Surrounded by farmland and steeped in Southern culinary traditions, the area encompassing the cities of Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill would be a great place to eat, even without the industries that take it over the top. But the North Carolina Research Triangle, as it’s known, is also home to three major universities — Duke, University of North Carolina and North Carolina State — and it’s a booming hot spot for medical and tech companies. The region’s 21st-century economy gives residents a hunger for the new that supports sophisticated restaurants by nationally known and up-and-coming chefs alike. Here are some top-notch places to try.
At Chapel Hill’s Lantern, James Beard Award winner Andrea Reusing makes spectacular Asian-style fare. Now she’s brought her talents to the boutique hotel, The Durham. Her restaurant fills the lobby, and her bar spans the rooftop. With its sky-high windows, the airy dining room is a natural for brunch. Start with a Tequila Mary, whose zingy salt-and-zest rim balances brooding mezcal and smoked chile. The menu sounds global, but Reusing sources locally, and her cooking is homespun. North Carolina’s pork-scraps-and-meal cake is dubbed “livermush.” Can you blame her for calling her version “scrapple?” Whatever the name, it’s outstanding, the crisp-fried exterior yielding to a toothsome shredded-meat filling.
Hangtown fry is a Californian invention, but here, the plump Atlantic oysters and deep-fried bacon, perfectly fluffy eggs and tangy, buttery hot sauce feel more Southern comfort than SoCal. Same goes for “sticky rice.” Really a porridge of local rice loaded with soft-boiled eggs, fat North Carolina shrimp, greens and kimchi, it’s a fusion-y soul soother. Come back at 5 p.m. when the roof opens, and sink into an Adirondack chair with a vibrant, apple shrub-based “Chapman Is My Name” cocktail and smoked-trout-stuffed picnic eggs. Under Reusing’s watch, sunset tastes terrific. All-day dining. Reservations recommended for dinner and brunch. $45 at brunch; $100 at dinner.
315 E. Chapel Hill Street, Durham. Tel. (919) 768-8831
First, you notice the alluring smell: sweet smoke and charred meat. The wood-fired specialist in chef Ashley Christensen’s Triangle-area empire, Death & Taxes is a restaurant to visit with a crowd, so you can order every indulgence: roast oysters doused in buttery hot sauce and lemony gremolata; a charcuterie plate with plenty of pickled vegetables to offset the richness of the smoky chicken liver terrine; leeks au gratin heavy on the cheese; creamy potato fritters atop an even creamier fonduta; grilled octopus over silky, vinegary rice beans, named for their resemblance to the grain. And that’s just for starters.
The mains are even more decadent, though bright and bitter notes balance out the richness. Crab bisque is the sauce for locally caught, grilled fish — one night, meaty vermilion snapper — accented with sweet tarragon. Poulet Rouge, the tastiest heritage-breed chicken in the country, comes from North Carolina’s Joyce Farms, and Christensen lavishes it in Thanksgiving-style love, with moist sourdough dressing and deep, dark, oniony gravy. In peanut pot de crème, a humble ingredient is reborn as an opulent dessert, hunks of crystallized banana pitching in. Finish it, and you’ll stumble out of there very full and happy. Dinner only. Reservations recommended. $100.
Death & Taxes
105 W. Hargett Street, Raleigh. Tel. (984) 242-0218
Located a half-hour drive between Raleigh and Durham, The Umstead Hotel’s luxe dining room serves an elegant lunch. Excellent acoustics wrap well-spaced tables in serenity. In the summer, there’s dining on the terrace overlooking the greenery. The color green fills seasonal plates too, with produce from the restaurant’s organic farm. Tender baby lettuces might be strewn with slivers of Asian pear, nibbles of salty country ham and pomegranate in March; by May, they’re topped with asparagus and snow peas. Blue crab is a coastal Carolina treat.
In early spring, radish, celery leaves and pickled onion may crown a tarragon-laced salad of the crustacean seasoned with a sweet-tart yuzu kosho. But as lovely as the veggies are, the kitchen excels at meatier dishes. Gently cooked sea bass was moist as can be, and the burger’s deep crust yielded to wonderfully juicy insides. The Umstead’s bespoke Oregon Pinot Noir was a bright-cherry foil for the beef. Sweet potato pot de créme came in a fish bowl garnished like a terrarium: fruit gelées, citrus, baby mint leaves and a hailstorm of coconut milk balls. It was a world unto itself — and a clue to the fantasies chef Steven Greene conjures nightly for his Japan-inspired kaiseki menu. All-day dining. Reservations recommended. $90 at lunch; $150 for kaiseki at dinner.
The Umstead Hotel & Spa, 100 Woodland Pond Drive, Cary. Tel. (919) 447-4200
The mothers of these sons should be proud: Partners Matt Kelly and Josh “Skinny” DeCarolis have a phenomenal new Italian spot on their hands. In a big, open room plastered in Cinzano posters, waiters hustle towering eggplant Parmesan. The Florentine steak, a rib-eye on a substantial bone, is as big as Paul Bunyan’s ax. But where some Italian places trade quantity for quality, here you get both. DeCarolis has absorbed the lessons of his nonna’s kitchen. He likes puckery flavors to start: vinegary shavings of raw artichoke, king trumpet mushroom and Parmesan; a vitello tonnato like no other, pink veal tangling with crispy and pickled shallots and just a dollop of sauce. Those crispy shallots show up, too, on the bruschetta of rabbit pâté so creamy and funky that you’ll want to order two.
But the dish that has Durham talking is the squid ink tonnarelli, a reedlike, hollow pasta nested with shrimp, fennel and scallion, and draped with so much uni that it tastes as sweet and salty as the sun-drenched sea. Every dish is amplified. The rapini is smokier and more bitter than other greens elsewhere. The soul-soothing ragu has a delectable brown-butter finish. To go with the powerful flavors, the drinks list offers a lesson in Italian aperitifs and digestifs. Start with a vintage amaro and finish with an herbaceous Strega to pair with the warm chocolate budino. In between, journey through Italy’s lesser-known wines, including a Vigneti Massa Derthona Timorasso, booming with both acidity and richness, just like DeCarolis’ food. Dinner only. Reservations recommended. $115.
Mothers & Sons
107 W. Chapel Hill Street, Durham. Tel. (919) 294-8247
In this brick- and mural-lined warehouse flooded with light, the bar showcases hundreds of the world’s whiskeys. Sample a flight, follow the pairing suggestions, or go for your favorite: The place is bound to have it. They also mix inspired cocktails, like the fragrant Ziggy Stardust, which combines rose water and scotch. The refreshing Glasgow Smile has an allspice kick. There’s fantastic food, too, to soak up the sauce. Start with a buttermilk biscuit, topped with pork cracklins like streusel. Share it with someone, or you’ll be too full for the rest of the dishes, many of them as smoky as the scotch. A chunky smoked fish dip is seasoned like an everything bagel. Sweet-and-sour seasonal house-pickled vegetables might include red carrot, cauliflower, or even a fruit, like pear.
Among the mains, cornmeal-crusted skate wing, perfectly pan-fried and laid out in a rippling half-moon with skin-on wedge fries, is a tender, mild canvas for smoky remoulade. In chillier months, two noteworthy North Carolina ingredients come together as one fantastic, umami-packed dish: a plump, smoked pork chop shiny with boiled peanut demi-glace. Later in the season, the demi-glace gets swapped for an equally praiseworthy molasses gastrique. Don’t skip dessert, particularly the liquid kind: a smooth Nikka Coffey Japanese whiskey with a pecan-loaded slice of shoofly pie is a sweet combination indeed. Closed for lunch Mondays. $75.
201 W. Martin Street, Raleigh. Tel. (919) 803-3181
New Orleans meets North Carolina at this dark brasserie owned by a former Big Easy resident. As befits the NOLA vibes, the weekly changing drinks menu showcases riffs on classics. Instead of a milk punch, there’s a hipster-inspired cereal milk punch, and the Sazerac is rinsed not with absinthe, but with trendy Chartreuse. The seasonal fare has over-the-top Creole appeal. Meaty, savory frogs’ legs come batter-fried and crunchy with a knockout remoulade for dipping. Crispy pig’s head is bathed in creamy mustard sauce so moist and dense, it’s like a savory bread pudding.
If you’re craving ribeye, someone from the Crescent City might take delight in dousing it in brown butter hollandaise and topping it with a fried egg too. (Your doctor might not like it, but you sure will.) Scallops arrived in a Frenchified grapefruit-vanilla sauce. Quail was stuffed like stromboli, with a tomato-based filling of broccoli rabe, taleggio cheese and andouille. You’ll be stuffed as well, so instead of dessert, end with a restorative arugula salad, subtle maple vinaigrette contrasting the bitter greens. Dinner only, closed Sundays. Reservations recommended. $100.
938 N. Blount Street, Raleigh. Tel. (919) 977-4321
In an airy, white-on-white space sectioned by sheer curtains and potted palms, this combination brewery, bookstore, library, florist and pan-Asian dim sum spot is a playground for intellectual gourmands. The 20 creative house brews range from the slightly hoppy “Till” saison to the peppery “Glean” and the roasty, toasty “Single Origin,” which hints of cold-brewed coffee. They’re delicious, but it’s the fare that will blow your mind. Good thing the pretty little bao (steamed bun) trio are generously filled; you wouldn’t want any less of the sweet-savory barbecued pork that’s inside the char sui bao.
Among the dumplings, seafood is best: the delicate, juicy purses float in a garlicky black mushroom sauce. The fat, dense scallion pancake is chock-full of green onion, but the real gem is the curried oxtail-coconut jam that comes with it, slathered into luscious, cross-cut marrow bones. Use the pancake to soak it all up. Mounded and wrapped in an omelet skin like a soft ball, crab rice is fluffy as can be and suffused with crustacean meat and coconutty flavor. For dessert, there’s the Asian route (mochi, fried ice cream) or the Southern one (a daily house-baked cake). But the Tigermilk cocktail — scotch and coconut cream tinted pink with curry and paprika — is the most entertaining finale. Closed for lunch Monday and Tuesday. Reservations recommended. $100.
218 S. Blount Street, Raleigh. Tel. (919) 829-9998
Longtime local star Scott Crawford brings technical precision and visual acumen to this sleek spot in Raleigh’s lovely Oakwood neighborhood. His food tastes as beautiful as it looks, but it’s also deeply rooted in the region. Beef tartare gets a North Carolina makeover, chopped peanuts mingling with the tender meat, puffy pork rinds teetering on top for scooping. A multicolored, shaved carrot salad, strewn with baby herbs, celery leaves and citrus, and dressed in a creamy carrot “butter,” is the best and brightest way to eat your vegetables.
Crawford puts the emphasis on the “pudding” in mushroom bread pudding, a custardy umami bomb exploding with delectability. Woodsy, earthy flavors abound: a duck egg gilds duck-laced pappardelle and hen of the woods mushrooms grace slow-roasted chicken confit perched atop a creamy rice porridge. The wine list is short but smart. A young Chavannes “Côte de Brouilly,” in particular, flatters the food. The house also offers an au courant list of drinking vinegars and keenly crafted cocktails like a refreshing lemongrass gimlet served in a giant coupe. Desserts are sculptural, collagelike. Lemon poppyseed cake came ripped to bits on a tangerine custard with fresh citrus and white chocolate gravel, a buoyant ending to a first-rate meal. Dinner only, closed Sunday and Monday. Reservations recommended. $115.
Crawford and Son
618 N. Person Street, Raleigh. Tel. (919) 307-4647