Editor's note: This is the first installment of a new occasional feature that will look at a restaurant generating a lot of buzz. First Bite is not a restaurant review in the traditional sense, but rather a first impression of a place based on an initial encounter.
Two weeks into its reincarnation, the restaurant formerly known as Fins looks like an old friend who has found a new love.
The glitzy water wall remains, the plush banquettes are intact and heavy, angular flatware still adorns the tables. But the place is lively, loud and hopping, which is nothing Fins ever was or, it seems, aspired to be.
While we say au revoir to most of Fins' extravagant, if lovely, seafood dishes, we say merci beaucoup to Chef William D'Auvray and his partners Sean Degnan and Tony Hopkins for this chance to sample D'Auvray's array of talents and still walk out with our wallets.
buku: Global Street Food in downtown Raleigh is now open weeknights until midnight and Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m., with regular musical entertainment. The restaurant had been up and running for just a few days when we made two anonymous visits. While we found merit for common complaints about uneven service during our recent visits, we have nothing but praise for the food.
The menu is broken down into sections with choices organized roughly along these lines: soups, breads, sauces, grains, salads, dumplings, raw fish, cooked seafood, meats and larger entrées. This makes it easy to mix and match a meal or to find a quick starch after an evening of barhopping. Every dish is inspired by food you could buy from a street vendor in another country—Indian biryani ($6), Colombian arepas ($5), Thai green papaya salad ($4), Lebanese fattoush ($5), Polish pierogis ($7), Filipino lumpia ($7), Greek grilled octopus ($9), Japanese sake-braised short ribs ($7)—and that's only a small selection.
If there's a problem, it is this: What do you do when you're handed the world on a silver platter?
If you start with the agua fresca or the horchata, you should order empanadas or cochinita pibil, right? But what if you really want the Viet cucumber salad? Or the Korean barbecue? Then you need a beer or sake. And what if your mate craves the sashimi platter but you're in a red meat/ red wine kind of mood?
It's paralyzing. And thrilling. Either way, it's just the excuse you need to play around, loosen up, go global.
The good news is that, unlike the poor jetlagged Yank who is right at this moment poised to buy a questionable lukewarm lumpia on the sidewalk of Manila, at buku you can't go wrong.
Every dish that flew out of the kitchen at 7 p.m. on a Friday night was spot-on: The Viet cucumber salad was cool on top yet spicy down at the vinegar-soaked slices, where fried peanuts put out the flames. The chicken-filled masa empanadas with farmers cheese (first sealed on a plancha and then just lightly fried) were smothered in such a fantastic salsa verde we didn't want to let the plate go. With three empanadas for $7 plus the $1 horchata, any lingering nostalgia for Fins dissolved.
The Korean BBQ at $7 might be the best deal in town. The long rectangular platter features a pile of sesame spinach, a small bowl of kimchi and a round bundle of thin flash-grilled sirloin strips, which, though charred, border on rare. Add the hot mustard dip and the dish is pitch-perfect.
In comparison, $6 for a single, scantily filled bao (Chinese pork bun) seems a tad much, especially since the combination of light, sweet bread and savory meat made us want two.
It's sacrilege to visit D'Auvray's house and not get a sashimi platter, so we did. Fins charged $26 for it; buku charges only $18.95. But in this fast-paced environment, with other dishes piling up on the table, it lost some of its magic.
Service was attentive, if too much. Twice we received a second serving of what we'd ordered (and despite the temptation to eat it, we came clean). The server didn't have a handle on every esoteric ingredient, but if she had this early in the game it would have been extraordinary.
Globe-hopping can be exhausting. When you agree on a stopping point, the trio of crème brûlées (an old Fins standby: vanilla bean, ginger and chocolate) is a fine reward and works well with many cuisines.
Or just sip your sweet. Buku's drink list features homemade bases and syrups, and the spicy-chocolate molé-molé martini is as luxuriously hot as a beach in Ixtapa. It's a blend of Three Olives Chocolate Vodka, Crème de Cacao, Navan and red chiles, but all you really need to know is that it's got curls of chocolate and looks like liquid mahogany.
Look for lunch service to start soon, and a weekend dim sum brunch to follow. Come spring, a pushcart on Wilmington Street will serve actual street food to the time-strapped lunch crowd. Eventually buku plans to launch a "mobile food service" that will drive to key spots downtown and broadcast its location on Twitter.
Losing Fins hurts, but having buku in its place takes the sting away.