I first glimpsed Rise Biscuits and Donuts through the windshield of my parked car. A crowd spilled onto the sidewalk as if it were Black Friday and doughnuts were price-slashed consumer electronics. Inside, a tape machine dispensed numbers, while patrons waited as long as 30 minutes (my own eventual wait) without complaint or even mildly vengeful grumbling about doughnuts priced like French pastry ($1.50–$3).
Before taking a bite, I realized several things: 1) Rise had become, in its first week of operation, a local institution; 2) My review would have to go forward; and 3) My blood sugar was in for mayhem unknown since the Halloweens of the early 1980s.
Located in Renaissance Village to the rear of Southpoint mall, Rise joins a national movement to rescue the doughnut from the doldrums of mass production. Like Portland's Voodoo Doughnut—the seeming inspiration for at least a few menu items—Rise is both a throwback and a flashpoint of resistance to the corporate hegemon. It may occupy a nondescript strip mall storefront, but its instincts are simultaneously retro and artisanal.
Rise serves biscuits, biscuit sandwiches and a shifting circus-parade of glazed, frosted, nutted, sprinkled, cereal-strewn, bacon-topped and otherwise spangled doughnuts. You wait in line, place your order, grab your white paper bag, glance hopelessly at the fully occupied sill that passes for a lunch counter, bypass the equally occupied tables on the sidewalk and devour the contents in your car, not worrying about the drifts of powdered sugar forming in the folds of your gear shift until after the fact. At least that's how things go on a Saturday morning.
The biscuit received my sincerest compliment (the f-word followed by the first-person accusative pronoun, pronounced in wonderment). These are plausibly the best biscuits in the Triangle, outdoing—I wince at my own heresy—even the biscuits at Chapel Hill's famed Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen. Evading all the usual pitfalls, they are moist but not dense, soft but not cakey, rich but not greasy. They have a bit of chew, crunch and crumb structure, achieving the degree of textural personality we usually associate with a decent baguette.
The shifting sandwich menu faces the challenge of honoring such sound simplicity. Eggs, breakfast meats, jam and honey are unobtrusive and sensible, but the more ambitious constructions—apple-braised pork, eggplant parmesan, fried bologna, fried chicken, beef tenderloin—seem needlessly involved. Nevertheless, my preferred sandwich is the apple-braised pork. An ingenious garnish of Brussels sprout petals lends this sandwich a slightly bitter note that complements the mild pork and nicely counterpoises the otherwise sugary menu. This is a sophisticated sandwich by any standard. At the other end of the spectrum is the fried bologna with Velveeta, which emerges from its paper wrapping as a glowing orange goo-ball.
As a devotée of Guglhupf's Berliner—a masterpiece of stern Mitteleuropean method—I am ambivalent about the exuberant, playful excess of Rise's doughnuts. They are fresh, soft and gooey, beating Krispy Kreme at its own game, but they also replicate the Winston-Salem giant's penchant for cloying sweetness.
The vanilla-frosted doughnut tiled with M&M's is clearly meant to placate those with battery-operated sneakers, but even the classics—glazed, chocolate and jelly filled—tend to be sweet, requiring a 16-ounce chaser of black coffee. Uninterested in their own autumnal ground-notes, the apple fritter and maple-bacon bar (a long john topped with a bacon slice) are supersized sugar barges. One visit brought me face to face with a 5X chocolate-glazed doughnut resembling an emergency flotation device. This piece of pop art epitomizes Rise's high spirits, but also its loose commitment to edibility.
The crème brûlée doughnut, on the other hand, will trouble one's sleep. Rise did not invent this delectable morsel but executes it impressively. A Berliner is filled with loose pastry cream, dusted with sugar and blowtorched, creating the caramelized patina by which generic custard becomes an $8 mainstay of the middlebrow dessert menu. The textural contrast between the chewy, runny and crunchy is one source of delight; the flavor contrast between the barely sweetened cream and the smoky, subtly acrid burnt sugar is another. If you were to graph this doughnut, you would need multiple axes.
Rise also serves a fine pumpkin cake doughnut with cream cheese frosting, an antiquarian classic that reminds this New Englander of late October—stubbly fields, leering crows, smoke in the air. Evocative in a different way is the "Ranger Dream" (according to the counterman, the doughnut commemorates the owner's military background and battlefield yearnings). As if atoning for the sins of its sugary brethren, the Ranger Dream is a standard Berliner filled with a bittersweet mousse of Raleigh-sourced Videri chocolate. Simple, elegant and seductive, this is the doughnut equivalent of a little black dress, a doughnut of which a ranger might well dream.
There are some opening-month oversights. Plastic forks are available but not knives, obligating us either to eat our entire maple-bacon bar or to tear it to pieces in the manner of Kubrick's paleolithic monkey-men. Knives, if you please! I suspect that the county health department would appreciate a hand-sanitizer dispenser, and I know for a fact that every harried parent in fingerprint-ready slacks would appreciate moistened towelettes.
These are minor kinks, admittedly, amid a notable arrival.
This article appeared in print with the headline "All rise."