The kitchen at Death & Taxes includes a mammoth fire, many bearded men and one little pink hair dryer.
It's early on a Wednesday night at the downtown Raleigh restaurant—Ashley Christensen's long-awaited latest venture—and I am in one of the hottest seats in the house. My companion and I dine at an end of the bar that borders the open kitchen, and our cheeks are flushed from the wood-fire grill. The view is entertaining, even entrancing, like sitting around a campfire on a late summer night, if that campfire happened to be in one of the region's most ostentatious restaurants. As the front door opens and shuts, its motion drafts a cool breeze against our backs.
But the truly hottest seat must be opposite us, at the grill station. The line cook is young and lanky, with quarter-size plugs in his ears and a black knit beanie on his head. He sweats under a growing line of yellow tickets. I do not envy him. The sense of his responsibility radiates toward us, much like the flames he works with or against—I cannot always tell which.
He juggles the handling of copious menu items (chicken, octopus, steak, oysters, marrow and okra, often at once) with restacking logs and taming orange flames. When time permits, he chugs water from a plastic quart container. At one point, I watch him hold his chest, as if checking his pulse. But before I can worry, he whips out that pink hair dryer and blows more fury into the flames. The sparks fly upward wildly, like midsummer lightning bugs.
Though Death & Taxes has only been open a few months, this line cook is standing in a spot already used by some greats. Before the restaurant's official launch, Christensen hosted a dinner series called "The Firestarters," meant to test out the kitchen's grand equipment. During the spring, famed Southern chefs—including Husk's Sean Brock, Gunshow's Kevin Gillespie and FIG's Jason Stanhope—flocked to Raleigh to cook on the 2,200-pound, custom J&R grill, overnighted from Texas in March. For each event, diners toured the Bridge Club, Christensen's event space above Death & Taxes, and enjoyed a four-course meal. Tickets could cost nearly $200 per person.
After dining at Death & Taxes twice, the sum no longer shocks me. Take away the guest chef, the private tour and the special occasion, and your dinner will still be expensive, relative both to Raleigh and Christensen's other capital city spots. It is almost impossible to spend less than $60 per person if you don't want to leave hungry and want to enjoy yourself. Even that is a conservative estimate.
Death & Taxes loves small plates as much as it loves an open fire and open kitchen. The menu splits into three categories: "Of the Sea" (seafood), "Of the Land" (vegetables and salads) and "On the Land" (meat), each of which includes six or so items. The minor dishes run around $14, while the larger are double that, or more. "The Pig," a 20-ounce pork chop that's braised then grilled and served with summer squash and heirloom tomatoes, will put you out $38. The dry-aged rib eye goes for $2.50 per ounce, which meant $60 for the smallest weight available during my two visists.
My exceedingly courteous and informed waiter recommended two-to-three à la carte plates per person, a meal that left me neither hungry nor overstuffed. Still, the sum added up quickly. If you order, for instance, a cocktail, two small plates, dessert and you tip graciously, you're well past $60. If you're a devotee of Christensen's Beasley's, where a big plate of fried chicken and waffles will run you $13, that will sound steep.
But Death & Taxes isn't Beasley's—or Chuck's or Joule, all of which offer quality fare at a moderate cost. It also isn't Poole's, where prices are higher though the food is still rooted in the homey and the familiar, what with its funky furnishings and famous macaroni and cheese. Actually, Death & Taxes isn't anything you've seen from Christensen before, which seems to be the point.