Herons: New Chef, New Food, New Heart

May 7, 2009

lambHerons Restaurant in Cary’s Umstead Hotel has been a bit of an enigma since it opened a couple of years ago.  It’s one of my favorite dining rooms, with warm wood decor and the most comfortable seats around.  The service has always been top-notch and efficient, although sometimes a bit overzealous.  At one point I wrote that Herons was the most underrated restaurant in the Triangle, but over time, I began to see why folks had a problem with it.  First, dining at Herons was a ridiculously expensive proposition with entrees in the high 30s and 40s.  Second, the food was wildly inconsistent, which could be directly tied to their chefs.  Phil Evans opened Herons, and although he was capable of putting out some good food, I thought he lacked direction and soul.  What I mean was that the food would taste good, but it just didn’t excite me.  I don’t need to be excited with everything I eat, but at 4o bucks, that plate should be somewhat memorable.  The second chef, Paul Kellum, went downhill from there.  I had two meals at Herons under Kellum, and both of them were lackluster, with one dish — Kellum’s version of chicken and waffles — being practically inedible.

I had no reason to go back to Herons, except for a business lunch, perhaps.  And then, with the economy gone bad, Herons wasn’t even a good proposition for business.  Ostentation is out.  Frugality is in. Read the rest of this entry »

Triangle Restaurant Week Coming

April 29, 2009


The second annual Triangle Restaurant Week will be held across the Triangle on May 11-17.  Restaurant Week has been a fixture in other cities for years, where restaurants offer a three-course menu for a low, fixed price.  For the Triangle event, lunch will cost $15 and dinner will be $25.  Many restaurants typically provide a special “Restaurant Week” menu, but other places allow diners to order off the menu, recognizing that they want their customers to experience the full menu.  As I learn more details, I’ll report back here.

Last year, Restaurant Week only included restaurants in Raleigh, but the event has truly expanded by including a number of Durham and Cary-based establishments.

Some of the restaurants that I would consider checking out include Four Square, 18 Seaboard, Jibarra, Il Palio, Frazier’s, and Sitti.  There are currently 48 places that are participating this year, which is fantastic growth.  Go to the Triangle Restaurant Week website for more information.

New Chef Hopes to Make Herons Fly

March 13, 2009


Scott Crawford, the new chef at the plush Herons restaurant in The Umstead Hotel, is my home boy.  Yup, Crawford grew up in the big metropolis of Guys Mills, PA — population 133 (not counting livestock) — which is less than 20 miles away from my hometown of Titusville (the big city with a whopping 6,100 residents).  We’re talking about a mix of small town and country.  Dairy farmers.  Tool and die makers.  Folks generally don’t make it to the big time by staying here, and the vast majority of my high school friends left to explore the country and look for more exciting things. Read the rest of this entry »

If You Knew Suchi Like I Knew Suchi . . .

December 23, 2008

Let me start with a huge disclaimer: I am an Indian food dilettante.  I enjoy eating Indian food, but frankly, I know almost nothing about it.  I’ve eaten with Indian friends, ordered off the menu (but usually go to the buffet), and I’ve even tried to read about the myriad regional cuisines of this huge country.  But I still go to restaurants and can’t remember most of what I ate, what it was called, and what were the distinguishing flavors.

And I’m starting to think I understand why.  Most of the Indian food I’ve eaten around here comes from a buffet steam table, where the food has been sitting for god knows how long, and the flavors end up highly muddled.

Recently, though, I’ve been eating food from those same steam tables, but the flavors are jumping out at me.  Paneer that tastes like cheese.  A chicken dish where the cilantro is very noticeable and clean.  Naan fresh out of the kitchen, glistening with butter (or is it ghee?).  Chutneys that truly do accent the flavors of the dishes.

This restaurant is Suchi, in that big strip-mall area of Cary near the intersection of Chatham St. and Maynard.  The place where there’s Mexican groceries and bakeries.  Where there’s a halal meat market and a Chinese seafood store.  Where you can get Indian street food, Korean barbecue and lengua tacos.  Suchi sort of captures the ambiance of the area by offering choices representing multiple Indian sub-cuisines.

Suchi used to be one of my regular stops for Indian food, and it was primarily because one of my Indian friends liked it.  I thought it was OK, but it wasn’t really noticably better than other places.  The food at Udupi was a bit better, but when I wanted dishes with meat (Udupi is vegetarian), I usually went to Suchi.  But then the food started to get very ordinary.  And the buffet didn’t get replenished very often, either.  So I stopped going.  Until two weeks ago, when I gave Suchi another try after learning they had new management.  And you know what?  I loved the place.  Everything I tried was utterly delicious, but being the Indian food dunce that I am, I couldn’t say why.  But I could describe the flavors, which is something I couldn’t previously do.

And so Chef Kirankumar showed me his kitchen, and the spices that he grinds and mixes routinely.  His face showed me the pride with which he cooks — in the same manner as he did when cooking for two prime ministers of India (or so he claims — but who really cares?).  He told me that he wants to put different items on the buffet every day, to give his customers a sense of the breadth of Indian food.

Although the buffet is available for lunch and for dinner on Friday and Saturday, you can always order off the menu, which I’m definitely going to do next time.

I was pleasantly surprised by Suchi’s food, and when a buddy of mine and his Indian wife reported to me that they also thought the food was top-notch, I felt comfortable enough to report back to you.  So maybe I’m learning after all.

748-K East Chatham street
Cary, NC. 27511

La Farm Bakery to Add Café

October 21, 2008

I was excited to receive a press release today announcing that La Farm Bakery in Cary will be expanding by adding a café where they will serve lunch and dinner in a manner that will complement their wonderful breads and pastries.  You may recall that I spent a wonderful morning last winter working at La Farm, kneading and baking bread, getting to know the master baker Lionel Vatinet.

Tartines, those French open-faced sandwiches, and pastries will be available in the mornings, while the later menu, available until 9pm, will showcase soups, salads, cheese and charcuterie plates, tartines and pizzas. With the addition of a full kitchen, classic dishes such as eggs benedict, croque madame and others will be offered.  They’ll even have wine.

The new café will feature a communal farmhouse table for 10, as well as seating at café tables for 50 indoors and 25 outdoors on the covered patio.

Herons Names New Executive Chef

June 23, 2008

The Umstead Hotel‘s Herons Restaurant has a new executive chef, Paul Kellum, who comes from Vail’s Blue Moon Restaurant and Bar.  Kellum replaces Phil Evans after Evans’ sudden and somewhat mysterious departure from Herons.

Here’s a link to Kellum’s menu at the Blue Moon.  I’ll be interested to see what he does here in North Carolina.

Thanks to Dana at gogoraleigh for the tip!

Raleigh Restaurants Open on Sundays and Mondays

February 26, 2008

calendar.jpgMrs. Varmint and I were at a political fundraiser last night and although the food was quite tasty, there really wasn’t enough of it. We had a babysitter, so why not go out to dinner? But then we realized that it was Monday — one of the nights, along with Sundays — when the chef might have the night off.

So I realized I should put together a list of places that are open on Sundays and Mondays in Raleigh and the eastern part of Cary. This will be an ongoing process, and I’m looking to y’all to help me with this list, which I’ll update whenever someone lets me know of another place that’s open on Sunday or Monday. I’ll probably even put a static link to this list on a sidebar. The list comes after the break. Read the rest of this entry »

My Morning With an Artisanal Baker

February 18, 2008


My watch’s alarm chirped at me at 4:15. It was time for me to get my sorry butt out of bed, shower, and make the 15 minute drive to Cary’s La Farm Bakery. I kept asking myself why the hell I had asked to spend a few hours in this award-winning artisanal bakery. Of course, by the time I arrived at 4:50, Philippe Comte had been there for nearly five hours. That’s the life of an apprentice baker, who has come to the US from his home in Paris to learn from a baking master such as Lionel Vatinet. For me, I was just some “journalist” who wanted to spend a few hours with my hands in the dough.

It was February 14 — Valentine’s Day — but I had totally forgotten about that until I arrived to see Philippe pull a dozen loaves of heart-shaped baguettes out of the oven. That would be the theme of my visit with La Farm, as heart-shaped objects ruled the day. Cookies, tarts, bread and more were being made for the lovers of the world — OK, maybe just the lovers of Cary.

Lionel Vatinet has traveled the world, first to learn to make bread, and then to teach others the secrets of the craft, and then, nearly 10 years ago, to open his own bakery with his then girlfriend and now wife, Missy. There was nothing magical about Cary, as Lionel wanted to set up shop in California, but Missy had some family in North Carolina and wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle. So due to the lack of any firm roots, we here in the Triangle ended up being the beneficiaries of their new home. Read the rest of this entry »

Chefs, Businesses and Their Restaurants

February 12, 2008

toque.jpgOver the past year or two, we in the Triangle have experienced a mini-boom in the number of chef-owned restaurants. Poole’s, Watt’s Grocery, Piedmont, Rue Cler, Bonne Soiree, and others. To the foodies of the world (and I include myself in that group), one gets a great buzz to eat at a chef-owned restaurant in the first few days after it’s opened. Chef-owned establishments are considered ultra-hip, and I even try to get to know the chefs, because that just makes me hip, too. Heh.

But when a new restaurant opens that isn’t owned by a chef, it just doesn’t get the same press. And I’m as guilty as anyone in that regard. I really started to understand my own bias when it came to Herons restaurant in the Umstead Hotel. I found myself unenthusiastic because Herons was, well, a hotel restaurant. And with The Mint just opening in downtown Raleigh, I certainly didn’t welcome it with much enthusiasm and even told some friends that I really didn’t have much interest in trying it. Was that lack of fervor due to its size, its controversial connections with the city of Raleigh, the menu, or because it seemed to be a place owned by a faceless investment group rather than a known chef? Would I have given as much attention to The Pit if it were just Greg Hatem’s company opening it, without the involvement of Ed Mitchell? Read the rest of this entry »

Herons’ Chef Bids Adieu

February 4, 2008

Well, just after I wrote about how much I love Herons, I learned that their chef, Phil Evans, has parted ways with the restaurant. I have no other details, but his departure has been confirmed. That’s a darn shame, and it will be interesting to hear what happens in the kitchen during this transitional period.


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