If every picture tells a story, imagine what a plate of food reveals. A chef’s experiences, trials, and travels all manifest themselves in the meals he or she cooks. And in Raleigh, those stories begin with Ashley Christensen.
In Kernersville, North Carolina, Christensen grew up in a home where food took center stage. Her parents relished organic gardening, cooking, and entertaining, so her understanding of ingredients flowed naturally.
Christensen moved to Raleigh in 1994 to attend N.C. State University, where the budding chef satisfied her need to cook by hosting dinners for friends. After college, she sought out restaurant jobs, and eventually scratched the itch to have her own restaurant by purchasing a 1945 luncheonette across from the Convention Center downtown.
Christened with the eatery’s original name, Poole’s Diner opened in 2007, at a time when the city was in the throes of a revitalization. Raleigh’s hub held a handful of restaurants that catered to the business-lunch crowd in North Carolina’s capital, but the sidewalks virtually folded up after dark. “Raleigh was very much a city in transition,” Christensen recalls, “but you could tell it was heading toward something really neat.”
Poole’s, with its inviting double-horseshoe Formica counter, re-ignited downtown dining with comfort food reimagined through the lens of its chef’s childhood, her culinary mentors, and a harvest of local ingredients. Comfort lies at the heart of all Christensen’s concepts, which have grown to include five restaurants downtown. Her newest (until she opens her pizzeria late next year), Death & Taxes, occupies a 1907 structure that formerly served (at different times) as a mortuary and a bank.
“In all our places, it’s about interpreting tradition through various filters,” explains the chef. “We don’t use the word customer. We only use the word guest, because we work very hard to celebrate hospitality as a relationship and not a transaction.”
Another word Christensen doesn’t like to use is competition, as she prefers to think of Raleigh’s restaurants as complementing rather than competing with one another. She has always been happy to counsel and encourage people who come to her when they are considering opening a restaurant in the city.
Scott Crawford is one of those people. Last November, when the five-time James Beard Foundation semi-finalist for “Best Chef Southeast” opened Crawford & Son in the historic Oakwood neighborhood adjacent to downtown, Christensen welcomed him. “You belong downtown with us,” she told him. It’s that supportive atmosphere that sets Raleigh’s restaurant scene apart.
A Pennsylvania native and formally trained chef, Crawford has been in the Raleigh area for 10 years, working initially at The Umstead Hotel and Spa in nearby Cary, where he elevated Herons restaurant to a Forbes Five-Star property. He exited Herons to be executive chef at Standard Foods in 2015, leaving Herons in the expert hands of Steven Greene (late of Devereaux’s in Greenville), whose forays into molecular gastronomy make a dinner there an evening to remember.
At Crawford & Son, Scott plumbs the depths of American food in his vibrant and approachable takes on familiar fare. He delights in changing diners’ perceptions of local ingredients by using them in novel ways (shaving raw turnips on a salad, for instance). “We believe in creating great energy and warm service in the restaurant,” Crawford says of his lively neighborhood spot.
Some of Raleigh’s food stories tell of faraway lands. Vansana (Van) Nolintha was born in Laos. When he was 12, his parents sent him and, soon after, his younger sister, to the United States to live with a family in Greensboro, North Carolina.
At age 18, Van moved to Raleigh to attend N.C. State, where he graduated with a double major in chemistry and design. His graduate studies took him to Dublin to pursue a master’s degree in international peace and conflict studies. Finding it impossible to land a job in his field during the 2008 recession, he went back to Laos to reconnect with his roots.
When he returned to his adopted city, Van was inspired to do something to honor both his homeland and his parents. Bida Manda (the Sanscrit ceremonial term for father and mother), the restaurant he opened in 2012 with his sister, Vanvisa, was the result. “Bida Manda is our love letter to our parents, who sacrificed to send us to America so we could have a better life,” reflects Nolintha, who now considers himself as much a Southerner as a Laotian.
“Sharing our food at the restaurant became a phenomenal moment of storytelling,” he notes. Indeed, his menu stacks up pages of narratives about his homeland, from the seafood that expresses the country’s proximity to the Mekong River to the complex sauces introduced by the French when they colonized Laos.
Like Nolintha, Cheetie Kumar, chef/owner of Garland restaurant, also came to this country as a child. She moved to the Bronx from a small town in the Punjab state of India with her parents when she was eight years old. As an adult, her travels took her to college at the University of Massachusetts, and, from there, around the world as a rock musician.
Kumar relocated to Raleigh in 1992, attracted to the city’s indie music scene. After pursuing music for many years, she succumbed to her friends’ urging to open a restaurant. “I’ve always loved food,” claims the guitarist-turned-chef. “I learned to cook before I learned to do almost anything else.”
What began as a walk-up window downtown in summer 2013 solidified into a brick-and-mortar restaurant by December that year. Her cuisine enfolds the food her mother taught her to cook as a child in India, the Asian dishes she was exposed to during her travels, and produce from Raleigh’s downtown farmers’ market. “I love the migration of spices and exploring the commonalities between cuisines,” Kumar says. “I borrow from my memories when I cook.”
In addition to running a restaurant, Cheetie still rocks her passion for music. The space upstairs from Garland houses the music club, Kings, and Neptune bar, in which she and her guitarist husband, Paul, are partners. And she still performs with him in their band, Birds of Avalon.
The tale of Raleigh’s sizzling dining landscape wouldn’t be complete without a nod to a few of its many food artisans. Used by chefs including Ashley Christensen and Sean Brock, Videri Chocolate is handcrafted in a bean-to-bar operation in the city’s Warehouse District by Sam Ratto and his wife, Starr. The couple sources their predominantly fair-trade and organic beans from a select group of cacao plantations throughout Central and South America. No soy lecithin, emulsifiers, or artificial flavors sully the taste of their bittersweet bars and bonbons.
Another of Raleigh’s rising sons, French master baker Lionel Vatinet opened his original La Farm bakery in neighboring Cary in 1999. A short drive from downtown Raleigh brings you to Vatinet’s new baking facility and café in Cary’s historic center, where this member of France’s prestigious artisans’ guild Les Compagnons du Devoir makes the dough for his exquisite experiments in bread.
“The evolution of Raleigh’s food scene has been exponential,” declares Ashley Christensen. “Every time someone would open a restaurant, people would get excited about it and that gave others the confidence to invest in Raleigh too.”
“It’s a great time to be a chef in Raleigh,” Crawford adds. “We have this awesome diversity happening and we have people who support new business as well as people who are driven to do great things. That’s a formula for success.
Green papaya salad over sticky rice and fragrant pork belly soup with coconut curry reveal the complex cuisine of Laos through bright flavors that explode in your mouth. 222 S Blount St, Raleigh. (919) 829-9999, bidamanda.com
Bon Appétit magazine recently called out the dim sum at this new micro-brewery by Van Nolintha and partner Patrick Woodson, whose unique concept incorporates a flower shop and bookstore. 218 S Blount St, Raleigh. (919) 829-9998, brewerybhavana.com
Crawford & Son
In addition to the market-driven menu, nightly Blue Plate Specials (short rib lasagna, venison meatloaf, coconut bread pudding with paw paw anglaise) paint a picture of Crawford’s irresistible takes on the classics. 618 N Person St, Raleigh. (919) 307-4647, crawfordandsonrestaurant.com
When sifting through Chef Cheetie Kumar’s tasty riffs on pan-Asian cuisine, don’t pass up the Bhel Puri, a savory snack of puffed crunchy rice, seasonal vegetables, peanuts, cilantro, and tart tamarind chutney. 14 W Martin St, Raleigh. (919) 833-6886, garlandraleigh.com
Ashley Christensen’s reimagined Southern comfort food embraces dishes as homey as her phenomenal mac ‘n’ cheese, and as sophisticated as pan-seared halibut with parsley pistou. 426 S McDowell St, Raleigh. (919) 832-4477, ac-restaurants.com/pooles
Gallo Pelón Mezcaleria
Mezcal flights are de rigueur in the upstairs bar at Centro restaurant, where Angela Salamanca interprets Mexican cuisine with a Colombian accent. 106 ½ S Wilmington St, Raleigh. (919) 835-0060, gallopelon.com
The Green Light
Go upstairs in The Architect Bar and Social Club to seek out the cozy hidden speakeasy (hint: look for the green light on the bookcase wall). 108 ½ E Hargett St, Raleigh. (919) 833-4949, thelocalicon.com/the-green-light
Watts & Ward
Libations flow freely in this new 1920s-style subterranean bar, which encompasses more than 6,000 square feet of chic lounge and bar spaces. 200 S Blount St, Raleigh. (919) 896-8016, wattsandward.com