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New restaurant Belle rejuvenates Cary's Jones House

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Belle, the new restaurant at the historic Jones House in Cary, goes from half empty to almost full with a swing of the front door. A lively party bounds in, pulls together tables, makes itself at home. I stand to leave soon after and ask the hostess about the crowd.

"They're just here for dessert," she says.

Just dessert?

While I have most of my braised short ribs in a doggy bag, my apple bread pudding never stood a chance. I ate every bite, all but drank the bourbon caramel, then wished I had more.

I watch the group chat about their orders—key lime pie or chocolate raspberry torte?—then I exit onto the flower-framed porch and contemplate whether they had the right idea.

Since it was built in 1896, the Jones House has been many things, but never a restaurant. Cary bought the property in 2011 and, a year later, approached Tammy Calaway-Harper about opening a bakery/cafe.

According to Calaway-Harper, now the owner and pastry chef of Belle, the restoration was "a long process." In the redesign, Belle salvaged as much as possible from the original structure and used reclaimed items for the rest. The result is a chic restaurant in a historic home—slate-blue walls and bright red chairs, rustic wood and shiny marble. The spacious first floor comprises the dining areas, bakery and bar. Including the outdoor tables, Belle can seat 74.

If you visited Downtown Raleigh Farmers Market between 2007 and last year, you'll recognize Calaway-Harper's name from her previous venture, Sweet T, a market-based bakery. Several of Sweet T's bestsellers, such as cakes and tarts, now live at Belle—just a bit dressed up, be it with freshly whipped cream or locally churned ice cream. If you don't save room for dessert (you should), at least take a spoon-drop biscuit home.

Like Sweet T, Belle features local ingredients with a seasonal menu (which has already changed since my recent visits). The restaurant's assorted influences—from Southern with black-eyed pea crostini, to Italian with meatballs marinara, to French with ratatouille—imply that the butcher's twine tying the menu together isn't cuisine but location. In true locavore style, Belle's menu turns farms into adjectives. The pork loin is "Heritage Farm." The tarragon chicken, "Ashley Farm free-range."

In Calaway-Harper's words: "I wanted to bring people in Cary the same things I love. Fresh flavors. Local ingredients. And for everything to pop when you put it on a plate."

Almost everything does. While the food is flavorful and promising, some kinks are still evident in the new kitchen. My pulled pork breakfast burrito was as great as it sounds, but the hash alongside it was lukewarm. That said, the medley of sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas and okra was so harmonious, the temperature (nearly) seemed irrelevant. My French fries were spot-on crispy, but the sauce tasted like tomato purée dressed up as ketchup for Halloween. Not that I paid much attention to the fries, focusing instead on the egg salad tartine—open-faced with sugar-baked bacon and baby arugula—which is now the only way I want to eat egg salad.

There are some service flaws. The middlemen between the kitchen and customers could use some work. Both times I visited Belle, I got the feeling that I sat in the "wrong" section, with servers who were well-meaning, but inexperienced and undertrained. The first seemed to know less about the menu than I did (we both wrongly assumed the eggplant "pizza" involved a crust). The second was overwhelmed by too many ladies-who-brunch.

Of course, when I think about the way Belle rejuvenated the Jones House—the few improvements it needs to make now seem like a piece of bourbon caramel-covered cake.

This article appeared in print with the headline "From Fixer Upper to Fine Dining."

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