Tuesday, March 19, 2024


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"
"The Holdovers"
"Killers of the Flower Moon"
"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.