Blog » Understated but Delicious
Susan Ramsay, our former intern and author of the blog Sugar and Spice, has become quite the Triangle foodie. Check out her post below for a look at two not-to-be-missed Raleigh restaurants.
Understated but Delicious:
Two Raleigh Restaurants Step Up the Standards
By Susan Ramsay
Not only our capital city, Raleigh is a culinary haven worth seeking out. However, you might miss two of its finest restaurants if you don’t have the inside scoop. Bella Monica and Poole’s Diner are foodie meccas, dishing up chic, reasonably priced food off the beaten path. Their chefs are inspired by local cuisine and put innovative spins on classic dishes. In fact, restaurants like these are transforming Raleigh from a historical Southern city into a true foodie destination.
After sampling the delicious cuisine of each kitchen and basking in the hip, exclusive vibes of the clientele and décor, I think their remote locations are what make the restaurants so unique. The gourmet food and warm atmospheres are unexpected, and transport you from Raleigh muddle to Southern comfort and Italian bliss. Make your reservations and prepare to get lost in refreshing renderings of classic recipes and succulent sauces, right in the heart of North Carolina.
Poole’s Downtown Diner
Darkened side street…brick building…non-descript glass doors… “This can’t be right,” I murmur. I feel more like I’ve wandered onto the set of a cop show than entered a renowned culinary establishment. After cautiously peering inside the curtained door, I'm lured into a small, bustling dining room by a gust of garlic and wine-infused aromas. A Formica countertop lined with bar stools holds court at the entrance, while yuppies clutch brimming cocktails as they lounge on the retro seats.
A bow-tie clad maitre-d leads me to a red leather banquette and I happily plop down and take in the chic 1950s throwback décor. I’m enveloped by jet-black walls that glow in the dim incandescent lighting. Poole’s Diner, once the greasy-spoon luncheonette our grandparents frequented, has transformed into a modern gourmet eatery under the artful hand of chef and owner Ashley Christensen, who infuses the tiny space with chic charm and delicious Southern cooking.
I sit down, awaiting the customary menu delivery, before realizing it isn’t coming. The Poole’s menu changes daily, so mounted on the wall is an enormous chalkboard, crammed with the scrumptious nightly selections. Scanning the board is a good excuse to peer at the plates being quickly devoured by the other customers. The vegetable offerings alone have my mouth watering: crispy brussel sprouts sautéed in bacon, a cold citrus-and-avocado salad, and luxurious creamed sweet corn with leeks. You won’t want to miss out on the house-baked baguettes or famous macaroni au gratin.
The chef’s creativity is showcased with dishes like honey-brined Berkshire pork tenderloin with marinated pink-eyed peas, and bruleed brown turkey figs with crispy country ham, white balsamic, and pecorino Romano. You can rest assured each seasonally inspired dish is prepared with the finest local produce.
Look out for Christensen each morning at the North Carolina Farmers Market; she’ll be toting huge baskets of fresh greens, juicy berries, and local honey to ensure Poole’s lives up to their farm-to-table philosophy. And as my fork sinks into the tender roasted beets with creamy buttermilk blue cheese, crisp red onion, and crunchy marcona almonds, I relish the results of her culinary standards. Christensen brings gourmet flair to the Raleigh food scene, and as a semi-finalist for the distinguished James Beard Award, clearly her culinary innovation has earned a reputation.
Poole’s Downtown Diner
426 S. McDowell St.
Raleigh, N.C. 27601
Tomorrow night, hop in the car and head to the other side of town to experience another remote culinary paradise. Bella Monica is an exquisite Italian eatery nestled in Old Raleigh Village Shopping Center in North Raleigh. Humbly situated between a fast food chain and a movie rental store, it’s easy to overlook Corbett and Julia Monica’s quaint trattoria. But this pair serves authentic Italian food that showcases their Nana’s classic recipes.
The night I visit, a swank crowd forms a queue that wraps out the door and onto a patio equipped with space heaters — clearly prepared for the ravenous masses. I chat with the friendly host about the weather before he invites me into the warm dining room. When I’m seated in a cozy booth, surrounded by the hum of voices and clinking of silverware, I take in the warm eggplant-colored walls and candlelit bar. A lengthy menu boasts all the Italian classics, jazzed up with innovative twists like orzo pasta in the Italian Wedding Soup and baked polenta topped with Balsamic syrup.
The meal commences with freshly baked foccacia, drizzled in olive oil and donned with generous dollops of garlic. It’s toasty and perfect for sopping up the simmering “gravy” (the family’s name for pasta sauce) that follows. Fresh and baked pasta dishes, flat breads, calzones, and strombolis flow continuously from the kitchen. The topping choices stray from the expected to include offerings like sautéed portabellas and crumbled gorgonzola.
Trevor Chambers has expanded the widely popular flatbreads into a frozen brand — called Bella Monica Flatbread Company — that is sold across the state. On the lighter side, the peppery arugula salad with sun-dried tomatoes, red onion, pine nuts, and parmesan reggiano is dressed in a lemon basil vinaigrette, and the Caprese showcases the simplicity of heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, and extra virgin olive oil.
The chef is inspired by fresh, local produce and the dozens of nightly specials highlight the seasonal produce. The portions are generous, the staff is friendly, and it’s well worth the wait. I half expect an Italian Grandmother to waltz from the kitchen crying “Mangia! Mangia.”
3121-103 Edwards Mill Road
Raleigh, N.C. 27612