What would the perfect restaurant look like to you? What function would it serve? The answer for me is as many functions as possible. To me, the perfect restaurant would be somewhere that could be casual yet gourmet, where you could just as easily meet a friend for drinks and a $10 meal at the bar as blow $500 on a group and have the meal of your life. A place where you could get oysters on the half-shell and pink champagne for breakfast, lunch, dinner or late-night. A place where the service was welcoming whether you were there to get engaged, or because you needed some comfort food to work off a hangover.
I have been to restaurants that meet most of these requirements, but only in big cities. Paris thrives on restaurants like these, minus the service. In New York, Balthazaar and Blue Ribbon come to mind, places where at 3 a.m. you can sit at a banquette and order coffee, or decide to go for the seafood platter complete with lobster and four different oyster variations, along with a $200 bottle of wine. In Portland, Ore., I remember visiting a large restaurant where mohawked waiters in tuxedoes were happy to serve you a bowl of spectacular macaroni and cheese for three dollars, or if you preferred, a $60 filet mignon for two.
In the Triangle, we have world class restaurants, we have casual restaurants, we have neighborhood restaurants. But rarely do you find all of these things rolled into one. Nana's Chophouse in Raleigh is the closest thing I've encountered so far. It's not the perfect restaurant, and it's not the best food I have had in the Triangle, but it is so user-friendly and so good at the same time that I see it as an incredibly good omen for Triangle dining.
Scott Howell, executive chef and owner of Nana's in Durham as well as the owner of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Q-Shack, has taken most of the credit for this venture, and while much of the credit should go to him, the restaurant is a joint effort. Howell had originally planned a restaurant in the building across the street, but when that fell through he teamed up with Greg Hatem, who had already begun developing a restaurant in the current space. A few other key players had already been brought in to make the restaurant what it is--both the general manager, Bart Bonbrest (also of Duck and Dumpling), and chef Jeff Saudo, a man with considerable ability and experience, were brought in by Hatem before Howell signed on. Howell now acts as the executive chef and Saudo the chef de cuisine. (Who knows how these kitchen hierarchies actually function? Let's just say that the food is a collaborative effort.) Add to the team Stephanie Rosse, former pastry chef at Four Square, and you've got a lot of talent to fill out one restaurant.
The space in the old Raleigh warehouse district is beautiful, but not in an intimidating way. Tall ceilings expose the original beams, and the design has managed to modernize the space while retaining the integrity of the historical warehouse. The glass doors along the front of the building open onto a large bar area, where seating at bar tables is plentiful. Next to the bar is a dining room set up to become semi-private and a glassed-in wine room with cork floors that creep out into the front of the restaurant.
Further back into the space, the main dining room has large, curved booths along the middle of the room with well-spaced tables and a laid-back, clubby feel. A back dining room, soon to house two large chandeliers, is intended as an option for private parties.
If the space is set up to accommodate all kinds of dining needs, the menu serves that function even better. Dishes from the antipasto section of the menu start at $2.50, and there are more than enough choices to make a light meal from that part of the menu alone. These plates are also perfectly suited to cocktail accompaniment, with dishes like marinated olives or any number of house-cured meats. The risotto and pasta section of the menu currently has five choices, all under $10, and all generous enough to satisfy for a quick meal at the bar. Howell is known for his risottos, and there is no disappointment here.
Appetizers and entrees are classic new American chophouse fare, with Italian, Southern and French influences. This part of the menu obviously shares some ground with the original Nana's menu, and aims to hit the same high notes that has made Nana's nationally known.
The Chophouse is open for dinner six nights a week with late-night on weekends, so it is hardly the 24-7 restaurant of my dreams. But to be fair, places like that survive in big cities because there are enough people that customers who want a full meal at 3 a.m. actually exist beyond one or two insomniac restaurant writers. But late-night is a good start, as is the versatile menu and space. That's right folks, Raleigh has taken one step closer to perfection.