Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Mason Jar Tavern: Southern Hospitality with Modern Twist

Owned by Jonathan and Maggie Pierce, The Mason Jar Tavern is a relaxed, neighborhood-friendly outpost featuring Southern hospitality with a modern twist. Even the restaurant’s name suggests an unpretentious air of warmth and charm.

Approachable regional cuisine and efficient, friendly service keeps patrons gratified and coming back for more. Veteran chef Chris Tucker, a Virginia native who worked closely with Jonathan at Ruckus Pizza, Pasta and Spirits in Cary, finds himself at the helm of the kitchen -- and he's not afraid to take some risks. 

Evidence of Tucker’s experimental nature emerges in entrees like shrimp-n-grits, which is permeated with pimento cheese, peppers, onions and country ham, delivering diverse layers of flavor and texture. Or consider the exemplary buttermilk fried chicken and waffles with bourbon-infused maple syrup and honey butter. 

No doubt about it, Tucker knows how to elevate traditional dishes and make them stand out. Everything from salad dressings and sauces to burgers and sandwiches are crafted with precision. 

Unconventional appetizers such as buffalo chicken egg rolls, corn fritters and fried mac-n-cheese bites make you realize every aspect of the menu is well thought out. Want a beyond-the-ordinary sandwich? Order the Turkey Delicious Melt heaped with golden delicious apples, Vermont cheddar and honey mayo on sourdough.

Salads exceed expectations. Flank steak on fresh greens comes with blue cheese crumbles, sliced apples, walnuts and red onions. A smoked freshwater trout Caesar is filled with Parmesan, bacon and red onions. And then there’s the refreshing strawberry spinach salad with feta.

The house specialty burger, a mixture of ground short rib and chuck, is crowned with blue cheese, red onions, lettuce and a sweet-and-savory “bacon jam” involving slow-cooked caramelized onions and bacon. Yeah, it rocks. 

Pastry chef Brian Moore capably plays up sweet concoctions from lemon biscuit strawberry shortcake to peanut butter bomb pie. The star of the dessert portfolio, though, is the über-rich s’more in a jar, which is served warm. 

Not surprisingly, all the drinks are served in—you guessed it—Mason jars.  The TMJT Bloody Mary is served with fresh mozzarella, a boiled shrimp, pickle, olive, lime and celery with an Old Bay salt rim. The blood orange margarita is made with Jose traditional tequila, blood orange puree, house sour mix and a rock salt rim. Even shots come in tiny Mason jars. 

The restaurant’s décor reflects simplicity and functionality. The bar was hand-crafted by Jonathan’s uncle. Maggie’s father took the photos that hang on the walls. A community table situated near the bar is flanked with red metal stools provides ample room for hanging out. 

Well-trained servers and support staff keep tables turning. Upbeat front-of-house manager Emily Freund ensures that each guest has an enjoyable dining experience.  

The Mason Jar is open daily for lunch and dinner. Enjoy the covered patio anytime and live music five nights a week. Just be sure to go early to get a seat. 

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0. 

Photos courtesy of Jonathan Fredin/S&A Cherokee. 

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pan-Asian offerings and Cantonese specialties abound at Banana Leaf, a locally owned restaurant tucked inside a popular Cary strip mall. Seasoned chef/proprietor Hon Lai, a soft-spoken native of Hong Kong, enjoys cooking a diverse array of Asian offerings. 

Consider Japanese shrimp noodle soup, Korean-style spicy chicken wings, Thai grilled beef or Vietnamese seafood triple delight, to name a few. Begin your dining experience with Malaysian coconut soup, which serves two people, an order of crab Rangoon or chicken lettuce wrap. The fried dumpling with Thai sauce is also a solid starter.

Reliably good noodle-centric dishes include vegetable lo mein; hot and spicy chicken chow fun; and Malaysian noodles with shrimp, chicken and pork. Casseroles such as salted fish and chicken with eggplant and sliced pork belly with preserved vegetables also keep things interesting.

Even straightforward Chinese-American classics benefit from chef Lai’s unique interpretation. Try the savory General Tso’s chicken, shredded pork with garlic sauce or pepper steak with onion.

While all the options are well executed, the house specialties category is where chef Lai’s talents are brought to the forefront. Case in point: Hong Kong-style spicy salted prawn delivers on its promised piquancy. The same goes for Szechuan-style sliced fish and black pepper lamb, which will leave your lips tingling. Then there’s the crown jewel of the menu, Peking duck, a rare find in the Triangle area. It’s wise to call ahead to check the availability of the duck entrée.

Banana Leaf’s expansive dining room provides plenty of seating for guests, whether you choose a traditional four-top or a larger round table with a lazy Susan in the center. Vibrant, yellow-hued walls and bamboo ac-cents provide a distinctly modern Asian atmosphere. 

Servers are friendly, efficient and eager to please. Don’t hesitate to ask your waiter or waitress for recommendations regarding spice levels and off-menu items (fried oysters, for example). 

Weekday lunch specials are priced under $7, making the midday meal easy on the wallet. Lunch entrées are served with spring rolls and fried or white rice.


Banana Leaf on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Coquette Offers Approachable French Cuisine

Located front and center at North Hills in Raleigh, French restaurant Coquette Brasserie is refreshingly approachable and well worth checking out.
Chef de Cuisine Beth LittleJohn, who grew up on a farm in Caswell County, oversees the kitchen. She received her culinary training at New York’s esteemed Culinary Institute of America. Among the dishes she finesses include traditional French offerings like beef bourguignon, pan-roasted duck breast and a succulent coq au vin, a classic chicken entrée layered with bacon lardons, mushrooms and pearl onions.

Hors d’oeuvres like pan-seared foie gras, steak tartare and escargot also vie for attention, although snails are not my first choice for an appetizer. Another starter, the petite tarte flambé, involves thin, flat bread created from house-made dough. The popular Alsatian is topped with caramelized onions, bacon lardons, ham and fromage blanc. 

When it comes to dessert, look no further than the butterscotch-infused crème brûlée.

Sunday brunch is a big draw, featuring $2 mimosas and a variety of eggs Benedict dishes, quiches, crepes and more. 

Service at Coquette is friendly and efficient. When you go, be sure to check out the restaurant's showpiece bar. It’s handcrafted from French-imported zinc.

Photos courtesy of Jonathan Fredin/S&A Cherokee

Coquette Brasserie on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Totopos Offers Bold, Fresh Flavors

Great food knows no borders. 

Tucked away from passersby yet easily accessible, Totopos in Cary features Mexico City-style cuisine in an inviting cantina setting. Its name is the Spanish term for corn chips.

Begin your meal with fresh guacamole. Besides the traditional style, more adventurous options include bacon-mango and chile arbol and chicharron with pickled jalapeño peppers. Can’t decide on just one? That’s okay. Just ask for the trio tasting, and you’ll get all three at once. 

Also among the starters are sublime deep-fried taquitos encompassing spicy chicken tinga, Muenster cheese, crema dulce and pico de gallo. Gluten-free tostadas a la Veracruzana involve shrimp, capers, green olives and bell peppers.  

Presented like a work of culinary art, tamales chock-full of chicken tinga, pico de gallo, morita salsa, crema dulce and cilantro showcase the skillful execution of chef Miguel Cuevas.

The perfect entrée for two arrives in the form of plato Gordo. Served on a large cast-iron skillet, the family-style meal features grilled pork carnitas, shrimp, chicken, steak, Muenster cheese, onions, grilled vegetables, corn on the cob and blue corn tortillas.

More than half a dozen varieties of tacos are available, including slow-roasted pork carnitas and transcendent carne asada (superbly seasoned grilled skirt steak). Order the folded-over-and-filled blackened mahi mahi with mango salsa, which deserve most-exalted fish tacos status.

Whether you choose enchiladas or quesadillas, fajitas or chilaquiles, it’s all a can’t-miss proposition. Dessert lovers should consider these tempting possibilities: Madagascar vanilla lemongrass crème brûlée; guava flan; a sorbet trio with lime, mango and wild berries; and fried plantain, a typical Mexico City street dessert, served with vanilla ice cream, cinnamon, sweet cream and condensed milk. 

When it comes to libations, a centrally located full bar offers Mexican and locally crafted beer. Diverse assortments of margaritas are concocted with fresh-squeezed juices, 100 percent Blue Agave tequilas and agave nectar. Try the house specialty Totopos margarita made with orange and lime juices or La Watermelon containing fresh watermelon juice and spicy powder on the rim. Tequila flights are also available. 

Décor at Totopos is festive and endearing. The ceiling is indigo blue. Mosaic tile tables and banquettes sit atop red brick flooring. Veladoras, which are candles with a religious motif, are situated throughout the restaurant.

A section near the main entrance displays a collection of wooden trompos, or toy spinning tops. Just across the room are painted steel rods produced by local artist Edwin White, while assorted colorful wooden crates flank the bar area. One corner of the eatery resembles a wrestling ring, complete with padded ropes, turnbuckles and various intriguing lucha libre masks. 

Closed Mondays, Totopos is open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner and Sunday for brunch and dinner. 


Totopos on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 12, 2015

Smashburger Stands Out

The star of the show at fast-casual joint Smashburger is each succulent burger, which is fashioned with all-natural 100 percent USDA-certified Angus beef and embroiled on a flattop grill. Grab plenty of napkins, because this dining experience is a juicy proposition!

Among the 10 burgers offered, standouts are the Spicy Jalapeño Baja with guacamole, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayo; the Truffle Mushroom Swiss with sautéed Crimini mushrooms; and the BBQ Bacon & Cheddar with BBQ sauce, applewood smoked bacon and haystack onions. My favorite? The Carolina Chili involving beefy chili, American cheese, chopped yellow onion, Duke’s mayo and creamy coleslaw on a pretzel bun.Consider eating it with a fork so you don't stain your shirt. 

Not in the mood for a burger? Consider a Spinach, Cucumber & Goat Cheese chicken sandwich or a sizeable Classic Cobb salad with blue cheese, sharp cheddar, fried egg, applewood smoked bacon, tomatoes and onion with buttermilk ranch dressing.

Side items worth consideration include crispy fried pickle chips; flash-fried green bean and carrot veggie frites; and sweet potato fries. House specialty smashfries are tossed in Italian olive oil, rosemary and garlic, but these are a bit too heavy on the rosemary for my taste.

Save room for dessert, as hand-spun milkshakes fashioned with Häagen-Dazs ice cream are worth the caloric splurge. Whether you choose rich chocolate, Oreo or peanut butter & jelly, you’ll be rewarded with plenty of creamy goodness. For something decidedly different, order the sweet and savory salted caramel. 

Smashburger on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Smashburger to Open in Raleigh

Among the nation's fastest growing fast-casual burger restaurants, Smashburger will open its second Triangle-area location Wednesday, Dec. 17 in the Shops at Falls Village in North Raleigh. Thankfully, Lunchboy will get a chance to check it out at a invite-only event on Monday night!

According to Smashburger reps, the community is invited to opening day for a taste of the "smashingly fresh food, fun onsite activities and a celebration for the season of giving by helping raise money for Communities in Schools of Wake County." The Raleigh eatery's proprietors are donating 10 percent of total proceeds from opening day through Friday, Dec. 19 to the local nonprofit.

Smashburger's claim to fame involves smashing fresh certified Angus beef on a 400-degree flattop grill to sear in the juicy flavor. The "better burger" experience extends to toasted artisan buns, savory sides including rosemary and garlic-seasoned Smashfries, haystack onions and veggie frites (flash-fried, seasoned green beans and carrot sticks). Beverages range from hand-spun milkshakes to root beer floats and craft beer. 

Here's an insider tip: The forecast is calling for a 100 percent chance of snow on opening day. You don't want to miss the flurries along with fun games and tasty giveaways throughout the day. 

Here's a link to the menu:

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Sip Covers All the Bases

These days it’s great to find a relaxing place to unwind and enjoy good food and drink. Sip Bistro in Holly Springs provides guests just such a welcome refuge for hanging out and experiencing a sense of community.
This distinctive wine bar, coffeehouse and upscale eatery all in one is owned and operated by Sarah and Justin Hummell, who formerly ran a successful coffeehouse in Winston-Salem before relocating to the Triangle and opening Sip in 2013.

Since its genesis, Sip has become a popular spot to frequent any time of day. The signature Sip breakfast sandwich comes stuffed with melted provolone, an over-medium egg, bacon and cream cheese on a ciabatta roll. Hawaiian Sunrise features two scrambled eggs with pan-seared ham, red onions, Swiss cheese and mango habanero chutney wrapped in a sun-dried tomato tortilla. The crowd-pleasing fireman’s breakfast platter shows off Justin’s flavorsome espresso-rubbed pork loin with two eggs over-easy, bacon, hand-shredded hash browns and fresh fruit with a warm buttered French baguette. Pancakes of the month may feature anything from blueberries to blood orange. If you’re not in the mood for a big breakfast, locally made pastries and muffins are readily available.

At lunchtime, you’ll find a variety of creative gourmet sandwiches and salads. Pressed in a panini grill, Justin’s tri-tip steak sandwich is simmered in red wine and topped with balsamic caramelized onions and goat-cheese mustard spread on sourdough bread. An intriguing fig and fennel salad includes black mission figs, cranberries, almonds, fennel and goat cheese over a bed of mixed greens.

The eclectic Sarah sandwich combines Havarti dill cheese and roasted turkey with house-made hummus, balsamic-drizzled mixed greens, roasted red peppers and basil pesto on a toasted ciabatta roll. Proteins range from Boar’s Head brand turkey to grass-fed chicken from Joyce Farms in Winston-Salem.

When it comes to java, Sip offers a wide assortment of traditional, signature and international offerings. Product is locally sourced from Boogie Bean Coffee Roasters in Holly Springs and Full Bloom Coffee of Garner.
While you can certainly get your fill of conventional cappuccino, latte and mocha drinks, be sure to explore one of the select specialty coffees. Consider, for instance, the curiously titled super-sweet Sexy Modias with Ghirardelli white and dark chocolate melted by espresso and steamed milk topped with house-made whipped cream. For something totally unexpected, try the Spicy Mayan Mocha. Sip’s twist on Mexican hot chocolate involves Ghirardelli chocolate and red-hot cinnamon topped with cocoa, cinnamon and cayenne pepper. 

Among the nine choices on the global espresso flight are Italian-roasted espresso, Latin American café con leche, and Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk. Alternative beverages extend from loose-leaf tea and chai latte to crème caramel and Italian soda.
Since both Justin and Sarah are sommeliers, the wine selection at Sip covers the bases of Old- and New-world varietals with labels from award-winning wineries as well as interesting finds from off-the-path boutiques.

Whether your love for the vine resides in the heart of Napa, the terroir of Bordeaux or the tradition of Romania, Sip offers something for all ranks of the wine enthusiast. Along with your wine, order the charcuterie platter with chef’s choice of three meats, three cheeses, seasonal fruit, olives, mixed nuts and toasted artisan bread. Small plate possibilities include crostini, pistachio pear, spinach and artichoke dip and hummus.
A spacious bar features an abundance of taps dedicated to local craft brewers. Fresh pints from Raleigh Brewing Company, Carolina Brewing Company and Holly Springs newcomer Bombshell Beer Company are readily available.

Décor at Sip is warm and inviting. A centrally located stone fireplace and high ceilings provide an airy, laid-back vibe. A cozy patio out front is perfect for al fresco dining or savoring your beverage of choice.


SiP Bistro on Urbanspoon