This is going to be one of those all-over-the-place updates where I’ll touch on many things. My stomach has been filled with food. My camera is nearly full of photos. And my brain can no longer retain all of my thoughts. It’s time to unload. Walk with me…let’s do brunch.
Poole’s Diner [426 S McDowell St, Raleigh]—Well I fell in love. Poole’s Diner’s philosophy centers on “creative, simple offerings carefully executed.” And that sums it up. I want your job and restaurant, Ashley Christensen. I want it now.
I went to Poole’s for brunch this past Saturday. Following a birthday party the night before, a solid brunch and debriefing were in order with a friend. We went around 1230 and found it easy to get a spot at the double horseshoe bar. She ordered the Huevos Rancheros and a Bloody Mary, and I “The Hangover” and a DC. That’s Diet Coke, people.
OH my freakin’ goodness. The huevos were tasty from the bite that I nabbed. And the grits were nuclear hot and loaded with cream and butter. Add on some bacon, cheese, zesty tomatoes and green onion and instant nirvana. You see, grits are a beautiful thing because like the potato or risotto or pasta…it’s about how you flavor the item. It’s a blank canvas. Nomnomnom, I can’t wait to go back. I plan to take my mom when she visits. The tough decision: for dinner or a return brunch?!
Poole’s does not post their menu online. Sad. Rather, the restaurant is lined with chalkboards updated daily or weekly with the current in-season offerings. Cute.
Also, I recommend visiting the restroom while you’re there. While I can only speak for the ladies, I will say that there was some thought put into the decor, the vanity, lamp, container of bobby pins and items for a quick touch-up in the mirror.
Poole’s and owner Chef Ashley Christensen have gotten some love in Bon Appétit and some other periodicals. Read here.
Next up…andiamo all’Italia!
Gravy [135 S Wilmington St, Raleigh]— I went here for lunch a while back with some downtown working friends. Gravy is a partnership of the Italian restaurant Bella Monica (still have yet to go there; ashamed) and the downtown Raleigh restaurant group Empire Eats. I expected a high marks for atmosphere, food and service. And I was quite pleased with each. Plus the portions, brightness of the space and quick turn of tables was ideal for the lunch hour. I selected the small arugula salad and the puttanesca.
The simple arugula salad was perfect—peppery greens, very lightly tossed in a mild vinaigrette and topped with tangy, salty Parmesan. As for the puttanesca, the rigatoni was coated in tomato-based sauce with plenty of garlic, kalamata olives, capers and a few anchovies. These ingredients combine in a very salty, harmonious way. This is not a mild dish, but it’s delicious if it’s your taste. I still have food dreams about a dish at Pulcinella’s in Durham—Spaghetti alla Bella Donna (spaghetti, kalamata olives, sautéed garlic, pine nuts, raisins and parmesan cheese with olive oil and anchovies). Deep down I was hoping Gravy could match that quality, but in the end puttanesca is just a different dish with a tomato sauce.
Gravy is not the only Italian restaurant downtown. It will compete with 518 West, Caffe Luna, Vic’s and Posta (also haven’t been there). So it will be interesting to see how diners show allegiance to Italian downtown eateries. I plan to continue to make the rounds and visit them all.
Bocci [5850 Fayetteville Rd, Durham]—Went here for a friend’s birthday and was happy with what I discovered. Bocci is located near Southpoint, so while I probably won’t drive to Durham to eat here, it offers a great locally operated alternative to the overpriced and over-the-top California Pizza Kitchen that’s down the street. And if I find myself in the neighborhood I will most definitely return.
I started with a very generous Caprese salad. Pretty typical tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, olive oil, but also some roasted red peppers. While it was good, I would have preferred better tomatoes and no red peppers. And then it would have been off the scale. Still, it fulfilled my need for a caprese salad.
Next up, Linguine con Vongole—with sea clams—one of my favorite pasta dishes. And this was a great rendition! I gravitate toward pasta dishes with lighter sauces—oil, broth, wine—and less hearty sauces. That’s why I love shrimp scampi and this—linguine with sea clams. There is a sea-ness to the broth from clam juice and the clams, but also a sweetness from the olive oil, and acid from the tomatoes. With some hot pepper flakes, it hits on all points of the palate.
The pizza is supposed to be incredible. Looks it.
J. Betski’s [10 W Franklin St, Raleigh]—I’ve long been intrigued by JBet’s modern twist on old school dishes and authentic flavors from Central and Eastern Europe. Just reading the menu is an adventure into a food territory I rarely visit: kielbasa, pierogies, brats & kraut, horseradish, beets, spaetzle, strudel, stews. These are the dishes of my ancestry in Eastern Europe. I should be more at home with them.
The diversity of the menu selection made clear that J. Betski’s is not a beerhall. You will not find beer maidens wandering around with giant pretzels and 4 liters of beer in hand. J. Betski’s chose to be experts in a refined regional cuisine, rather than simplifying to a beer and brats bar. I applaud this.
First, the restaurant is small, so it’s best to make reservations. Secondly, the service was impeccable. Our waitress offered beer and wine recommendations, was friendly and attentive, and loved to talk about the food. And finally, I recommend the 1 Appetizer + 2 Pub Plates special for $20. It’s a deal, and allows you to sample a number of different items.
Forgive the picture quality…bad lighting.
To start: a beer. I went with a pilsner. I don’t pretend to be beerstalkers, so my review ends at…it was mild, bubbly and somewhat lemony. Not overpowering.
I started with the Roasted Beet Salad, Horseradish Quark and Toasted Pumpkinseed Oil. I had foodstalked the menu beforehand, looked up quark and learned that it’s a soft cheese. Not just software for desktop publishing.
You can see all of the elements that make up this salad. The steak-like stack of beets and cheese felt hearty and substantial to slice into. The quark had a tangy flavor, and with the addition of the horseradish kick, it blended well with the sweet greens and beets. This inspired me to incorporate beets into my cooking routine. As for the horseradish, my grandfather used to say it would make hair grow on your tongue. I believed him for a little while.
The pierogies were the winning dish of the night. There is nothing wrong about dumplings. Whatever culture you’re talking about. Pierogi, ravioli, potsticker, etc.—all good and variations on one simple thing. Roll out some dough, stuff it with goodness, boil it or fry it and serve it with a sauce. Tadah! J.Betski pierogies are stuffed with smoked pork and cambozola (also a cheese) and topped with an apple-curry sauce and fresh thyme. This dish made me think—my dad loves pierogies. I have to bring him here.
Here’s a listing of the other dishes.
J. Betski summary: beautiful plating and flavors, and an exceptional option for mixing up your dining routine.
Zoës [1028 Oberlin Rd, Raleigh]—I’m excited about this one. When I lived in Birmingham, where Zoës originated, it was a personal favorite. It’s a healthy, quick option, with plenty of variety and items that I love. My favorites are the Greek salad and marinated slaw. Sidenote: as the Zoës opening approached, I began to take Oberlin Road on my way home so that I could literally stalk this place when it appeared open to the public. I went there twice and they were having private openings. For shame. On my third attempt, they were open and I got takeout. And proceeded to rattle off at the mouth to the manager concerning my love for Zoës when I lived in Birmingham blahblahblah.
Yum! Mixed greens with cukes, green peppers, red onion, olives, feta, cherry tomatoes, grilled chicken and onions and a small scoop of potatoe salad. The dressing is a simple vinaigrette. Side of pita. Score! This is a filling meal, while also healthy and delicious. While I was there, I also got a small tub of the marinated slaw to take home and pack for lunches. The marinated slaw’s basic recipe: shredded cabbage, green onions, feta, vinegar, seasoning. I can’t express how much I love this slaw. Just know that I do. Immensely.
Zoës is kid-frienly and family- and community-oriented. They also offer catering.