic spots. That’s fine by me, and I know I have found authenticity when I am the only caucasian in the building. That has been the case at Taqueria el Toro each time I have been, other than the times I have been accompanied by another caucasian. haha.
This little gem is tucked back off of Tryon Road when you are coming down South Saunders heading away from downtown Raleigh. Coleen actually introduced me to this place years ago. I’ve been before on a Sunday when the line to the counter ran all the way to the front door. I’m still exploring their menu, but I haven’t had anything that wasn’t delicious. Their fish taco is not exactly a Baja style taco, but it has the baseline of a Baja fish taco, and it is damn good. They grill the fish (which I love), and serve it with a spicy mayo based sauce. Then they have a salsa bar with cilantro, onions, pico, grilled jalapeños, cabbage, and several different salsas. So, you can finish it Baja style if you want. They make all their tortillas in house so they melt in your mouth, naturally. Their fish taco is an amuse-gueule as far as I am concerned, so it was a perfect, scrumptious bite before my bean burrito. The burritos are a life changing experience. I don’t know what it is that they do to it that makes it so good. I think they make the flour tortilla in house. Wet burritos are still #1 in my heart on the burrito scale, but el Toro’s burrito runs a close second when it comes to Raleigh. You can see how Christina and I doused ours in hot salsas, cilantro, etc., below. So beautiful. Sigh. Also pictured from a previous visit is Soup of the Seven Seas, aka Caldo de Siete Mares. I noticed so many people eating this every time I came, I decided I needed to try it because it was obviously super popular among the Mexican peeps. It has shrimp, octopus, squid, mussels, crab legs, epazote, tomato, guajillo chiles, and a bunch of spices. I like to add fresh cilantro to mine, but I see people piling all kinds of yummy stuff on theirs. I realize that when I go to a Mexican place I have serious FOMO. It’s so hard to just order one or two things. I had to overcome my FOMO and promise myself that the tacos would still be there next time if I ordered the soup. I was not disappointed and the tacos were definitely there next time. hahaha!! OK, I will just admit it. I am completely obsessed with Mexican food. I could eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And I have. The timing of our dinner last night was actually coincidental as it marked the last day of our Taco Tour of ’14. That’s right. We went on taco tour. Kind of like people go on tour to see their favorite band. We went on tour to eat our favorite tacos. ❤
The woman pictured below is my dear friend, Christina Cucurullo. We have this history of epic adventure that sometimes doesn’t feel real-life. We once filled a 26 ft U-Haul with all of my worldly possessions, my late pit bull, Luckydog, hitched my car to the back of it, and drove across the USA together. The funny thing is that prior to this we really didn’t know each other that well. Needless to say, 2800 miles in a U-Haul together and you will get to know someone very well. For us, it was the start of an amazing lifelong friendship unlike any other I have ever known. I still look back on that epic journey as one of the greatest adventures of my life. I am giggling just thinking about it. Anyway, I digress. So, Christina has this love affair with Mexican food in the same way I do. In 2014, we decided to make the journey back to Southern California together, this time by air, solely to eat the best Mexican food in the country (sorry Texas, I have to go with CA on this one). We flew into LAX, rented a car, and then cruised the coastline to San Diego, hitting up local Mexican spots every time we got hungry. OK, I do recall also eating Sushi Deli #1 during that trip, but when in Rome–you know. If you find yourself in SD you have to go there… We drove all up and down the coast, ferried to Catalina and back, and we unquestionably agree that the best Mexican is at La Revancha in Long Beach. How lucky am I to have a friend in life like Christina? I love you, boo. I included some pics from Taco Tour for nostalgia’s sake, including a pic of the tacos at La Revancha that changed our lives, and our victory run along the cliffs of Malibu at the end of our tour. I wince a little when I think about La Revancha tacos knowing how far they are away from me. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder, doesn’t it? Damn. I am now going to have to start planning my next trip out west. Fun fact about Christina: she’s a musician better known by her stage name, Spookstina. She’s currently gearing up for fall tour with her noise act. Check her out if you are so inclined! Link below to her Soundcloud and an interview in which she tells about her style. Every once in awhile you can catch her live locally in Raleigh.
It was like she was reading my mind yesterday because I had been thinking about Mexican. She texted me and told me that “the Mexicans are singing her nombre”. haha Great minds, do indeed, think alike. Cheers to you, my soul sister, and cheers to Taqueria el Toro. They also have a grocery store connected where you can bring their homemade tortillas home and all kinds of other Mexican stuff that you cannot find in a regular grocery store. Go check them out next time you are craving authentic Mexican.
I am so glad to give Fiction Kitchen a place in Come-Eat-With-Me. One of the hallmarks of a great city is its multitude of culinary diversity. Downtown Raleigh is still working on this, and Fiction Kitchen certainly gave it a boost when it opened its doors in 2013 as Raleigh’s first 100% vegetarian restaurant. It’s a funky little spot in the warehouse district with a lime green storefront. It’s hard to miss and even if you’re not a vegetarian, you wouldn’t want to miss it. Caroline Morrison and Siobhan Southern used Kickstarter to crowdfund their goal of $36,000 to buy restaurant equipment and bring their vision to life after doing local pop-ups and cooking for the famous late Cooke Street Carnival in years passed.
I fell in love with a drink on their menu very early on called Dirty Beetz. It’s homemade beet infused vodka with citrus. It is a strong competitor to J. Betski’s Beet Jammer. It’s hard to say which one is better–they’re both so damn good. I usually always begin a meal at FK with a Dirty Beetz and this one was no different. Their fabulous bartender, Sarah, even remembered that it’s my favorite drink as I used to be quite a regular. While we waited for our table, she asked if I was ready for a Dirty Beetz. Such great service. I ❤ great service. It’s what separates a meal from a dining experience. Thanks, Sarah. They have lots of creative craft cocktails that are seasonally inspired, so be sure to check those out.
Their name is clever as it describes many of the dishes. They’re fictional meat. FK does a really stellar job with this. Their unbelievably flavorful chopped barbecue coats your mouth with what feels like fat just like real barbecue, their tinga tacos have a texture that makes it hard to differentiate from real shredded chicken, and probably the most convincing fictional dish on the menu is the fried chicken and waffles. I remember bringing one of my girlfriends, Sheila, to FK years ago. Sheila is definitely not a vegetarian, and she is delightfully Southern. She ordered the chicken and waffles, and looked at me after taking a few bites and stated, “you’re trying to tell me that this isn’t chicken?” So, bravo on the execution, FK. They are focused on locally sourced ingredients, and while there are some things that stay on the menu year round, they switch it up to feature seasonal dishes.
On this particular night, I actually decided to pop in because I saw a photo of the “scallop” appetizer on Instagram and realized how long it had been since I had eaten at FK. So, scallops are one of my all time favorite foods. A perfectly seared scallop would be on the menu of my last meal if I had to choose. I love scallops so much, I have to admit I was a little reluctant to try this appetizer knowing it wasn’t a real scallop, but I was so intrigued at how well they did making it look like an actual scallop I had to try it. Just look at it! If you didn’t know you would totally think it was a scallop. It was a trumpet mushroom served with seaweed and rutabaga puree, and it was absolutely delicious. The rutabaga was creamy and really made this dish taste like comfort food. We also had the kale cakes, which was served with a minty herb dressing, and pickled beets with what may have been labneh. These were super yummy and also total comfort food. Now that I think about it, this place is very different from many vegetarian restaurants because it has so many comfort food style dishes on the menu. Considering how the owners are both Southern, I am sure that was the point. One of my favorite dishes that I didn’t have on this visit is their curry bowl. Their homemade yellow curry is so good I think I could eat it drizzled on ice cream. 🙂
I knew exactly what I wanted on this trip before I even got there. The tinga tacos. This dish has undergone some evolution over the years, and I am so glad they are back to using fresh cabbage on them rather than steamed. You guys know from my taco rants how passionately I feel about taco ingredients. Give me fresh shredded cabbage or give me death. Doused in Cholula.
Fiction Kitchen always has a new special Farmers Plate and a locavore salad that changes nightly. These locavore salads in the summer are the jam. They also feature a cheesy grit bowl during Sunday Brunch that is pretty amazing. You have to get the root vegetable hash on the side when you go for brunch. This is a perfect place to bring a vegetarian or vegan, or anyone who loves fresh, local food. Chef Caroline’s creativity constantly impresses me, and everything I have ever had here is absolutely delicious. Thank you, Fiction Kitchen, for being a pioneer in our little city and thank you for bringing this beautiful restaurant to downtown Raleigh.
It’s easy (and fun) to become enamored by new chefs, restaurants, and cocktail lounges that pop up, and our city is a better place because of them. But today, I want to recognize an original in Raleigh–one that easily fits within the group of finest food and drink in the Triangle. This is a neighborhood restaurant that has been consistently rated best Italian in Raleigh for over a decade. The owners didn’t spent a dime on advertising or PR for this restaurant; this place has flourished throughout the years solely from word of mouth. In fact, the restaurant doesn’t even have signage except for a humble mention of “pizza” on top of the building. Its one of those delightfully unsuspecting gems found tucked inside a shopping center. The nonstop bustle of the restaurant speaks for itself: it is simply the best Italian food around here. This restaurant is Bella Monica.
I love supporting, and writing about, places that have as much heart as Bella Monica. This place is totally a labor of love that opened its doors in 2000. The Monica family hails from New York and settled in Raleigh in 1999 to follow Chef Corbett Monica’s dream: to open his own restaurant that allows anyone to come and enjoy his beloved Nana’s recipes the way he and his family did growing up. That’s really what this restaurant is about, IMO: family and the food that brings them together. Bella Monica’s immense success is a story of dedication, hard work, and passion. When you put those things together, there’s really nothing that can stop you, is there? And let’s face it… Italians rarely fall short when it comes to passion. 🙂
When Chef Corbett opened this little neighborhood trattoria 18 years ago, he spent tireless days and nights in the kitchen recreating his grandmother’s famous Italian marinara sauce, known as “Gravy”. Most Northerners will recognize this term, while Southerners may confuse it for a roux-based sauce that goes on your mashed potatoes. Don’t be confused. This gravy is made from San Marzano tomatoes, and a load of fresh ingredients that are probably not revealed. I have never asked Corbett to reveal the recipe because 1) I assume it is a family secret since it came from his Italian grandmother originating from the Old Country 2) I know how labor intensive it is to make and I probably wouldn’t stand in front of the stove for that long and 3) I can always get it at Bella Monica so I don’t need the recipe. Anyway, this stuff is liquid gold. Do you remember the old cartoon with the St. Bernard depicted with a tiny barrel around her neck trekking the Great St. Bernard Pass (which is a real ridge high in the Alps between Italy and Switzerland) and encountering unconscious travelers who had succumbed to the elements while getting lost or injured? These rescue dogs would lean over the unconscious traveler and dispense brandy in their mouth to revive them long enough to get them to safety. The cartoon embellishes that rescue in a humorous way in which the traveler rises up from the snow in a slow state of euphoria. I like to think that Nana’s Gravy in the little brandy barrel would revive the trekkers in the same way. Here’s a funny clip of a St. Bernard making himself a martini after rescuing Yosemite Sam from a self inflicted avalanche https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2q7cLrlHqI0 OK, I digress but you guys get the point. Nana’s Gravy saves lives. Let’s get back to the early days of Bella Monica. Corbett’s stunning wife, Julie, had completed an academic career in psychology prior to the launch of Bella Monica, and she was a social worker in the Raleigh area during Bella’s infancy. As their business grew, she quit her job and focused full time on the front of the house at Bella Monica. In fact, the restaurant is named after her. Bella translates to beautiful in Italian. I can just picture them now. Corbett grinding out homemade pasta dishes and pizzas in the kitchen, and Julie charming the guests in the dining room. This is how they got their start! Lots of elbow grease and passion. When I stumbled on this place in 2010, I had recently moved back to NC to finish my undergrad and recreate my life after a wild stint in Southern California with my rock star (former) fiance. I was looking for a job that would work well with my full-time academic schedule, and Bella was a perfect fit. I worked here for the next two years until I graduated. During this time, I made some of the best friends who I hold so dearly to my heart, including Corbett and Julie Monica. They have become family. I also learned a ton about Italian wine. Bella Monica boasts the largest curated Italian wine selection of any restaurant in the Triangle. Italian food needs to be enjoyed with Italian wine, and they have been carefully curating a collection for years that the public can enjoy. I am a serious wine snob, and love Old World wines. Especially Right Bank Bordeaux and La Rioja, but Italian wine is in a class of its own, in my opinion. There are over 800 grape varietals used for wine making in Italy. Sangiovese and Nebbiolo grapes make up my personal favorite Italian wines, from Brunello di Montalcino to my beloved favorites from the Piedmonte, which are made from Nebbiolo (Barolos, Barbarescos, etc). They are elegant and seductive on the palate, red cherry being the distinct marker of Italian red wines, and most of them are graceful enough to drink by themselves, yet they also have the structure to stand up to just about any food. If you want to tell me that you love me, you can do so without words. Let a bottle of Brunello or Barolo do the talking.
OK, back to the gravy. It’s the brightest and most flavorful tomato sauce I have ever tasted. You really don’t even need to put it on anything. Just sip it like soup! I’ve done that many times, shamelessly. The effort that is consistently put forth to keep this huge pot of sauce flowing over the past 18 years ensures the integrity is never compromised. It is really the foundation of all the traditional recipes on the menu and is the hallmark of Southern Italy’s cuisine. My favorite dish that features this sauce is the eggplant rollatine. There are some dishes you will hear me refer to as “life-changing experiences”. The eggplant rollatine is one of them. The dish is made of eggplant thinly sliced the long way, breaded, stuffed with Italian cheeses, with gravy and mozzarella baked on top, and finished with fresh basil. I could eat this dish for breakfast, I could eat it for dinner, I could eat it every day and never get sick of it. They only serve it on the weekends at Bella Monica, and it’s not on the menu so you have to ask for it. Confession: when I dined there on Friday night, I forgot to take photos of most of the food so I had to pull some off of the internet that other guests had taken. You can take this as an indicator that the food is just that yummy. I forgot to take pics for my blog! haha. Some of my other favorite dishes at Bella are the crab flatbread and the mushroom leek crema mussels. That lasagna, though… I don’t have any words for the lasagna. You just will have to order it for yourself. Do not expect to want to do anything afterwards but take a nap, though. 🙂 Sophia Loren once said, “I’d much rather eat pasta and drink wine than be a size 0,” Girlfriend, I feel you.
The crab flatbread is something that is so unique, you just can’t find anything like it anywhere else. If I recall correctly, the story goes that our dear late friend, Chris Connelly, and Corbett were making a crabcake recipe. They thought it didn’t quite turn out as they expected, but rather than wasting it, they put it on one of their homemade flatbread crusts with pesto sauce as the base, added calamata olives, roasted red peppers, cheese, cooked it like a pizza, then sliced it into squares and and served it with a dijon aioli for dipping. Absolutely BRILLIANT!! A star was born in the crab flatbread and it has been an appetizer on the menu ever since. I don’t make a trip to Bella without getting the crab flatbread. This past time I had the calamari and shrimp pasta. It is made with squid ink linguini, Calabrese sausage, and roasted red pepper crema. I like this dish spicy so I added crushed red pepper to it. Amazing. I remember when Corbett created this dish as a special years ago, and I was happy to see it found a permanent place on the menu. The great thing about Italian food is often its simplicity. If you go to Italy, you quickly begin to notice that most dishes are incredibly simple, yet amazing. The secret is the ingredients have to be fresh. Corbett upholds that standard beautifully.
I was joined by a few of my cousins this past trip to Bella. We all grew up along the coast in Carteret County, but many of us have ended up in Raleigh for education and careers. We try to get together every other month or so and we chose Bella Monica this time. Italian food is best enjoyed with people you love, at a leisurely pace, with Italian wine. I will also note that you won’t get a cannoli this authentic anywhere in Raleigh. If you haven’t been to this place yet, make a reservation on OpenTable and go see why it has consistently been voted as Best Italian in the Indy year after year, as well as a host of other awards the Monica family has received throughout the years for their dedication to their craft, and the refusal to compromise the integrity of authentic Italian food. Bella Monica also has a catering service. This past year, the Monica family also opened their second restaurant which is located in Cary. Stellino’s Italiano, named after their daughter, Stella, stays true to Nana’s recipes and also features a cocktail bar. Go check it out and Vivi, Ama, Mangia! Live, love, and eat! Thank you, Corbett and Julie (pictured below), for sharing your family’s magic with the rest of us here in the Triangle!