The best restaurant in the Triangle?

As I wrote about in my previous post, my in-laws were in town this weekend and night we dined at Herons at The Umstead Spa & Hotel in Cary.

Our friend Dean had staged at Herons last fall and written about the experience in a three part post (Part I, Part II, Part III, so I was looking forward to the experience of dining there, to say the least. 

While this area of the country isn’t thought of as a hotbed of culinary activity, we’ve had the pleasure of having had some pretty darn good meals down here.  However none of those meals matched the level of craftsmanship of what we ate two nights ago.

We opted, as always, for the chef’s tasting menu, which included five courses (six if you count the amuse) as well as wine pairings (an additional $30 which is a great bargain).  So a six course meal plus wine pairing runs you $100 plus gratuity and tax per person, a pretty reasonable cost in my eyes.

The amuse bouche was pretty straightforward – a pheasant rillette with a sun-dried strawberry puree and pistachios, garnished with a microgreen.  I wanted more, but that’s the point of the amuse, to whet your appetite and build your anticipation for the meal ahead of you.  It worked.

The second course was nothing mindblowing or necessarily all that creative – it was tuna tartar with avocado puree, iced radish, lemon-soy and kanzuri juice, that had a sesame seed tuile sitting on top.  The only real complaint we had was that the citrus elements and avocado actually over powered the delicate flavor of the tuna, though the tuile added a nice contrast to the sameness of the texture of the avocado and tuna.

Our third course was poached halibut (according to our server poached in olive oil), white asparagus, melted onion, herb puree and crab butter.  The halibut was cooked perfectly, and really my only complaint (a very minor one I have to stress) is that the halibut could have been seasoned a little bit more.  No doubt this is a function of poaching the fish (garnishing with a flaky sea salt would be one solution), and the rest of the dish was seasoned perfectly.  Like I said, I’m nitpicking here.

The fourth course was pheasant confit ravioli with cauliflower puree, brown butter, hazelnuts and truffle broth.  Simple, straightforward and delicious, everyone should get to try this dish once in their life.  The truffle was there but not overpowering and pouring the broth tableside was much appreciated.  My only wish for this dish was that it be bigger – I could have had 10 ravioli and a bowl full of broth, but then that would have been the end of the meal, and that would have sucked.

Course five was 48 hour beef short rib with rosemary polenta, elf mushrooms, baby vegetables and natural jus.  Again, this course was perfect and I could have had more, but admittedly was getting a little full by now.  The short rib was still pink in the middle yet was tender enough to cut with the fork, a product of sous vide cooking done well and not done just for sake of cooking something sous vide.

Dessert was next with a poppy seed cake with huckleberry compote, lemon-poppy seed cream and quark cheese.  This course showed restraint and was the perfect amount to enable us to enjoy it without feeling stuffed.

To conclude we enjoyed some coffee with the mignardises that were brought, all of which were executed perfectly.

In all, each course was executed really well, and I think the meal got better as it progressed.  The food wasn’t overly fussy (I don’t think you could get away with that down here) but demonstrated great craftsmanship and skill.  Not one of the courses was overly complicated (again, you can’t really get away with that too much down here, people like there meat and potatoes) but each packed a lot of flavor.

My only wish is that the tasting menu offered more courses, as when we go out to eat that’s pretty much the sole purpose of us going out and we don’t mind spending 3 or 4 hours eating (this one came in at just shy of 2, and that’s because we lingered towards the end).

Service wise, everything was fine.  Our main server was friendly enough but not overly so, certainly not as stuffy as I’ve had at similar restaurants in the past and didn’t appreciate. 

One major complaint though was that when we arrived there was a table directly behind us that had a child about the same age as Nate.  Sure, the baby was well behaved, but when you spend $100+ for your meal you don’t expect to have to hear it (not to mention I listen to Nate 7 days a week and was looking forward to not hearing baby sounds for just a few hours).  Fortunately the restaurant got noisy enough as the dining room filled up and it wasn’t too much of an issue.  But for about the first half of the meal we had to listen to a 7 month old occasionally squealing.

Here’s hoping Chef Crawford stays for a while, becuase we’re looking forward to going back whenever budget and babysitters allow.

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