A trip through Japan in 12 courses

monkfish liver with sea urchin and pickles

I was glad I’d purchased a fast, new smartphone before I got to Blind Pig’s Rising Sun dinner in Raleigh. In a lot of cases, it was the only way to know what The Hub and I were eating.

Kenchin-jiru? The Google told me that was Buddhist vegetarian soup. Furikake? A Japanese seasoning that often contains seaweed. But it failed me on “yukke hato,” which turned out to be ground chicken heart. No matter. The remarkable experience of dining on 12 courses of Japanese-themed food made by six top North Carolina chefs needed no translation.

Blind Pig Supper Club is based in Asheville, and calls itself an underground supper club. It organizes culinary events that bring top chefs together to step outside their usual styles of cooking. I think this is the third dinner the group has organized in Raleigh. Find out more here.

The chef for this meal were Jason Smith of Raleigh’s 18 Seaboard; Scott Crawford, formerly of Heron’s at the Umstead Hotel in Cary, now opening Standard Foods in Raleigh; Drew Maykuth of Stanbury in Raleigh; Matt Kelly of Mateo Tapas and Vin Rouge in Durham; Kyle McKnight of Highland Avenue in Hickory; and Brian Canipelli of Cucina 24 in Asheville.

kohii zerii (coffee jelly), condensed milk, caramelized peas

kohii zerii (coffee jelly), condensed milk, caramelized peas

Each chef prepared two courses, and did it without an actual kitchen – the meal was served at Clearscapes downtown. Smith prepared the yukke hato with radish and pear, and the final course, a dessert using coffee jelly – which my phone told me was popular in Japanese coffee shops – condensed milk and topped with crunchy caramelized peas. (“Peas? That’s a very Japanese thing to do,” said my friend, Linda, who lived in Japan for several years, when I told her about it. Linda is hotly anticipating the new ramen shop opening in Durham, so they need to step on it. )

Crawford made the gentle first course – scallop sashimi with ginger juice – and a version of chawanmushi with cucumber and a touch of roe. Chawanmushi is a kind of custard that, in Japan, is savory, not sweet.

Maykuth created a course that made one of my least favorite fish, mackerel, appealing. It was pickled with seaweed and some other things I had to use my phone for. He also made a combination of tofu and bacon dashi.

McKnight offered a course of three kinds of mushrooms with garlic (one was had a little too much moisture in it) and another with a delightful bit of pork belly and peach vinegar next to a tempura-fried whole okra pod.

A fried round of monkfish liver topped Canipelli’s 11th course, accompanied by sea urchin. He also made the delightful kenchin-jiru soup, studded with different crunchy root vegetables.

Kelly combined cherry tomatoes and grilled shishito peppers with burrata (an Italian cheese) for a twist on caprese salad. His other course was wittily labeled “JFC”: Japanese fried chicken, with cabbage.

A standout for The Hub and me was the soup, which was refreshing halfway through the meal. I can’t say I’ll wake up one morning craving monkfish liver, but it was quite good and the little plate’s flavors were nicely balanced. Hub liked the chawanmushi, but I’ve never cared for the texture on that dish. Pork belly…what’s not to like about that? Each dish had it’s own qualities, and played a role in the unique theater that was this meal. Quite an experience.

Tasty training wheels

One of the hardest-to-get reservations in the Triangle is for a spot in a basement room that looks like a Holiday Inn breakfast buffet lounge. But hundreds sign up for a lottery to earn a spot at one of the 40 tables.

The appeal of the restaurant goes beyond the food – diners are helping students perfect their culinary and hospitality skills as they prepare for jobs. Flavors is run by the Culinary Arts and Hospitality programs of Wake Tech Community College. Culinary students select menus and prepare the food, baking students prepare breads and desserts, and hotel management students are servers and run the front of the house. They do all this, under supervision of instructors, three days a week for 10 weeks out of the 16-week semester.

beet salad with goat cheese

beet salad with goat cheese

The Culinary Arts Program is one of Wake Tech’s most popular. Many students enter believing that a show on The Food Network is just a couple of classes away, then discover just how much hard work is involved in a culinary career. That’s why organizers say the attrition rate is as much as 60 percent. “Some don’t even make it through one semester,” says Fredi Morf, a chef instructor there since 1986.

But for students with a true interest in culinary careers and hospitality, and a willingness to work hard, the program offers high-level professional training with a teacher-student ratio of 8 to 10 students per instructor.

Morf says that the Culinary classes are about evenly split between men and women, despite the macho image of restaurant kitchens. However, when they visit France – as a group is planning to do, making sausage to sell to raise money for the trip – the female students are often the only women in the kitchens.

I was Morf’s guest for a lunch on one of the Classic Cuisine days (others are titled Global Cuisine). I selected the chef’s special first course, a layered beet salad with herbed goat cheese – although the Chicken Consomme with Quenelles at a nearby table looked like an extra-good version of chicken soup with matzo balls. The third option was Rissoles Bouquetiere, which my server described as a filled turnover. The combination of beets with goat cheese is classic, and I always enjoy it.

seared salmon with roasted pepper salad

seared salmon with roasted pepper salad

For an entree, I selected Seared Salmon with Roasted Pepper Salad and Basmati Rice. I was worried about overcooking when the soy-marinated salmon arrived as slices, but they were moist and tender. The slightly chilled pepper salad, which included raisins, pine nuts and serrano chiles, was an interesting contrast. The other options were Grilled Medallions of Beef Tenderloin Bearnaise and Allumette Potatoes, Sauteed Chicken Breast Provencal and Couscous, and Vegetarian Risotto.

Since working on my taxes has increased my need for chocolate to combat the associated depression, I selected the Marjolaine for dessert: a layered stack of chocolate-hazelnut mousse and whipped cream with blueberries. The other options seemed just as good: Apple Crisp and Chai Latte Cake. There is no photo of my Marjolaine because, well, I couldn’t wait and ate it. But look here for an idea of it.

To sign up for a Flavors reservation, visit here.

A night in a strange and beautiful land

soup course in yamazushi’s kaiseki

I am fond of novels that I can crawl into and arrive in another land. Rarely can I achieve the same teleportation experience by watching a movie, and it has never happened in a restaurant. I’ve had many great meals in wonderful environments. But I’ve never, in a restaurant, had that same experience of visiting another world, until now.

Yamazushi in Durham has been around for years as a sushi bar and Japanese restaurant. Then The Hub and I read a review of a revamped Yamazushi. The sushi bar is gone, as are menus. The chef/owner, George Yamasawa, now serves five- or eight-course kaiseki. Kaiseki began as simple meals served during tea ceremonies, but the tradition has evolved into multi-course dining events. Each course is served singly, carefully timed. Kaiseki traditionally includes a rice

chestnut rice and japanese pickles

dish, a sashimi course, a fried dish and a grilled dish, among others.

Not only did the chef create the gentle procession of eight dishes to our table, but they were served in and on pottery he made himself, so I felt we were completely in a world the chef created.

The website advises emailing for reservations (essential) and someone will call to confirm. When she did, I was able to make some requests: no dairy or pork, per The Hub (vegan and vegetarian meals are possible). But, besides that, we had no idea what we’d find on our plates.

The experience was like a culinary version of the Japanese prints that show a winding trail up a mountain through forests and streams. North Carolina

marinated black cod on asparagus

scallops bathed in white miso. A dashi-based soup in a bamboo-handled teapot. My first taste of sea urchin, on the sashimi plate, which I ate without fear; the land I was in did not harbor fear. Crispy fried soft-shell crab with green tea salt. Black cod marinated for 48 hours in sake and miso, then grilled and perched on bright green asparagus. A bowl of rice with chestnuts, the nutty sweetness balanced by a plate of tart-salty Japanese pickles.

The Hub and I spent three hours in this lovely land, sipping sake between courses in ceramic cups we selected from among the chef’s handiwork. We had only to focus on each other, the food, and the gentle, pleasant passage of time.

Here today, gone three days later

I really hesitated before writing this post, because I may be harming my own self-interest by doing so. It’s happened before, like the time I wrote a column praising the fig jam I bought at the Raleigh Farmers Market then couldn’t find any when I wanted some.

But I’ll go ahead. It’s just us, after all.

A fascinating pop-up restaurant will open for three days only at The Cookery in Durham, N.C. – and it has a great pedigree. Hakanai will offer traditional, but not stereotypical, Japanese flavors along with house-made bonito and soba, Billy and Kelly Cotter, owners of Durham’s Toast, will be in the kitchen and out front. Chef Billy Cotter has been a sous chef at Magnolia Grill and Lantern, and Kelly Cotter is a veteran server and manager.

Scott Richie of Whiskey will be behind the bar, and Bull City Burger and Brewery will create a special beer to go with the menu.

The Cookery is a food business incubator that helps entrepreneurs who need kitchen space or marketing help. Hakanai will be staged in its event space, which opened in September. Owners Rochelle and Nick Johnson plan to host more pop-up restaurants in the space.

The restaurant will be open by reservation only Feb. 1, 2 and 3; no walk-ins will be allowed.  The Cookery will begin taking reservations at 10 a.m. Dec. 9. Reservations will be taken only at www.durhamcookery.com.

Rochelle Johnson says that a price for the dinner will be set early next week and will be posted on The Cookery’s website.

All ears at Fire in the Triangle

The Fire in the Triangle quarterfinal cooking competition Monday night had everything “Iron Chef” but the secret ingredient rising up into the room in a dry-ice fog. There was an ebullient host (Jimmy Crippen of Crippen’s Country Inn and Restaurant in Blowing Rock). There were dramatic introductory videos of the competitors (Serge Falcoz-Vigne of 518 West and  John Childers of Herons at the Umstead). There was “Eye of the Tiger” played at a sound level suitable for an wrestling arena. But the TV show never had this: A dapper member of the state fire marshal’s office in full uniform, who opened the evening by telling us that unattended cooking is the No. 1 cause of house fires. “Stand by your pan,” Jan Parker instructed us. “Or go out to eat.”

What started as one competition to draw diners to restaurants in Blowing Rock has grown to four tilts scattered across the state. You can read more about them here. Besides cooking for professional judges, of which I was one last night, they also serve more than 100 ticket holders. The dishes are blind tasted, and can be anything the chefs choose, from appetizer to dessert. Winners are determined by scores on presentation, aroma, flavor, accompaniments, secret ingredient creativity and execution. The scores are weighted 70 percent on the public’s evaluations and 30 percent on the professional judges’ marks.

The plan is for the winners of the four Fire competitions to vie for an overall title, but not date has been set.

Past ingredients for Fire in the Triangle  have included blueberries, noodles and wontons, beef, cantaloupe and turkey. Monday night’s: Fresh corn from John Hudson Farms in Newton Grove.

The interesting thing about these kinds of contests is seeing the creativity that talented chefs can show when focusing on one ingredient. These were professionals, so every dish was going to be good. But my question throughout: Does this dish make corn the star of the show or relegate it to the back of the chorus? For me, the winning dishes brought corn forward to take a bow while still playing well with complimentary flavors in a cohesive dish.

The desserts were good illustrations of what I’m talking about. One was a firm rectangle of cool corn custard that was sweet but had a strong fresh corn flavor. It was topped with a caramel made from Pepsi, graham cracker crumble and peanuts. The caramel, crumble and peanuts danced with the corn, bringing out the flavor. There was no question this dessert was about corn. In contrast, the other dessert was delicious, but it didn’t tell a story of corn as well. It was a sweet, crunchy tuile made from corn which held a whipped corn cream and was garnished with blueberries, peaches and a corn creme anglaise. For all that corn in the dish, I didn’t get a strong corn flavor (I could only taste the sugar in the tuile, no corn at all). I found out later that Childers made the custard and Falcoz-Vigne the other dessert.

The other dishes: Corn and lobster crab cake with smoky corn chowder and corn and bacon beignet with citrus-ginger herb salad from Falcoz-Vigne (my beignet was chewy); roasted quail with charred corn and blueberry relish, sherry vinegar and thyme from Childers (loved the sauce, balanced dish); corn and pulled duck confit with corn succotash, corn butter mashed potatoes, N.C. peaches and corn barbecue sauce from Falcoz-Vigne (duck was dry, sauce was awesome); grilled pork tenderloin with creamed corn, turnip butter, and peach marmalade and white balsamic barbecue sauce from Childers (excellent overall dish that still said “corn.”)

The winner was Childers, who will go on to compete against the winner of The Oxford vs. Flights contest tonight.


New doors opening

Along with notable losses (Magnolia Grill), a flurry of interesting-looking new restaurants are opening soon. In hip, happ’n Glenwood South in Raleigh, Krave is moving into the former Red Room tapas location. It will offer bar-ish food and entrees for late-night eaters until 4 a.m., according to Triangle Business Journal. Owners describe it as a “social media-type restaurant” where menus and order-taking will be by iPads. Hope service isn’t via Twitter, but through actual people.

On the complete opposite of the dining spectrum is Oakleaf in Pittsboro’s Chatham Mills. The focus is on local and sustainable ingredients, and I’m pleased the see the sample menu here includes unusual fish like tilefish, one of my favorites. The children’s menu isn’t the usual chicken fingers and fries, either. (What part of a chicken is the finger, anyway?)

Last dance at Magnolia Grill

soft-shell crab at magnolia grill

A call this morning: Cancellation for Magnolia Grill tonight. The reservation was for 5:30 p.m., but I didn’t care if it was the senior-citizen early-bird special – we got in during its last month. The server meeting was breaking up when The Hub and I arrived, and chef Ben Barker came over to the table. I’ve known him since I was a fairly ignorant new food writer 15-some years ago. I gave him a hug, and said that this certainly won’t be the last time I see him. “It’ll be the last time you’ll see me wearing this,” he said, tugging at his white chef’s coat with “Magnolia Grill” stitched on the front.

The place felt like any other Friday night, with full tables, noise and great food pouring from the kitchen.

lamb with couscous at magnolia grill

The Hub and I considered ordering one of everything on the menu and a large doggie bag, but ultimately decided to narrow our choices. I grab soft-shell crab whenever I see it, so I took the starter of tempura soft shell with a red cabbage slaw; Hub went for smoky grilled shrimp. Since at least one thing I ordered at this last meal needed to be pork (Ben is a man who does love his pig), I got a pork rib chop with cabbage and beans in a sweet sauce. Hub pondered many options (guinea hen? beef short rib?) and came up with lamb and couscous.

All the dishes were perfect. As they’d been at each anniversary, birthday and fun time dinner we’d ever had there.

yes, three desserts

When the dessert menu came, we did something we’d never done before: Ordered three desserts. We felt so naughty, like conventioneers in a city we’d never visit again. Our choices were lemon chess pie with berries, toasted chocolate chip pound cake with banana ice cream and chocolate waffles with mint ice cream. Hub’s favorite was the pound cake. I liked the freshness of the mint flavor in the ice cream – no neon green artificiality. The lemon chess was not teeth-cracking sweet, like some.

The receipt said “Not Afraid of Flavor” across the bottom, just like always. And it made us laugh, like always, thinking about people we have known who are afraid of flavor. On the ride back from Durham, Hub remembered a book on magic he got as a kid. He found it when we got home, and near the end it says: “One of the greatest lessons for any would-be magician: Know when to stop…That way his magic was remembered as a delightful series of surprises, and by stopping before his audience was sated, he knew that he had made a good impression not only for himself, but for his art.”

Thanks for the decades of magic, Ben and Karen.

Chef & the Farmer reopens

fried sea mullet with miso-cucumber tartar sauce & crisp lemon slices

When I told Ben Knight that I smelled smoke when I walked into Chef & the Farmer, his eyes got as big as saucers. I guess it was a little soon to make a fire joke – and I knew the scent was from the new wood-fired oven. The acclaimed Kinston, N.C. restaurant, where Knight is manager and his wife Vivian Howard is chef, was heavily damaged in a January fire. It reopened on Tuesday with a shiny new kitchen, redesigned server station and some different things on the menu.

Howard used the forced closing to read up on new techniques and hone her skills at a Chicago whole-animal butcher. He goal was to add eastern North Carolina-style charcuterie to the menu, and it was already present. She turned two pigs, who had been born the week of the fire, into items on the opening-night menu: pork belly skewers with candied bell peppers, “canadian bacon” (more like prosciutto, and awesome) with new potato and pickled ramp salad, and green garlic sausage with red peas and cabbage. Sausage from the piggies also was in a new item, the Pimp My Grits menu of creamy grits with additions like pimento cheese and greens.

It’s hard for me to walk by pork belly, and this one paired not-too-salty belly with sweet-spicy peppers. On

'canadian bacon,' new potato-pickled ramp salad, horseradish-bacon vinaigrette, crackin' cornbread

the Share Plate menu was mullet, which you rarely see in restaurants and I’d never tasted. It was crispy fried with a miso-cucumber tartar sauce. She had also fried paper-thin slices of lemon, giving the hint of citrus you find with squeezing lemon over fried fish, but better, like lemon potato chips. I had expected mullet to have a strong flavor, but it was mild and moist, with a firm texture.

Also irresistible to me is tilefish. It’s another little-known seafood that I rarely see outside of the coast. It’s a thin, flat fish with a light, sweet flavor. The vegetables in the entree dish were as good as the fish – caramelized little carrots and turnips, with bok choy. The Hub’s shellfish dish, which included clams, mussels, shrimp and a giant soft-shelled crab, all over Carolina Gold rice, was reminiscent of bouillabaisse, but with less liquid.

So, they’re back and cooking on all burners. And don’t worry if you get a little whiff of smoke when you walk in. No need to grab a fire extinguisher.



All good things…

All I could say was “what?” when the news circulated this morning that Magnolia Grill in Durham will be closing on May 31. Chef-owners Ben and Karen Barker said today that after more than 30 years of bringing inventive Southern food to the Triangle, it was time to step back and spend more time with family. You can read more here.

Quitting to spend more time with family is usually the sort of suspect thing a senator says when he gets caught with the babysitter. But for these two, it’s the truth. And they deserve a new turn in their lives, no matter how much it saddens those of us who have enjoyed their meals.

Magnolia Grill was eat-local long before it was cool. Ben started having farmers grow for him when people thought that was the strangest thing ever. Through all the changes in the Triangle dining scene, Magnolia Grill has stayed true to itself, along with seeding restaurants all over with graduates of its kitchen. It’s the only restaurant where I know walking in the door that I will have dessert, because anything Karen has produced will be good.

I can’t imagine that Ben and Karen will disappear completely into time with grandchildren and aging parents, so I look forward to the other ways in which they’ll be a part of the community. For now, I’ll miss you. And all that pork, and Coca-Cola Cake with Peanut Ice Cream.

James Beard Awards time

Once again, North Carolina is well represented in the semifinalists for the James Beard Awards, which were just announced.

Magnolia Grill in Durham was nominated for Outstanding Restaurant.

Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh was nominated for Best Chef Southeast, as was Scott Howell of Nana’s in Durham and Aaron Vandemark of Panciuto in Hillsborough. Other North Carolina nominees in that category were John Fleer of Canyon Kitchen at Lonesome Valley in Cashiers and Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston. The nomination is a vote of confidence for Howard as she works to reopen the restaurant after a fire a few weeks ago.

Sean Lilly Wilson of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham was nominated in the Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional category.

Katie Button of Curate in Asheville was nominated in the Rising Star Chef category for new chefs.

Five finalists will be selected in each category on March 19, and the winners will be announced at a gala in New York on May 7.