Thursday, May 9, 2024

Madre

I'm not quite sure how Madre flew under my radar for as long as it did. Granted, it's only been open for about a year, but my recent dining experience there absolutely stunned me. It's nestled in the newly developed Smoky Hollow area of downtown Raleigh, just blocks away from bustling Glenwood Avenue. The space gives off sexy vibes, with its dark slate color palette, dimly lit semi-circle bar and candelabra that drips with wax. It feels like a restaurant for a big city. It feels like high fashion. Yet it feels accessible. Did I mention how delicious the food is?

Let's back up and revisit the bar - a perfect place to start your night while waiting on your table. My sweetie opted for the Mezcal Marg, combining the smoky Tequila with classic Lime and Agave flavors, while I sipped the Mazzocco Cab. I appreciated the ample wine list but would try the Noche Rosa next time (Honeysuckle Vodka, Plum, Vanilla and White Port!)

Service is prompt and thorough, yet casual. I didn't feel rushed at all. Tapas-style dishes are meant to be shared, and were delivered in a timely fashion, though I was surprised when our order of Scallops arrived first out of everything we ordered - I get it, scallops cook quickly, but I would have preferred starting with perhaps the Roasted Cauliflower instead. The scallops though, were phenomenal - they had a salty, crispy crust and rested on a bed of incredibly soft Curry Chickpeas, and drizzled with Harissa Crema and Chili Oil. 3 scallops come in an order, and I would have liked the option to add a 4th.

If Cauliflower could be described as sexy, it's because Madre was behind it. Roasted to perfection, topped with a Chevre Cheese crumble, and lounging in a pool of addictive Green Goddess sauce - this is a dream preparation for the humble veg. I showed a lot of restraint not eating the green goddess sauce with a spoon. Major ranch vibes.

Pulpo (Octopus) shines here, with Sweet Potato Cream and Roasted Garlic Aioli. The sweetness from the sweet potato was a nice contrast to the smoky char of the octopus, which wasn't too chewy either. Butternut Squash Risotto is rich and smooth, and loaded with Parmesan. It's topped with tender Mushrooms for some slight texture. My sweetie commented that it was the best restaurant risotto he's ever had.

I absolutely loved the Calabrian Chicken, which to my surprise, were 3 large drumettes. Super fun and whimsical to eat. They're dunked in Hot Honey and served with a Pepper Aioli for dipping, and maintained a nice crunch, even with all the sauces. Delicious. You can never go wrong with Burrata, but I wasn't crazy about the Za'atar Tapenade served with it. That specific seasoning combined with the salinity of the olives took away from the subtle flavor of the cheese.

Madre's Salchipapas (their rendition of potatoes) was as surprising as the cauliflower dish: it highlighted a very humble ingredient and totally knocked my socks off. These crispy potatoes seem as if they were fried in duck fat, and are perfectly salty and crispy. I actually couldn't find the promised Chorizo (not that the dish needed it) but I loved the housemade Dijonaise (and would have loved ketchup even more). 

The dessert menu is limited, but the Gianduja was a lovely way to end the meal. It's an Italian-style fudge that's perfectly creamy, not too chocolately, with just a hint of Hazelnut and Sea Salt. That sprinkling of salt really set this dessert off. 

I can't wait to go back to Madre and finish off their menu. It will be hard to resist re-ordering many of the dishes we tried last time, but with so many tempting options, I know we'll manage.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Brodeto

Make no mistake - when you walk into Brodeto, Raleigh restaurateur Scott Crawford's new spot, you instantly know you're in good hands. The restaurant is absolutely stunning: cream-colored walls with beautiful ambrosia maple wood tables; a warm, inviting bar and an open kitchen; and plenty of staff ensuring everything is running smoothly. Brodeto opened last month in the newly-developed Raleigh Iron Works area, and seems like a step up from his already swanky and splurge-worthy restaurants Crawford & Son and Jolie. The cuisine is inspired by Italy and Croatia and is a love note to the Adriatic. My experience was as close to a home run as you can get. A few tweaks would have knocked it out of the park. While they are still finding their footing, I know they'll only continue to improve.

I acknowledge that one visit, where I sampled 4 dishes and a cocktail, doesn't necessarily give me the best overview of what the folks at Brodeto can do. But as a mom with a limited budget, one visit is all I can manage right now, and first impressions are everything. The cocktail list is inventive (and expensive), as Crawford's usually are, and the Euro Step featured Mezcal (I subbed Tequila), Aperol, Grilled Strawberry and Chili Oil for a uniquely warm and spicy note. I appreciated the option to sample a wine before I opted for a glass, and the Croatian Plavac won me over.

The "Small Plates" section should be renamed, because the two my dining partner and I ordered provided us each with leftovers. Italian Chicories are dressed with a White Balsamic and Citrus Vinaigrette, and topped with Toasted Hazelnuts for crunch, Grana Padano for umami and Cara Cara Oranges for sweetness. This salad was fantastic and perfectly balanced. I admire a well-crafted salad and this was indeed that. We also tried the Little Gem Hearts (a cross between Romaine and Butter Lettuce), which reminded me of a sexy Caesar. The greens were tossed with a Ramp Caesar dressing, crispy Sourdough Breadcrumbs for texture and what I imagine was an entire wedge of Pecorino Tartufo. That slight truffle flavor from the cheese with the tangy, savory Caesar dressing was absolutely addictive. I would eat this salad every day of my life.

Italian Chicories

Little Gem Hearts

Every pasta on the menu sounded irresistable, but we narrowed it down to 2. I had never heard of or seen a Busiate noodle, which is a long, thin, corkscrew shape, and while it was a whimsical choice, I don't think it was the right pasta for the sauce. Actually, it was more like a broth, featuring Crab, Tomato Confit, Garlic and Lemon. Very robust in flavor, but very thin, and did not cling to the noodle whatsoever. It was actually pretty hard to eat, especially on the appetizer-sized plates we were given. The flavor was a success, but I did not think the execution on this dish was.

Busiate with Crab

Agnolotti is one of my favorite pastas. They are like little dumplings, and Brodeto's rendition is filled with Celeriac, a hint of Black Truffle, Goat Butter and Parmesan. They float dreamily in a light broth (again, not really a sauce) which was again difficult to eat with forks on our much-too-small plates. (I suppose we should have asked for spoons and bowls for these dishes). The pasta dough is so tender and the filling is just bursting at the seams. This was a beautifully composed dish, I just wish it had been easier to enjoy. (It would have been much easier if a single diner were to enjoy these pasta dishes, but they encourage family-style dining, so they could consider altering how they set up dishes to be shared.)

Agnolotti

We opted out of dessert (options were limited and the newly-opened Andia's Ice Cream is right next door). I applaud the service and the cool calmness with which the staff managed the restaurant. I did not have to ask for water once during the meal (side note - the water cups are very cool, they look like clear, plastic solo cups but they are glass!) and the food was coursed out appropriately. The team at Brodeto is all working together to ensure diners have an excellent experience. Save up a few pennies (you will definitely need them) and treat yourself to a taste of the Adriatic.

Dining partner + friend of 20 years

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Ajja


Every now and then, a restaurant comes along that reminds you how exciting food can be. Ajja recently opened in the Five Points neighborhood in Raleigh, and immediately had a cult following (these are the folks behind the beloved restaurant Garland, which shuttered its doors post-Covid). After a recent dining experience where we tried nearly everything on the menu, it's easy to see why Ajja was also recently nominated for a James Beard Award ("the Oscars of the food world"). The atmosphere, service and ever-changing menu will have you returning again and again.

We dined al fresco on a beautiful spring evening, with a lovely view of downtown Raleigh in the distance. The patio is stunning, complete with bright lights, colorful artwork and an enormous firepit. Ajja's "borrowed" and "signature" cocktail list is a perfect place to start. I opted for the "Wait For It", a wonderfully balanced mixture of Gin, Orange and Calabrian Chiles with a hint of Lime and Honey. (I wasn't bold enough to try the "Mary Had a Little Dram", featuring Lamb fat-washed Mezcal, but maybe next time.) Instead, we opted for lamb in food form, and were wowed by the Croquettes. One is big enough to share, but you might not want to. They're perfectly crispy and savory, and even better when wiped through an herby Schug sauce and sweet Tomato Coulis.

Never in a million years would I have imagined a place could have so many delicious dips and spreads, but the place does exist. And it's Ajja. (I have to admit - I enjoyed these more than any of the proteins we ordered!) Warm Moroccan Hummus is chunky and better than anything you'd find at the store. It's topped with Sweet Peppers, a drizzle of Tahini Yogurt, Sumac Onions and Corn Flakes for texture, along with a handful of other delights to make this a great starter. Carrot Houriya is a love song to carrots. They're caramelized, which brings out the sweetness, and topped with tangy Goat Cheese and a mound of slivered Almonds for crunch. Both of these are served with a nice, dense, Sesame bread.

Carrot Houriya, Lamb Croquettes and Joel's hand

The *star* dip was the Warm Squash Dip, featuring purees of both Butternut and Delicata Squashes, with brown butter for richness and Pomegranate Molasses for brightness. My only complaint was not having enough toast points to enjoy this dip (it's ok, I just used my spoon).

A nice, bright Citrus Salad features Baby Romaine, Endive and a first for our table - Candied Dukkah (an ancient grain) - which gave a nice salty/sweet note and crunch. Broccoli Rabe had just been added to the menu and was well-received by 50% of our party - others were turned off by the bitterness of the vegetable.

Citrus Salad

Our favorite protein of the night was the unassuming, humble Chicken Thighs. Do not sleep on this! Tender meat is marinated in Buttermilk, Garlic, Cilantro and a hint of Lemon and just melts in your mouth. I had high hopes for the Lamb Seekh following that outstanding Croquette we had earlier, but this rendition was a little chewy. Lamb Shoulder is cubed and served on a (shallow) pool of Labneh and topped with crunchy Pistachios, but I couldn't find the promised Acorn Squash. This dish was just OK for me. We also had mixed reactions to the Spare Ribs, that were topped with a Peach-Tamarind glaze and served over a bed of Turmeric Cabbage. I enjoyed the flavor more than the texture of the meat, which seemed a bit chewy and overcooked to me.

We didn't have an ounce of room for dessert (I would have made room for more Warm Squash Dip if I could have) but after-dinner libations proved to be just the ticket. I was pretty thrilled with our experience and appreciated the prompt, frequent checkbacks from our congenial server. Make your reservations now because this place is busy. Hopefully you can snag a table later this spring to enjoy the fabulous patio. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

2024 Oscar Predictions

Greetings, dear readers! Did you think I could possibly forget to post my 2024 Oscar predictions? I may not be sharing detailed reviews of everything I've seen this season, but believe me - I am watching. Pop your bubbly, dress in your finest loungewear and get ready for Sunday night - the best night of the year!

Best Picture

"American Fiction"
"Anatomy of a Fall"
"Barbie"
"The Holdovers"
"Killers of the Flower Moon"
"Maestro"
"Oppenheimer"
"Past Lives"
"Poor Things"
"The Zone of Interest"

Should Win: At the time of press, I have seen 80% of the nominated films (it used to be my goal to see all nominated films, but that was BS...Before Sloan). I quite enjoyed "Barbie" and "Poor Things" and was tickled to see 2 films with heavy comedic elements nominated, a rarity for the Academy. However, I think it's very safe to say that "Oppenheimer" will take the statue. It blew me away. The acting, the score, the editing, the set design...it was brilliant. If I was a betting woman, I would go all in on this one.

Will Win: "Oppenheimer".

Best Actor

Bradley Cooper, "Maestro"
Colman Domingo, "Rustin"
Paul Giamatti, "The Holdovers"
Cillian Murphy, "Oppenheimer"
Jeffrey Wright, "American Fiction"

Should Win: Before I saw Cillian Murphy and Paul Giamatti's performances, I was convinced that Bradley Cooper was finally going to win an Oscar (he has been nominated 12 times!!!) I didn't particularly care for "Maestro" but there was just so much hype surrounding the film, I figured it was his time. Then, Mr. Giamatti graced us with yet another quirky, heartfelt performance. The Academy loves to reward body of work, and while "The Holdovers" wasn't necessarily my favorite performance of Giamatti's, I can see things swinging in his direction. Who doesn't love Paul Giamatti? But THEN, Cillian Murphy with his electric eyes completely transformed into the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer and I was floored. He carries this massive motion picture on his shoulders with ease. 

Will Win: It's a toss-up but, Murphy.

Best Actress

Annette Bening, "Nyad"
Lily Gladstone, "Killers of the Flower Moon"
Sandra Hüller, "Anatomy of a Fall"
Carey Mulligan, "Maestro"
Emma Stone, "Poor Things"

Should Win: If Emma Stone hadn't already won for "La La Land," I would say her performance in "Poor Things" is Oscar gold. I think once actors win a coveted statue, they're allowed more risks with the roles they take, and are perhaps offered more unique and daring parts. I thought Lily Gladstone did a beautiful job portraying an Osage woman on the verge of a physical and emotional breakdown. So it's clearly a race between the 2 of them.

Will Win: Gladstone.

Best Supporting Actor

Sterling K. Brown, "American Fiction"
Robert De Niro, "Killers of the Flower Moon"
Robert Downey Jr., "Oppenheimer"
Ryan Gosling, "Barbie"
Mark Ruffalo, "Poor Things"

Should Win: I've always believed that the Supporting Actor/Actress Oscars should go to the actor/tress who made a scene or a movie better. They're not it much, but when they are in it, you perk up in your chair a bit. RDJ did this effortlessly in "Oppenheimer" and Ryan Gosling nailed this as Ken in "Barbie". Alas, the Academy REALLY hates to give out statues for comedies, and Hollywood REALLY loves a comeback story. While RDJ has "been back" for a while, this is his time. He was brilliant in "Oppenheimer". (I will also say, that as a huge fan of SKB, I am rooting for him even though I haven't seen "American Fiction" yet).

Will Win: RDJ.

Best Supporting Actress

Emily Blunt, "Oppenheimer"
Danielle Brooks, "The Color Purple"
America Ferrera, "Barbie"
Jodie Foster, "Nyad"
Da'Vine Joy Randolph, "The Holdovers"

Should Win: This one is tough. America Ferrera was great in "Barbie", and I'm a long-time fan of Emily Blunt. But I don't see either of them winning for these roles. I loved Da'Vine Joy Randolph on HBO's tragically delicious show "The Idol," but I didn't think "The Holdovers" was her best work. If previous award shows are any indication of the winner (and they usually are), it's Randolph's statue.

Will Win: Randolph.

Best Director

Jonathan Glazer, "The Zone of Interest"
Yorgos Lanthimos, "Poor Things"
Christopher Nolan, "Oppenheimer"
Martin Scorsese, "Killers of the Flower Moon"
Justine Triet, "Anatomy of a Fall"

Should Win: Christopher Nolan has an unbelievable 8 nominations and no wins. It is 100% his time. "Oppenheimer" was a masterpiece. 

Will Win: Nolan.