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Mandolin hits the right note

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It was a corner with "bad karma," as one neighbor put it, despite a prime location at the mostly residential crossroads of Fairview and Oberlin roads in Raleigh. Parking was hard. Lighting was dim. Decibels bounced off the tin ceiling and brick floor as if in a high school gym. Three previous restaurants failed to sustain a crowd, one of them after an unfortunate food poisoning episode. An exorcism would be required, a psychological cleansing. It would take a chef with courage, heart and talent to remake the place. Prodigious talent.

Introducing Mandolin, the debut venture of chef Sean Fowler and business partner Hanes Roberts. Southerners do like a good story, and Mandolin is happy to comply: Talented, young haute-cuisine chef returns to his hometown, bringing fiancée Lizzy Fisher from their joint posting at The Fearrington House in Pittsboro. And Mandolin? It's in the very spot where as children Sean and Hanes would "belly up to the old Johnson's Pharmacy lunch counter." Did you know? Sean used to ride his bike all over this neighborhood!

Sweet, yes, but true. It's also true that Fowler left a stable job in a sluggish economy to invest in the temperamental restaurant industry, on a corner many had given up for dead, and went all-out gutting the place. Inside, a new kitchen, floor plan, banquettes, tables; outside, two expanded parking lots, valets, landscaping, lanterns. A simple woodcarving of a mandolin, by artist Bob Cush, hangs above the door like a centuries-old guild sign; the word "Mandolin" appears only along the building's side, its stars-and-bars logo evoking a Hatch Show Print.

The investment seems safer by the day. "Every night's like a weekend!" exclaims a server, Greg Wagnon.

Like a good spa, Mandolin's soothing ambiance encourages repeat business. Expect a sudden craving to color-match their paint. Is that Benjamin Moore Revere Pewter or Cape May Cobblestone? And the richly hued wood panels? Reclaimed heart of pine from the Atherton Textile Mill in Charlotte. At the entryway, single-stem irises sip from bud vases in a custom-drilled shelf, like an antique pipe rack. "Contemporary farmhouse!" proclaims a stylish diner, nodding appreciatively.

Mandolin's mantra seems to be transparency, in all ways. The kitchen is on display, with glass panes and pass-throughs, the dining area accessorized with white linen wall hangings, decorative glass jars, curvaceous leather chairs the color of Chantilly cream, even a peekaboo window in the side dining room. One feels that, together, Fowler and Fisher have lassoed the sun: Previous inhabitants never enjoyed such natural light. No dim corners here, no lurking ghosts.

Exorcism complete. So how's the food? The vaguely Charlestonian menu reveals Southern ingredients and classical techniques with modern whimsy. Chicken and waffles topped with bacon-mushroom foam says it all, as does a special of foie gras on banana bread—absurdly magical. (They ran out of the usual brioche one evening, and reached for sous chef Dan Yeager's banana bread: "Like so many wonderful creations, it was basically an accident," says Fowler.) Look for beef tartare with housemade chips, fried cornichons and wasabi-deviled quail eggs; oysters with pork belly; $12 burgers of local grass-fed beef topped with optional $4 truffle butter or duck confit.

Over six weeks, I tasted four lunch entrées (lunch was discontinued this week, but brunch launches this weekend), two salads, four appetizers, three dinner entrées and four desserts. Fowler's take on chicken and waffles, a classic soul food dish, is sure to catch on as one of Mandolin's heartiest portions and least expensive entrées ($19). The fried chicken itself approaches perfection, the tender meat sheathed in a crisp so formidable—"bread flour, panko, salt, cayenne," whispered Greg—that a strikingly decorative steak knife accompanies.

Informed that the chef intends the dish to be savory, not sweet, I launched gamely into the bed of greens and cremini mushrooms hiding beneath the chicken, like a bûche de noël. Vinegar, salt, umami. Savory, savory, I willed myself. Then I tasted the buckwheat-buttermilk waffles. Sad, dry waffles—where is thy drizzle? Honey, please!

Mandolin's menu invites splurging. Appetizers like the $14 oysters, $13 scallops, $18 foie gras are expertly conceived and exquisitely presented, a sure nod to Fowler's training at Johnson & Wales University or his tour in Pittsboro. But Five Points is not Fearrington, and the portion-to-cost ratio could be improved.

Springtime will bring expanded menus including a nightly bar menu for drop-in dining. (Even now, one can make a fine bar meal under $20 of pastry chef Allyn Bryson's addictive house-made breads, a healthy pour of wine director Charles Kirkwood's suggested La Ferme du Mont Grenache, and a root-vegetable salad that will have you begging anyone in earshot, "Taste this cauliflower!") Finish with Bryson's deconstructed tiramisu, featuring a witty quenelle of coffee mascarpone.

On Mandolin's seventh night open, two women sat at the bar, sipping $11 artisanal cocktails. They each live just up the road, they say, and have been waiting a long time for a good restaurant they can walk to. "We really hope it makes it!" one laughed breezily, returning to her leather-bound menu.

As a rule, when people want something to work, it will. In the social game of gastrobuzz, it's exhilarating to say, "You've got to try it!" (You do. And ask for honey.)

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