Thursday, March 31, 2022

Second Empire

The Chef’s Table at Second Empire in Raleigh should be on every foodie’s bucket list. My hubby and I recently splurged and did the 4 course tasting menu, while seated in the kitchen. It's definitely dinner and a show, and every morsel we tasted was absolutely sensational. While we don't feel the need to do the in-kitchen dining again (and I certainly do NOT recommend for a first date - it's a pretty stark and sterile environment in there!) it was an experience we will never forget.

Sitting in the kitchen, you have a front row seat to all the action. We both remarked at how clean the space was – you could almost eat off the floor it was so tidy! We were allowed to walk around the kitchen, but decided we’d have just as much fun observing from afar. Wine pairings accompany each course, but you can order other drinks as you wish. They also take note of any food allergies/aversions you may have. Nice (appropriate) touch.

The first course blew our minds: Sauteed Scallop with Pepsi-Braised Pork Belly, atop Oyster Mushroom and Pea Risotto, with Spinach, Kabocha Squash Puree, Apple Salsa and Brown Ale Reduction. This was the description for ONE COURSE. OUT OF FOUR. These were not humongous portions, but they were incredibly delicious and rich. This was our favorite course. The scallop was seared to perfection and the Pork Belly was smoky and meaty – not fatty at all. I was so enamored with all of the sauces of the night, this brown ale reduction being the best. And the creamy risotto as a bed for the protein? Divine.

Scallop with Pork Belly

Next up, another one of my favorite proteins – Salmon with Fingerling Potatoes, Kale and Parsnip Puree with a Caper Sauce and Smoked Bacon Cider Vinegar. The chef is a flavor magician. Everything on the plate worked together beautifully, and though reading it seemed excessive, the flavors complimented each other so well. The kale was crispy, providing a nice textural contract to the moist salmon, starchy potatoes and smooth puree. Again, that acidic sauce was a home run. I think that’s what I love so much about dining out instead of cooking at home - the incredible sauces!


I love a mid-meal palate cleanser, though this truly could have served as dessert and ended the meal for us. A scoop of Mango Sorbet, with Berries and a house made Vanilla Wafer was a burst of acidity to the palate, helping rejuvenate our taste buds. It was bright and refreshing, and I didn’t know I needed it until I devoured it.

Mango Sorbet

Our second favorite dish of the night was the Rack of Lamb, served with Butternut Squash, Black Eyed Peas, Chorizo, Asparagus, Beets and a Madeira Raisin Jus. Seriously? Pairing madeira and raisins? Mad scientist flavors going on here. The lamb was succulent, unctuous – all the good words. I loved the bitterness of the beets, the sweetness of the butternut squash and the savory fruity flavor from the sauce. I had made the terrible mistake of finishing my plate on each course, but I was NOT about to stop with this one.

Rack of Lamb

Finally, we had made our way to the dessert course. I loved the Coconut Buttermilk Chess Pie, topped with Berries, homemade Butter Pecan Ice Cream and an Almond Cookie. The tart shell was clearly made from scratch - super buttery - and it was the perfect container for the warm coconutty custard. The tangy Mango Sauce underneath broke up the richness. I hate to admit that I ate off my husband's plate on more than one occasion this evening. We ended up boxing up the rest of his dessert to take out.

I cannot say that either of us slept comfortably after this much outstanding food. It was truly rich beyond belief, and I was not prepared for how delicious everything would be. I am also embarassed at my lack of willpower...but when in Rome (or Raleigh). I am obsessed with this place now, and highly recommend it as your next splurge dining experience when you want to celebrate something special or just get out of the house!

Friday, March 25, 2022

2022 Oscar Predictions

There's no doubt that this year's Oscar ceremony is going to be weird. I'm not a fan of the decision to present a handful of awards during commercial breaks. Makeup & Hairstyling; Original Score; Production Design; and Live Action Short, among several others, are some of my favorite categories. I never minded buckling in for a long night of drawn out speeches, glitz and glamour. Whether you love the Oscars like me, or loathe them (like I know many of you do), it's an exciting night for fans of film. And when we've got Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes hosting the show, I know we're in for some laughs. Hollywood making fun of itself is always a good time. While I haven't seen everything that's getting buzz this year, I've seen enough to share my thoughts with you, dear readers.

Best Picture
Don't Look Up
Drive My Car
King Richard
Licorice Pizza
Nightmare Alley
The Power of The Dog
West Side Story

Should Win: "Don't Look Up". Read my review for a thorough explanation. (Side note - I'm glad we're back to nominating the full 10 pictures here. If the Academy is going to allow 10 to be nominated, 10 should be nominated! Though 10 is far too many. Let's take it back to 5 pls.)

Will Win: I think "The Power of The Dog" has gotten enough buzz in recent weeks to bring home Oscar gold. Was it the best film of the year? I certainly don't think so, but it's a movie buff's movie. I can see why people are rallying for it. Beautiful cinematography, great storytelling, powerful music, strong acting...I'll be on board if it wins.

Best Actor
Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of The Dog
Andrew Garfield, tick, tick...BOOM!
Will Smith, King Richard
Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

Should Win: Will Smith. It's the man's time. He has been a Hollywood staple (icon?) since I've been alive and this makes his 3rd acting nomination! I haven't seen the film but a source says he's fantastic. And he just seems like an all-around, genuine, good dude. Not everyone in Hollywood is.

Will Win: Will Smith.

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
Penélope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos
Kristen Stewart, Spencer

Should Win: Kristen Stewart. I know, I know, I never thought I'd see the day. But truly, she was magnificent in this film. This haunting portryal of Princess Diana will be her legacy, not "Twilight". She completely lost herself in this role - physically and emotionally - and the accent was spot on.

Will Win: This is tough. The Academy loves Nicole Kidman (so do I), but I did not care for her as Lucille Ball. I believe Jessica Chastain has earned the right to call herself an Oscar winner, for her body of work. While "Tammy Faye" wasn't my favorite role Jessica has played, I can see the Academy rewarding her this year.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
Troy Kotsur, Coda
Jesse Plemons, The Power of The Dog
J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of The Dog

Should Win: I have not seen "Coda" or "Belfast" so this is hard for me to judge. From the other 3 performances I have seen, I will say that Smit-McPhee should win. His portrayal of a timid, bullied, yet vindictive young man is outstanding and haunts me to this day.

Will Win: I believe Troy Kotsur has the momentum to take it home.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Judi Dench, Belfast
Kirsten Dunst, The Power of The Dog
Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard

Should Win: I have to say, I'm a BIG Kirsten Dunst fan (have been for decades!) and to see a Hollywood child star not totally flaked out by now, and in fact doing some of the most beautiful dramatic work of her career, is remarkable. I loved her in "The Power of The Dog." She was broken, pitiful and in a way, relatable. I am pulling for her.

Will Win: NC native Ariana DeBose. She's a triple-threat mega talent and she's just getting started.

Best Director
Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car
Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Jane Campion, The Power of The Dog
Steven Spielberg, West Side Story

Should Win: Jane Campion. More females in this category, please! Campion has been around for a long time, and she came out of nowhere, seemingly, with this powerful (get it?), beautiful and bewitching film.

Will Win: Jane Campion.

Friday, March 11, 2022

M Pocha

A few weeks ago, my sweetie and I took a much needed date night to M Pocha, one of the 4 M Restaurants in Durham. I've been to M Kokko (Korean Fried Chicken is their specialty) and I'm dying to try M Sushi and M Tempura. But for an impromptu fun night out, I was pleasantly surprised that we were able to get a table at M Pocha, and the price was right. "Pocha" refers to street food in Korea, and the menu reminded me a lot of the beloved Crafted: The Art of Street Food in Greensboro that sadly closed down a few years ago. Everything on the menu at M Pocha was tempting. The restaurant is a bit small, but they had partitions up and staggered seatings for Covid safety. Service was on point. We left with satisfied and full bellies and I'm eager to return.

The beer list is extensive, the wine list is limited and the cocktail list is creative. I opted for a drink with Japanese Whiskey, Charred Lemon and Miso Caramel, only to find that the charred lemon reminded me of Mezcal (a big NO for me). Thankfully, my hubby preferred this drink over his Negroni, so a trade was made.

I've never met a bun I didn't like. The Spicy Pork buns are DIY, and come with plump, pillowy steamed buns to fill with Romaine Lettuce or Sesame Leaves, succulent Korean BBQ Pork and Pickled Cucumbers. These were to die for. The bun collapses in your hand and becomes the perfect vessel for this crazy seasoned pork (not fatty at all!), crisp and tangy cukes and cooling, crunchy greens. Only 3 come in an order, but for $1, you can get a 4th. That is non-negotiable.

I adore Shrimp Toast and even went to the trouble of making it at home once (NEVER AGAIN - way too much work). But when I see it on a menu, I jump at the opportunity to order it. M Pocha's version is quite different from how I've seen it presented before, but it was an umami bomb - two pieces of Japanese Milk Bread sandwich a cube of seasoned shrimp, and then it's deep fried. Dunking it in the Wasabi Sweet Chili Sauce really makes it, but you have to be careful to let this baby cool off before biting into it! My hubby remarked that they reminded him of crispy pork belly bites. I totally agree.

Meat Mandu are Korean Dumplings filled with Ground Pork, Tofu and Chives in a chili oil. I prefer steamed dumplings over fried, and these were nice because they were steamed with just a little crispiness on one side of the wonton. The sauce was perhaps a bit too oily, but the flavor inside was money.

I grabbed my chopsticks and dug in before I could snap a pick of the Xiao Mian noodles. These were quite satisfying, combining Alkaline Noodles (a new one for me), Ground Pork, Chinese Broccoli, Pickled Mustard Greens, Chili Oil, Sesame Sauce, Peanuts and Cilantro. It reminded me of a Korean version of Pad Thai, with all those tasty, fresh flavors going on. I thought they were a bit heavy-handed with the sesame oil (I'm sensitive to that flavor) but the noodles were perfectly al dente and the pork was outstanding.

There were so many things on this menu that intrigued me, and I looked at other diners with envy, seeing the beautiful dishes they enjoyed. My only wish is that their late night menu (10pm-midnight on Fridays and Saturdays) was available all the time - Kimchi Quesadillas and Spicy Pork Nacho Fries anyone?

Friday, March 4, 2022


New Orleans is my favorite city in the world. If you're into food, drink, music, art and culture, aka letting the good times roll, I can't recommend it enough. Unfortunately, it's not just a hop, skip and a jump away, so the next time I'm craving a NoLa vibe, I'll be heading to Rey's in Raleigh. It's a little taste of New Orleans, and an absolute gem. Top-notch service, spectacular food and two ambiances to choose from - the boisterous Voodoo Room or the elegant dining room - this is one of my new favorite restaurants.

At Rey's, you'll want a reservation. Every seat at the bar and every table in the restaurant was full, including their multiple private dining rooms. Our server had been there for 17 years, so they clearly run a tight ship. Multiple maitre d's checked on us throughout the course of the evening and our water glasses were never empty. We even got two types of bread to start - Rosemary Sourdough and a Wheat studded with Walnuts and Golden Raisins. For a busy Wednesday night, service was prompt and food came out fast. All good things in my book.

Upon perusing the ample menu, my eyes went straight to the Grouper Lafayette, a large portion of the white fish topped generously with Crab Meat over a lemony, herb butter. I was immediately transported to the French Quarter. My only complaint is that I didn't have a starch underneath to help absorb all of that delicious sauce, but the sides are ordered a la carte, so I suppose that was my bad. Instead, my hubby and I chose to share the Vegetable Medley which was the sexiest veggie side I've ever seen in a restaurant. I was preparing myself for mostly onions and limp squash, when this boasted Red and Yellow Peppers, Broccoli, Carrots, Mushrooms, Squash, Green Beans, Red Onion and Zucchini. And they were cooked al dente, leaving some integrity to the vegetables. At $10 a side, this is exactly what it should have been!

My husband ordered the Beef Tournedos, two 4-ounce beef medallions cooked a perfect medium rare, served with 4 Fried Oysters. I don't think I've ever seen him eat this fast. The plate was hot, so the butter that finished the steak started to turn brown. And if you didn't know that brown butter + steak = magic, now you know.

My favorite dessert in the world is Bananas Foster. And believe me, I've had a lot of it, so when I say that Rey's does it the best, I mean they do it the BEST. First of all, it's tableside, so you're really paying for the entertainment too. Our server took his time browning the butter (pro move) and sauteeing the banana slices, but didn't let them go too far and turn mushy. He cooked out the rum so that no potent alcohol flavor monopolized the dish, but just the deep sweet, subtle molasses notes remained. Finally, and here's what really sealed the deal for me: he let the sauce cool slightly and went to the blast chiller to retrieve two plates with two scoops of ice cream practically frozen to the dishes. A lot of restaurants have the ice cream sitting there in a room temperature bowl throughout the fosters prep, so when they pour that liquid magma atop, the ice cream totally melts away, and you're left with a bowl of creamy caramel with floating bananas. Not the worst thing in the world, but not how Bananas Foster is intended to be enjoyed. The ice cream remained frozen throughout our consumption of the dish, so I was able to ladle up that velvety, subtly salty sauce and really savor it. I could pontificate about the beauty and joy of Bananas Foster for hours (clearly). Just do yourself a favor and don't get it anywhere other than Rey's. It's heaven on Earth.

I eagerly look forward to my return to Rey's when I can continue eating my way through the menu. It was really difficult for me to decide what to order, but if this first dining experience tells me anything, it's that you can't go wrong.