With golden-pedigreed chefs Kim Floresca and Daniel Ryan entering their fourth month at the stove, Chapel Hill's One is so patently the best restaurant in the Triangle that local foodies will have to rediscover the joy of arguing politics and baseball. The burning question of our heated little culture is now moot.
The remaining question—"Is One a particularly fine local restaurant or a burgeoning national one?"—is not for us to settle, but for New York Times savants and James Beard Foundation bigwigs. Michelin inspectors have yet to penetrate the American hinterlands, but the ultimate arbitration may someday be theirs. A star—even two—seems a plausible prophecy.
At the very least, One should knock the wind out of those condescending New York Times flyover pieces that tout Chapel Hill as a pocket of Chez Panisse-inspired commitment to the local and organic, as if to say, "At least their politics are respectable." I like to imagine Ms. Park Slope mulling a little nervously how her own neighborhood restaurants stack up.
One's poise is unsurprising. Floresca and Ryan have cooked separately or jointly at a bevy of three-star monuments—California's French Laundry and Restaurant at Meadowood, Chicago's Alinea, New York's Per Se, Spain's elBulli—and they feature prominently in Lisa Abend's The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià's elBulli, the definitive account of the era's most celebrated restaurant.
We may well wonder: 1) What are these two doing in Chapel Hill? 2) How long will they stay? 3) Is this Abend stuff driving them crazy by now?
One plies its hyper-refined craft in a sleek, glassy space in Meadowmont. Tables of dark, rough-grained wood occupy the perimeter, while a 20-foot dining counter fronts the open kitchen. "Open" in this case means open: an entirely raised curtain on the full operation of the kitchen. The six chefs move with the easy grace of professional athletes warming up. There is no mess, noise, rush or extraneous motion. Somehow, Floresca and Ryan manage to cook, expedite and personally present the odd dish, all the while flashing smiles at their guests. The kitchen is a nightly seminar on correct practice.
One's cuisine is haute global. Southern, Asian, Latin and Middle Eastern elements mingle easily in ambitious, exquisite compositions, each a multipart harmony of flavors, textures and colors. Consider the pièce de résistance of the seven-course tasting menu. An elegantly sharp-edged bar of caramelized white chocolate mousse is garnished with a mound of seed and grain granola, dollops of hazelnut sherbet, a thick brush-stroke of miso glaze and cubes of gelatinized whiskey. This sounds a bit self-parading, but the ensemble is so coherent, so clever without being merely clever, that demurral is impossible. Our eyebrow lowers. We succumb.
We may even rhapsodize. The teaspoonful of beef tartare dusted with cured egg yolk and cradled in puffed tendon (an eyelid-delicate, perfectly crisp chicharrón-like chip) may be the single most delectable morsel of food to have crossed my lips in the state of North Carolina.
Such sophistication is complemented by the rarest of local restaurant traits: consistency. I sampled 20 dishes without detecting an inarguable lapse in execution. This unblinking attention to detail is presumably the takeaway lesson of the chefs' tenure in the three-star firmament. No local restaurant similarly defies the usual forms of entropy and disorder.
Nor does any local restaurant rival the visual elegance of One's plated cuisine. The aesthetic is a colorful and informal geometry, ordered but not anal, with none of that conspicuous verticality that leaves the diner feeling like Godzilla rampaging in downtown Tokyo. Think of pretty things delicately strewn on a boudoir table. A tiny madeleine cup filled with wild onion marmalade and finished with a sprig of bright pink lady's thumb arrives on a wedge of gray stone. Somehow stuck through with a pin, this little confection would make a lovely ornament in the tresses of an April bride. A fan of grilled lamb on a bed of golden chickpea puree is like some little motif from Whistler's Peacock Room. The entire menu is a standing argument for emulating those ill-mannered bloggers who photograph their dinners.
Having turned the local standard on its head, One invites more rarefied assessment. Recollecting the Michelin-caliber meals I ate during my jetset phase, I can attest that One outperforms at least a few one-star establishments. At the same time, I can imagine lines of possible criticism. There is perhaps a proneness to overassertive elements. I have in mind the fermented cabbage that otherwise lends such lovely violet ornament to the smoked fluke; the pickled peppadews that leave the lips too puckered to savor the subtlety of the sassafras-barbecued duck wings; and the saline slices of "Jo Co" (i.e., Johnston County) prosciutto that tent—overshadow in both senses—a pat of equally local "lunita" cheese.
It's conceivable—I go no further than asserting conceivability—that the petite falafel were a mite salty, at least when nibbled without their accompanying roulades of squash and cucumber; that the black barley pillowing a slice of pork belly took rusticity a fractional step too far; that the flounder baked in salt meringue was overcooked by a matter of seconds. Michelin's inspectors—those ghostly wanderers driven to nervous extremity by their own hair-splitting—note such nearly imperceptible faux pas as a matter of course.
A Michelin inspector would probably frown at the bread tray, pleasant as its lemon-poppy seed brioche, parmesan-crusted scone and baguette may be. By contrast, I recall the baguette at Raymond Blanc's two-star Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxford, England. This was bread miraculously manifest in Platonic form. The two-star rating implies bread that enters family lore unto the second and third generations.
The Michelin Man will have to decide for himself. In the meantime, One reigns as our best restaurant. We are richer for whatever serendipity brought Floresca and Ryan to the area.
Correction: The print caption listed one of the dishes as sweet bread; it is sweetbread, which is the culinary name for glands, often the thymus.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Numero uno."