Saint James

ahh, the old blank screen on a Saturday morning with my coffee.  This is my favorite time to start writing.  I’m going to share my experience from last Thursday night with you.  First, though, I want to take a moment to thank my friends who have given me such great feedback on this blog.  In addition to continuing getting to know the finest food and drink in the Triangle, you’ll also get to know a manifold group of my friends who will join me on these epicurean adventures, from the wild to the wise.  After all, this blog is aptly titled “Come-Eat-With-Me”.  You’re up next, Christina.  😉  Ok.  Let’s get down to brass tax.

Saint James Seafood Restaurant and Raw Bar is located in Brightleaf District, Durham.  This stunning restaurant was opened this winter by Chef Matt Kelly, who we also love for opening Mateo Bar de Tapas in Durham several years ago.  I can say with conviction that there is not another restaurant like Saint James in the Triangle.  Bravo, Chef.  You have outdone yourself again.  When you walk in and notice the big porthole windows, it kind of feels like you are inside a cruise ship.  It is over the top nautical, which I find super fun.  I realize the brightening of the photos didn’t transfer to this site, so you’ll just have to go check it out for yourself.

Mr. Bill Jackson joined me on this particular adventure.  Bill, a North Carolina native, is a commercial developer and serial entrepreneur, best known for developing strings of hotels from Virginia through the Carolinas, and with investor partners, he has owned a number of development sites including Kidd’s Hill and Kidd’s Hill Plaza next to Crabtree Valley Mall.  Bill is a sharp-witted, no nonsense tycoon who I am lucky to have as a mentor, but more so, a friend for the past six years.  Bill is as passionate of a foodie as I am, and our favorite thing to do together is visit new restaurants in the Triangle, and then carefully anatomize our experience.  We have shared indescribably wonderful meals together.  There was one in particular… I nearly cried on our way home from Durham it was so unforgettable.  I won’t name the restaurant at this time, because they never lived up to that night again.  I guess we were lucky to have that one experience, knowing now that it cannot be replicated.  Anyway, we take this very seriously, and I was so excited to bring Bill to Saint James.  We started out with the lobster roll– a New England delicacy and really a succulent little sandwich that beckons for summer.  This lobster roll is served on brioche with the traditional chilled lobster salad, with a bowl of “lobster dip”,  which is more of a broth which balanced the buttery brioche and lobster flawlessly.  Brilliant.  If you have never had a New England lobster roll, this is a fine start.  Just look at it below.  It’s nothing short of sexy.  Most lobster roll aficionados would recommend a summer wheat ale as a pairing, but since it is February, and we are wine snobs, we paired with wine.  Bill became the proud owner of Westgate Wine a few years ago, so he’s always got something interesting on hand.  He brought a 2016 Chenin Blanc of Rickety Bridge, a boutique South African wine, to begin our dinner.  We didn’t know it, but this wine would be made for this first course.  Delicate lemon peel, honey and peaches on the nose, and aromatic white flower bouquet.  The finish was long lasting, bright and creamy.  If I am being totally honest, this wine completely seduced the lobster roll and the Oysters Ashworth.  Go check out the wine store sometime if you are in the Westgate Rd neck of the woods near the Angus Barn.  The oysters were baked with bacon and spinach, and iced with hollandaise–also perfect with this wine.  Full disclosure: my stomach wasn’t feeling exactly right as we were driving to Durham, and I was treading lightly with eating anything too rich.  By the end of the first course, I was feeling pretty confident that I needed to be careful what I ate.  Turns out I wasn’t sick and was fine, but next time, I am getting the Key West smoked fish dip with fried saltine crackers, and the Lobster Newburg.  I also want to try one of Matt’s raw towers.  Le sigh… so many things to eat, so few days in the week…  There’s also an entire list of boat drinks that I haven’t ventured yet.  There are many trips to Saint James in my future.

So, the “unagi” style hamachi had been catching my eye on the menu.  Why would I order unagi hamachi while feeling nauseous?  Because life is more fun when you take risks.  This was a winning move that I didn’t regret.  This dish was, hands down, my favorite of the night.  I am fairly certain it was Bill’s, too. Unagi is freshwater eel, and when the quality is high, unagi is my favorite sushi hand roll. However, this dish had no eel.  Hamachi is Japanese amberjack or yellowtail, and this amberjack was prepared Kabayaki style.  This is how unagi is prepared.  It’s a cooking style in which a fish is filleted, deboned, butterflied, skewered, grilled, and then brushed with a special tare, a sweet soy sauce.  It was served with avocado cream, crispy rice, flash pickled cucumber, and mayo.  This dish is what I consider a life changing experience.  I probably dropped at least 4 or 5 f-bombs while eating it–i just couldn’t get over how perfect it was. When I took a bite of all these things together, it instantly carried me to Hatteras, where my family fishes in a blue marlin tournament every June.  We usually have a lot of grilled mahi left over from fish that we catch and grill, and my mom and my aunt will make fish salad with it.  It’s the perfect pool snack to go with your gin and tonic.  This was the second dish that we ate at Saint James that transported me to sweet, sweet summertime.  We both lost our minds over the hamachi.  It was beautifully balanced, cleverly deconstructed, and nothing short of genius.  We also had the BBQ shrimp with the second course.  They were deliciously spicy, laced with rosemary, hot sauce, and just enough shaved garlic and Worcestershire.  The shrimp were awesome, but they can’t help it that we ordered them with the hamachi.  Unagi style Hamachi stole the show.

At this point, we really struggled to figure out what we would eat next.  We ended up landing on a pan-roasted black bass with smoked mussels, butter beans, chorizo, stewed tomato, and citrus.  We had an Oregonian Pinot Noir with this course, which stood up to the smokiness well, and lent the right amount of structure.  This was our least favorite dish of the evening.  We both agreed the stewed tomato was a little overpowering, although it did work well with the smoked mussels and chorizo. Here’s my beef with this dish: they were not butterbeans.  They were baby lima beans–the green kind.  When I hear butterbean, I think of the large, slow cooked, white beans.  I actually think white butterbeans would be better in this dish.  The fish was cooked perfectly.

I haven’t pointed out the service at Saint James, but is it exactly what I would expect: excellent.  In my opinion, this is as important as the food.  We were about ready to call it a night, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what we saw when we first walked in.  The staff was carrying at least a dozen of these banana cream pie looking desserts out while we were waiting for our table.  Bill doesn’t really care for dessert, but after careful scrutiny between that and key lime, we went for it.  OK, this was the third time I had a flashback to a summer memory with this menu. So, most Southerners will tell you that banana pudding is made with meringue.  This one was made with whipped cream, but what really stood out was the homemade baba au rhum “donut” which served as the cake-y part that most people will use vanilla wafers for.  This was not a normal donut.  It was light, and it melted in your mouth.  The pudding was not overly sweet, and the bananas used in it were not overly ripe.  A slightly green banana tastes very different from a super ripe banana with black spots, the sugars are lower–and this dessert used bananas on the younger side of the ripeness spectrum.  We really ended on a high note with this.  It was light and airy, and there is something about a banana dessert that I am obsessed with.  I am not sure this meal could have ended any more perfectly.  This was my second visit to Saint James, and I feel like I am just starting to scratch its surface.  Next time, I am going to sit upstairs and order the tower, but not without a boat drink first.  Be sure to make a reservation when you go–this place is no secret.

Fish tacos. Do you know?

Warning: this is more of a plea than a post or review.  I realize that the majority of my audience is Raleigh, North Carolina, but have y’all ever had a Southern California fish taco?  Or maybe you had a fish taco on the East coast–whoever made it probably had their first one on the West coast. It doesn’t really matter, as long as it was delicious–and when you use fresh ingredients, and stick to simplicity, a fish taco isn’t all that difficult. I am a fish taco fiend.  I have planned entire vacations around tacos.  This is serious shit, people. Integrity is everything.

Most of you who know me or read my write up on J. Betski’s know that I am from coastal North Carolina.  Carteret County in tha house.  We have the best seafood there.  But what we didn’t have is the rich Mexican culture that I became immersed in while living in Long Beach, CA in late 2000s.  You probably know that Southern California boasts the best Mexican food that the U.S. has to offer, and edged up on the coast of that magical Mexican food landscape is the fish taco.  By the time I moved back to NC, I was completely addicted to California fish tacos.  I would order one just about anytime I saw one on a menu, in hopes it would be a fraction of perfection that the real thing, a true California fish taco, is.  I really learned quickly that it just isn’t worth ordering random fish tacos.  I have been on the receiving end of some really sad excuses for a fish taco.  One experience that stands out, in particular, occurred in a bar in downtown Raleigh that is no longer in business, called Busy Bee.  One night I ordered this fish taco on their menu.  You guys, this was 2009… Can you believe I still remember this?!  It stuck in my mind because they brought me a tuna wrap!!  Totally NOT a fish taco.  Heartless.  Bless their heart…  Anyway, I think that was what ultimately broke me.  Now, unless I make it myself, I stay true to California for my fish taco needs. I adventure around a little more with a shrimp taco, but not fish.  It has to be right, or it is simply sacrilege.

fish tacos

I am super passionate on this topic at the moment because I just got home from a visit back to Southern California a couple days ago.  I prioritize Mexican food, especially fish tacos, while I am there.  There is such an abundance of great fish tacos spots in Southern CA. I ordered the tacos pictured at a little place called Sancho’s Tacos in Belmont Shore, my old neighborhood. It’s themed around the band Sublime, which also made it feel cozy.  My favorite kind is so simple.  It starts with a fresh corn tortilla.  Fish tacos were invented in Baja, Mexico, and they are traditionally grilled or fried, but I really prefer a fresh grilled fish taco, with finely shredded cabbage, some spicy and acidic green tomatillo salsa, sour cream drizzle, cilantro, lime. Or you could add tomato to it, and some spicy citrus/mayo based sauce. Either is perfect and maintains the integrity of a true Baja fish taco, as long as the fish is fresh, the tortilla is fresh, and you have fresh lime, cilantro, and cabbage, maybe some pickled jalapeños.  No cheese. But why do we not have these readily available in the Triangle?  Am I missing something? We aren’t that far from the coast!  I am seriously thinking I need to start a fish taco popup business in DTR.  Is there anyone else who really needs more fish tacos?  Or am I totally a freak? While we are on the topic, do y’all know what a wet burrito is?  

Christmas at J. Betski’s

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 (sometimes 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 beautiful cocktails and a very 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–> Otherwise, you can visit OpenTable or their website for reservations, or just pop in and grab a seat at the bar.

dessert drawing

Na zdrowie and dobranoc! 

let’s talk about food.

coleenandsarah_oakwoodcandlelightStaring at this blank screen gave me flashbacks to college when I would procrastinate always with the hopes of creating something masterful under pressure.  haha. Such a bad habit. But today, those daunting blank screens are far in the rear view, it is a chilly December Saturday morning, I am in my pajamas drinking coffee, listening to Mariah Carey Christmas (am I sick or what?), glancing out the backdoor occasionally at my sweet Daisy as she basks in the backyard sun. There is no deadline.  I am enjoying a leisurely weekend morning–such a luxury isn’t it?  So, what am I doing here?

I want to write about my passion for masterfully prepared food and drink.  I have to disclose, this wasn’t my idea.  I was talking with a friend recently over dinner at Hummingbird, gushing over what we were eating and also talking about his aspiration of opening a restaurant someday when he suggested that I start a food blog.  Wait, let’s back up, it wasn’t a suggestion, it was a straight up command. And it came with a deadline.  haha!  And so I questioned, “why the hell would I do that?  What am I going to get out of it?”  His response was, “so you can write.”  Well, that’s reason enough for me. So, thanks for that, friend.

The great thing about writing about food is that I really don’t mind if nobody reads it or talks about it.  I just need to express it, being the expressive woman that I am. But, I am very confident in the comprehension of my palate, part genetically blessed and part trained, so maybe I will inspire someone to try something new, or to dig deeper into their own palette’s comprehension.  That would really make my day.  But this is a very humble beginning, and my expectations are low.  So, ahem, welcome to my food blog.  🙂

I have chosen to highlight a new restaurant in Raleigh called Hummingbird, to begin.  It just recently graced Raleigh’s food scene in November.  I have been proliferating anticipation leading up to the launch of this neighborhood gem owned by Chef Coleen Speaks.  There’s a lot of buoyant emotion wrapped up in this place for me.  You see, Coleen isn’t just a masterful (god I love that word) local chef, she is one of my closest friends, my neighbor, my sister, my confidant, fellow foodie and lover of fun.  I have had the distinct pleasure of enjoying countless meals created by her in her home, and my friends have been listening to me rave about her food and craft cocktails for years.  I remember the first time I met her and her husband, Nick.  I think it was 2009.  My sister invited me to the Speaks’ famous Halloween house party.  Coleen had a huge cauldron of her famous gumbo and a massive punch bowl of Dark n Stormy with lychees stuffed with brandied-cherries floating in it.  🙂  Genius.  They looked just like eyeballs floating around.  haha.  I am pretty sure I fell in love with her and Nick that night.  Fast forward years later, and I ended up buying a house two blocks away from them.  She has extended her table to me these past 4 1/2 years enough for me to say, with conviction, that this woman is one of the most skilled chefs in the area, and in my opinion, one of the most brilliantly creative chefs in the world.  Hummingbird is a long awaited wish of Coleen’s and I am thrilled to celebrate this labor of love.  Now, anyone can sit at her table.  You can even order that gumbo I had on that balmy and rainy Halloween night when I first met her.

Well, that’s it for this post.  I am so excited to tell you about my favorite details of this space, the food, and the cocktails.  FYI–their bartender, Tal, makes the most perfect Negroni I have ever had in my life, which is fitting as my first Negroni was made by Coleen in her kitchen. For those of you who don’t know Chef Coleen, aka Coco, she is pictured seated above, with myself standing. Cheers, and thanks for joining me!