Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Cooley's Moves on Up

Several months ago, Cooley’s Restaurant & Pub, a mainstay in downtown Fuquay-Varina since 1998, pulled up stakes and moved closer to the center of town. Proprietors David and Paula Pittman took a big risk in relocating, but by all accounts business is booming and it’s my understanding that the couple has never looked back.

You’ve gotta love an entrepruneural success story, especially in this economy.

Cooley’s serves quality American cuisine like burgers, sandwiches, steak and seafood. When it comes to starters, you can’t go wrong with house-made chipsters or the sherry-ladden she-crab soup, which is as good as anything you’d find in Baltimore or Charleston.

The creamy chicken salad is delicious, as is the Paula’s Special sandwich with smoked turkey, bacon, and Swiss cheese on grilled sourdough bread. Standout entrees include the delectable Kentucky bourbon ribeye and the center-cut grilled pork chops.

Weekend brunch is also first-rate. For my money and appetite, the Cooley’s Platter (just $5.99) is the only way to go. It features two eggs with your choice of four pieces of bacon or two patties of sausage. Then there’s hash browns or grits and choice of toast, English muffin or biscuit.

Servers at Cooley’s are friendly and eager to please, and décor tends toward upscale casual. Be sure to save room for dessert, such as chocolate chip pecan pie or award-winning lemon pound cake.

Cooley's on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 18, 2011

Common Grounds Beckons

Located inside the historic Promenade building in downtown Apex, Common Grounds is a warm, cozy coffeehouse with an inviting milieu.

Customers enjoy the casual atmosphere where they can relax, use the free wireless Internet and enjoy a quality cup of joe.  Exposed brick walls, wooden flooring and pendant lights give Common Grounds an unfussy, intimate feel. A large round table with comfortable chairs beckons patrons to stay awhile.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Fredin/S&A Cherokee

Along with the requisite lattes, mochas and French press coffees, Common Grounds also serves smoothies, frappes, baked goods and other provisions. Raleigh-based roaster 8th Sin Coffee supplies the beans, while artisan baker Custom Confections of Cary provides delectable cheesecakes.

During the holiday season, the coffeehouse features specialty coffee drinks like pumpkin and gingerbread. It also carries and sells the Monin line of syrups and sauces.

Future plans involve adding a bar and serving soups, salads and deli-style sandwiches. Open daily, Common Grounds has later hours than most independent coffeehouses in the area; it’s open until 10 on Friday and Saturday nights.

Common Grounds Dessert and Coffee Shop on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Iconic Irregardless

An iconic and eclectic culinary fixture since 1975, Irregardless Café doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to providing excellent service, cuisine and live music.

The chefs finesse everything from grown-on-site herbs and local vegetables to hormone-free beef and fresh fish. Special emphasis is placed on offering gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian-friendly menu selections. Founder and proprietor Arthur Gordon also knows other patrons enjoy chicken and beef as well.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Fredin/S&A Cherokee

The absolute must-try menu item is venerable staple Morgan Street Chicken. The dish comprises a tender breast filet marinated in a too-good-to-be-legal lemon tahini dressing and then coated with crushed roasted cashews and cracker crumbs. Salivating yet?

Although I’ve yet to experience the weekend brunch, tempting selections like frittatas, crepes and omelets are worthy of exploration.

Except Mondays, when the café is closed, talented local musicians perform nightly and during brunch on Sundays. Genres range from jazz and folk to bluegrass and classical guitar, and the dance floor fills up each Saturday evening.

Irregardless Cafe & Catering on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

CupCakeBite Delights

Since it opened nearly a year ago, people in and around Fuquay-Varina have been getting their fill of sweet treats at CupCakeBite, the town’s first cupcake shop.Located in the picturesque Varina Station, CupCakeBite represents the fulfillment of a dream for local proprietor Gina Pettaris, a New York native and former graphic designer who had been baking cupcakes out of her home for the past several years.

The shop features distinctive varieties of cupcakes baked fresh daily and sold for $2.50 each. Additional items include cake pops, cookies, espresso-based coffees and European hot chocolate. Custom cakes and cupcakes also are available.

No doubt what sets CupCakeBite apart from similar cupcake shops is that Pettaris makes her products with all-natural ingredients and no preservatives. She's passionate about using quality ingredients like dairy products without growth hormones and no artificial food coloring.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Fredin/S&A Cherokee

During the holiday season, CupCakeBite will feature a gingerbread spice cupcake (pictured above), which according to Pettaris is a cupcake version of the traditional gingerbread cookie. It is covered with cream cheese frosting and sanding sugar, and on top there's a fondant disc embossed with a snowflake.

Open five days a week, CupCakeBite is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

CupCakeBite on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 4, 2011

Mawa's Serves Up Authentic African Fare

How fitting that the one of the Triangle’s few African restaurants offers a menu as expansive as the continent it represents. At Mawa’s (My Authentic West African) Taste of Africa in Morrisville, various dishes from Morocco, Kenya, Cameroon, Mozambique and elsewhere are featured. What’s more, chef/owner Mame (pronounced “mom”) Hughes hails from Senegal, so it’s no surprise to find Senegalese cuisine on the menu as well.

Hughes came to the United States more than 20 years ago. At first, she began bottling ethnic sauces and refreshing juice drinks, many of which she now serves in the restaurant. While she still maintains ties to Mawa’s Ethnic African Food Market in Raleigh, her passion for cooking ultimately led her to open the 40-seat full-service eatery.

As somewhat expected, the restaurant’s inviting dining area showcases an African safari motif. One full wall is awash with a mural depicting natural plains and a smattering of indigenous animals. Situated near the front window, a cozy, thatched-style area contains two low-slung tables and floor mats so diners can sit and enjoy their meals in the traditional African sense—sans utensils, of course.

From day one, Hughes has constantly strived to provide a warm, hospitable dining experience, and her endearing charm makes diners feel welcomed and at ease. She often comes out of the kitchen and talks with customers. 

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Fredin/S&A Cherokee

There’s certainly much to like at Mawa’s, beginning with the house specialty fataya beef patties, which originate from Gambia. Essentially a meat pie, seasoned ground beef and onions are stuffed in a flaky crust.

An ample variety of “snacks and starters” will pique your interest, including pastelles (seasoned tuna in deep-fried flaky crust) and Ghanaian-inspired accaras (black-eyed pea fritters served with a spicy onion sauce).

Lunch entrees are served with a choice of one appetizer (friend plantains, beef patty or shrimp-beef roll), and a popular habanero hot sauce is available upon request. 

Mawa’s also offers a wonderful assortment of unique beverages, including tropical lemonade, ginger and mango. An orange-tinged mint tea and café touba (Senegalese coffee) are offered with free refills.

Dinner entrees span the gamut from lamb, beef and goat to seafood and vegan selections. Fish-centric Poisson a la braise features whole chargrilled tilapia (the menu indicates “yes, head is on”) marinated with fresh herbs. More adventurous diners may enjoy Tanjine, a North African goat dish, or maffe boulettes (stewed fish balls served in a creamy nut sauce with rice and vegetables).

Be sure to save room for dessert, as any of the four or five delectable creations are sure to hit the mark. Far and away the most beloved by regulars is the Mbourou fass, an irresistible fried brioche pudding served warm with banana and caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. 

Reservations at Mawa’s are recommended, particularly on the weekends at dinnertime.

Mawa's Taste of Africa on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Pit Pulls Off Upscale BBQ

At The Pit, an upscale BBQ restaurant in downtown Raleigh, customers come early and often to the renovated 1930s meatpacking warehouse for tasty pork barbecue, ribs and beef brisket are paired with collard greens, mashed potatoes and various seasonal vegetables.

According to proprietor Greg Hatem, the restaurant basically takes the backyard pig pickin' and brings it inside a stylish settting.

Interestingly, all pigs cooked at The Pit are free-range farmed and North Carolina raised. The pork is AWA-certified (Animal Welfare Approved), which means the pigs were free of antibiotics and hormones, and they were all raised in pastures, not cages.The restaurant is also dedicated to sourcing the freshest local products available.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Fredin/S&A Cherokee

Besides the obvious standouts, among the most memorable menu items include the amazing pumpkin skillet cornbread with maple butter and the crispy, golden southern fried chicken. When it comes to side items, be sure to try the cheesy bacon grits and the creamy mac 'n cheese.

The Pit is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Reservations are strongly encouraged and are available by calling or using

DISCLAIMER: Portion of BBQ in above photo exceeds normal serving size.

The Pit on Urbanspoon