Submitted by Greg Cox — Correspondent
Look out, Durham! Raleigh is gaining on you.
After years of languishing in the shadow of its smaller neighbor to the northwest, the capital citys dining scene is beginning to generate a little light of its own.
The glow is brightest inside the Beltline, where chefs have been firing up the stoves at new restaurants from Glenwood South to Wilmington Street. With menus ranging from empanadas and tequila bar (Calavera) to Indian with a contemporary twist (Blue Mango) to the Triangles first-ever taste of Laotian cuisine (Bida Manda) joining the lineup, the selection has never been better.
Neither has the quality. Of the eight area restaurants earning four stars or better last year, three are inside the Beltline. The diversity of fare offered at this trio of newcomers (Cajun/Creole at Battistellas; contemporary Southern at Mandolin; Indian at Mantra) is just icing on downtown Raleighs increasingly colorful cake.
Throw in the rest of Wake County, and the number of four-star-or-better winners climbs to five. In North Raleigh, long maligned as a suburban sea of national chain restaurants, Hayashi-Ya quickly earned a place among the areas handful of elite Japanese restaurants. And in Holly Springs, Little Hen serves up savory farm-to-fork evidence that fine dining is no longer limited to the urban centers.
All the way out in Pittsboro, Oakleaf puts an exclamation point on that last sentence. Owner/chef Brendan Coxs daily evolving offering is so bewitching, in fact, that Ive selected Oakleaf as co-winner of this years Restaurant of the Year award.
The other winner is Yamazushi, which stands alone in saving Durham from being shut out of the elite circle this year. (Read more about my Restaurant of the Year picks below).
Thats not to say that the city that Bon Appétit magazine called Americas Foodiest Small Town a few years ago is resting on its laurels. If the biggest culinary news in the Bull City was the closing of James Beard Award-winning Magnolia Grill in May after 25 years, the August opening of Mateo tapas bar promises to offer consolation.
Carrboros Venable Rotisserie Bistro was the lone banner-carrier for Orange County newcomers. But as long as the paper lanterns continue to glow at Lantern (the Triangles only other Beard Award winner), Chapel Hill will never be left entirely in the dark.
Note: You can find my full reviews of these (and hundreds more) restaurants at events.triangle.com/restaurants.
RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
Oakleaf: 480 Hillsborough St., Pittsboro
Yamazushi: 4711 Hope Valley Road, Durham
Youd be hard-pressed to name two more widely different restaurants in the Triangle than Oakleaf and Yamazushi. One is a newcomer, for starters, serving up fashionable farm-to-fork fare in a contemporary, rustic-chic setting. The other is a local landmark, quietly offering an obscure and exotic Japanese specialty in a tiny bento box of a dining room since 1986.
At Oakleaf, owner-chef Brendan Coxs commitment to local produce is so strong that his menu is updated daily on the restaurants website. Whether hes offering caramelized day boat scallops over sweet corn risotto in the summer or a roasted chestnut soup with duck ragout in the winter, you can rest assured that the food will be refreshingly inventive without ever being precious.
Leslie Cox, Brendans wife and partner, sets a warmly inviting and attentive example for her dining room staff. Add a well-tended zinc bar, and you can count on a memorable experience.
Youre not likely to forget a meal at Yamazushi, either, though the experience is decidedly more serene. Traditional Japanese hospitality and exquisite presentation are essential parts of the kaiseki experience that is the restaurants specialty. Roughly analogous to a Western tasting menu, kaiseki is an elaborate, ritualized multi-course meal with roots in Zen Buddhist tradition. The sequence of courses is fixed, but the dishes themselves vary with the seasons. In the hands of owner/chef George Yamasawa, those dishes become edible haikus miso-marinated black cod, say, or burdock nestled on a velvety puree of young edamame.
Did I mention that Yamazushis dining room is tiny? There are just four tables, and youll search in vain for a sushi bar. The arrangement allows Yamasawa to focus on kaiseki, and his wife, Mayumi, to pamper diners with an unparalleled level of service. That includes helping you navigate the areas premier sake selection.
For all their differences, Oakleaf and Yamazushi do share a key trait: Both are uncompromising in the goal of providing a first-rate dining experience. And both are so consistently successful at achieving that goal that theyre worthy of selection as Restaurant of the Year.