It was a trip long overdue - visiting a friend who moved back to Raleigh from DC last year, who also shares my passion for good food. So it was Amtrak I went, and seven hours later I arrived (note: don't take Amtrak south, it's late. All. The. Time) at my friends apartment with a cocktail at the ready. Much needed. It was the start of a food filled weekend.
OK, I know what you're thinking, the photo above doesn't really make a good impression, give me a chance. Yes, I did have wine in the parking lot of a strip mall, but it was damn good wine from a store, Wine Authorities, that also serves as a small wine bar, with extremely knowledgeable staff and a huge selection of wines from all across the globe - think of it as a mini warehouse. My friend was throwing a small get-together so it was a great spot to pick up a case of wine, and we tried before we bought. Win win.
The portrait above of Bruce Willis in Pie Hard doesn't just serve as an overseer of Bittersweet, reminding you that you're in a fun and vibrant cocktail and dessert restaurant, it serves as a cover for a television that on Sundays plays a supporting role to Pastry Chef Kim Hammer's desserts. On this particular Sunday, Hammer, in homage to playing Office Space, baked up a sheet-cake drawing inspiration from the scene where Bill celebrates his birthday. The staff get in on the act too, dressing up as their favorite characters of the movie. It makes for quite an evening. During my four day visit to Raleigh I visited Bittersweet three times, it was that good. It isn't just the the food that draws you in, Hammer and her staff do too - they make for great conversation, welcoming and accommodating to my somewhat rowdy group of friends. The cocktails are hand-crafted, original and made with serious ingredients - a nice compliment to Hammer's desserts. She describes herself as a chef who cooks from her loins, not her heart or head. Once you meet her you'll agree.
Dinner on Saturday was at The Tavern at Second Empire, a less formal version of the main restaurant located on the upper floors of the main house - a 19th Century mansion that now serves as a restaurant. From the outside you'd be easily forgiven for thinking The Tavern is a stuffy old school experience, it's not - it's got a fresh and modern take on traditional dishes. The Grilled Pork Chop with sauteed couscous and wild rice, with a beet carpaccio, and Pan Roasted Scallops with saffron potatoes were just two of the dishes ordered.
A short drive outside of downtown Raleigh toward the airport you'll find the North Carolina Museum of Arts, where on Sunday it plays host to brunch. It was a great opportunity to take in some culture on a trip otherwise marked for dining. The restaurant, Iris, is crisp white, clean and exactly what you'd expect from a restaurant inside a museum. Dining at Iris is more about it's ambiance, walking the gardens filled with statues from Rodin, now that's a way to walk off brunch.
A visit to Raleigh requires a stop at one of Ashley Christensen's restaurants, who was this year's James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Southeast. I stumbled upon Joule's, her coffee shop-cum-cocktail bar. Located in an historic building with an impressive entry of windows lined with people and their laptops, it's an eclectic place of sorts. It had intended only to be a stop to grab coffee and wait out the rain, but it continued to pour and pour. I'm a sucker for nachos so when I saw Smoked Chicken Nachos with Pickled Banana Peppers on the menu they had to be ordered. They were outstanding, perhaps the best nachos I've ever had kind of outstanding, and if you know me then you'll know that's some statement - it paired well with the freshly squeezed bruleed grapefruit with vodka. They don't do things by half in Raleigh.
The Christensen restaurant we had planned to visit on the trip was Poole's Diner, it's her signature place and is the place to be. Go for the food, not the service. Unfortunately for Poole's the pretentious welcome from the host and bar staff almost takes away from the culinary experience. My friends from Raleigh had warned me of its service but I shrugged it off assuming they were over-reacting, how wrong I was. All I can say of Poole's is order the mac n cheese, it softened the disappointment. I really wanted to like this place, I just couldn't.
Raleigh has some great eats with a downtown that looks to be changing at a pace that could rival DC, easily walkable with a fun and attractive crowd - you know who you are.