I decided to make this trip to the Triangle into a tour of Ashley Christensen’s Raleigh restaurants, after receiving several recommendations from scout friends and (I think) hearing of her via Hugh Acheson. Christensen has four outposts in downtown Raleigh, three of them on the same block of Wilmington Street, which served for all three of my dinners plus a breakfast/coffee stop.
Poole’s Diner is her high-end shop, with a menu that changes weekly or daily and focuses on local products, meaning it’s very heavy on vegetables even in the mains – which was a positive since I took my cousin, a vegetarian, for dinner. The best item was actually a side dish, sauteed Brussels sprouts with oyster mushrooms and a sherry cream sauce. Mushrooms and fortified wines like sherry or madeira are great friends, and mounting the resulting sauce with cream (saute the mushrooms, deglaze with the wine, finish with just enough cream to thicken) adds flavor and mouthfeel that goes with almost everything … but I’ve never had it with Brussels sprouts or any other brassica before. The combination was unexpected but provided great balance to the slight bitterness of the sprouts, with the cream limiting that bitter note and allowing the umami of the mushrooms to move to the front.
My entree was a seared halibut over farro with a roasted tomato relish, everything perfectly cooked, with the farro actually the best part of the dish. Farro, an “ancient grain” in the wheat family that can refer to spelt, emmer, or einkorn; the hulled berries are cooked until al dente and can substitute in many recipes for rice or barley, but with more flavor than plain rice and less of that good-for-you taste of barley. We shared a dark chocolate/mocha pot de crème with coffee shortbread, served in a wide-mouth mason jar, my kind of dessert – bittersweet, not cloying, with the consistency of a thick mousse so that even a half portion was very satisfying.
Poole’s also has its own house cocktail menu; I couldn’t pass on a drink based on Mount Gay XO rum (especially after I heard rumors, unfounded as it turns out, that Mount Gay was shutting down). The cocktail included Mount Gay, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters, served with a strip of orange peel, and for a drink that had no non-alcoholic components it was surprisingly smooth, and the dark rum provides a hint of sweetness without any added sugar in the drink. The entree, the side, my cousin’s salad (an entree portion size), dessert, and the cocktail came to about $75 before tip.
Couple of important notes on Poole’s: They don’t take reservations, but there’s a large bar where you can get happy while you wait; there’s a large parking lot across the street that’s free after 5 pm; and their website discourages diners from bringing children.
Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Christensen’s fried chicken restaurant – I know most of you are already sold at this point – actually shares a space with Chuck, her burger place, separated by a wall but with staffers going back and forth between the two. Beasley’s was the better place by far; the chicken was excellent, among the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, served with a very slight drizzle of honey over the top – just enough for the taste, not enough to make it sticky. But the sides are absolutely incredible; one friend of mine who lives in the Triangle says he only gets the $9 plate of three sides and skips the chicken altogether. I went with the roasted beets with pickled onions and an orange & white balsamic vinaigrette, and the green cabbage slaw with malt vinegar, roasted tomatoes, and what I think was a celery seed mayo dressing that may have had dried mustard as well. The beets came cold, both red and golden, with the vinaigrette thicker than a typical dressing, somewhere between the consistency of a regular vinaigrette and that of pure maple syrup, with the onions on top, giving two elements of acidity to brighten and balance the sweetness of the beets. (Disclaimer: I love roasted beets in pretty much any form as long as they never saw the inside of a can.)
The cabbage slaw was also strong, maybe a little overdressed, but the celery seeds in the dressing were a surprising and effective touch; I might have though of crushed caraway seeds or mustard seeds, both of which work extremely well with cabbages, but the celery seeds were a note I kept coming back to after eating. Also, they have bourbon chocolate pecan pie for dessert and that was hands-down the best pecan pie I’ve ever tasted, maybe the first time I’ve had one where I never thought for a second, “this is a little too sweet.” The predominant flavors were the dark chocolate and the bourbon – the booze wasn’t there for nomenclature, but you actually get that smoky/sweet flavor in the finished product.
Chuck was a little disappointing after my meals at the other two spots, mostly because the burger itself was underseasoned. Although the good folks on the Beasley’s twitter feed advised me to get the Dirty South – a burger with smoked pork shoulder and chili on top of the patty itself – I couldn’t bring myself to order it, not with an avocado and bacon-onion jam option staring me in the face. (Besides, I wanted to taste the beef, and though the Dirty South would overwhelm it with the pork flavor.) Also, the bun was kind of nondescript. The hand-cut fries were good, and seemed to have all the salt that was missing from the burger; you get your choices of two dipping sauces from a list of seven or eight, and I recommend the espelette mayo, although if you like garlic mayo theirs is potent as well. They offer unusual milkshake flavors and will spike them with alcohol, but I didn’t partake. A five-ounce burger (they offer a half-pound, but really, no one needs that) and a quarter pound of fries was more than enough for me.
Joule’s Coffee is the Christensen coffee/breakfast joint, a few doors down from Beasley’s and Chuck, using beans from Durham’s Counter Culture, one of the best roasters on the east coast. They offer drip, cold brew, pour-overs, and various espresso drinks, with your choice of two different single-origin beans for the last option. The breakfast menu includes egg dishes, croissant French toast, sausage and biscuits, and, my choice, house-made yogurt (thick, like Greek yogurt or labneh) with granola and fresh blueberries. The coffee, a Rwandan varietal, was good enough that I contemplated getting up a half-hour earlier the next morning to drive over there before my flight home – I didn’t, because I like sleep too, but I was tempted – and the yogurt was a good reminder that homemade can beat even the best packaged, authentic Greek yogurts*.
* Authentic Greek yogurt means it’s strained yogurt, without any added thickeners. The FDA has no guidelines on Greek yogurt or the use of the word “authentic” here, so you get major yogurt brands creating fake Greek yogurt by adding vegetable gums, pectin, or corn starch. Read the labels and buy the real stuff – Chobani, Fage, and Whole Foods all do it right.
My one non-Christensen meal spot was La Farm Bakery in Cary, not too far from the USA Baseball complex where I was attending the NHSI tournament. La Farm was founded by a baker of traditional European breads, including sourdoughs, dark ryes, and pain de campagne – the French bread style that can be formed into decorative shapes. They also sell a variety of traditional French pastries and do salads and sandwiches for the lunch crowd. The bread is the star, a solid 70 on the 20-80 scale, especially the Italian bread with sesame seeds and the focaccia, with the ciabatta closer to average for me. The sandwiches were a mixed bag; I loved the Mediterraneo, with fresh mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, basil, and balsamic vinaigrette, but the “award-winning” albacore tuna salad sandwich was very ordinary. The BLT was very good, better with the added avocado option, but there was about twice as much chipotle mayo as the sandwich needed. On one of those days, one MLB team’s contingent walked in right as I was finishing, so I hung out for a bit and saw what they ate, with the kale salad with eggless Caesar dressing the most appealing. If I lived near Cary, I’d be buying bread from them twice a week, at least.