This past Tuesday was a Banner Day. Not only did The Beloved and I get to eat with a brother-sister combo who also happen to be some of our favorite people, but we got to eat at one of the restaurants that we visited during the Taste Carolina food tour from a few weeks ago. Yes, friends, we ate at Market. Not “The Market.” Just Market. As in “Market Price,” “Farmer’s Market,” and “Fresh Market.” All three terms apply. Chef Chad focuses on fresh seafood at, you guessed it, Market Price. He shops the Downtown Raleigh Farmer’s Market three times a week, and all the food is very fresh.
When on the food tour, Chef Chad met us and spoke with our group. I’m sure he was madly preparing for a busy Saturday night’s dinner service, but, at about 45 minutes before service, he was just as calm and laid back as if it were his day off. He explained the dish that we would be sampling–stewed local pork with hominy on what-I-guessed-were-house-made flour tortillas with a side of their signature lunch side, the Storied Crack Fries. Of course, I wandered over to him to ask if the tortillas were, indeed, made in house, and he confirmed my suspicion. You know, any restaurant that is concerned about the details is the one I want to feed me. I told him that we would be back, and we were fortunate enough to be able to keep that promise in relatively short order.
When the Henry half of the brother-sister combo suggested dinner, I immediately said “IwannagotoMarket!” I told him a bit about it, and he thought it sounded A-OK. He consulted with Mary Lou, the sister half of the combo, and she concurred. We met them there at 6 pm. Henry and Mary Lou had already been hanging out and catching up for about an hour, having a beverage or two, and were already in love with the place. At this point, let me talk about the place itself. Don’t worry, I’ll get to the food, and most importantly, the desserts. But a fabulous dining experience is just as much about ambiance, knowledgeable and timely service and general vibe as it is about the food.
First off, this was a Tuesday night–their first dinner service after being closed on Saturdays and Sundays. When I worked at The Ravenous Pig, Tuesdays were incredibly hectic since we had to bulk up on everything after trying to run everything out the previous Saturday. Tuesdays were all about new spiced popcorn, new sour mix, new almost everything (except for ice creams, if I was lucky). Add to that being down a server that evening, and I expected the staff to be a bit frenzied, or at least harried. This was Not the Case. Chef Chad walked through service with a mellow, laid back grace, and he set the tone for the rest of the kitchen. There might have been some Stuff going on in the back, but we never saw it. There was no yelling at expo, no running about, no throwing of pots and pans. These were the kitchens I was used to. This kitchen, however, was Zen Central, and that calm radiated to all corners of the intimate dining room.
When you enter the restaurant, the bar is directly to your right against the wall. Next up is the pass/expo where garnishing and finishing occurs and where the servers pick up their plates. Past expo is the kitchen, which is not open for viewing. But, honestly, the garnishing is the cool part, and that’s done in front of everyone. There’s seating at the bar, and the dining room takes up the rest of the space, which used to be a laundromat. The decor is minimal but striking, with a casual vibe that reinforces the staff’s laid back vibe. There’s some eclectic art on the walls, from finely detailed portraits to bold acrylic abstracts. There are two bathrooms, and both are unisex. I personally love that, because there’s no crazy long line for the ladies’ room while the guys smugly parade in and out of the men’s room with no wait at all. They’re equal opportunity bathrooms, and I dig it.
There is a small patio for al fresco dining, but as it was One Billion degrees outside, MaryLou and Henry had wisely opted for an inside table. We joined them, and server Clint brought us a lovely bottle of water so we could serve ourselves. Perched on each glass rim was a slice of fresh cucumber to be floated in the water. The clean, subtle flavor of the cucumber quickly permeated our water, and, L’Eau and Behold, it was good. That’s another example of attention to detail that all of us really appreciated. I think we drank four bottles of water among the four of us, which is Way More water than any of us would usually drink at a restaurant, especially when there is alcohol to be had. It was just that refreshing.
Clint was also tending bar that evening, and his attention was, of necessity, divided. But he never seemed rattled. He knew the entire menu and could describe every item we asked about. We even had a conversation about how annoying it is to have a server who answers the question, “How’s the fill-in-the-blank,” with “I haven’t tried it, but I hear it is good. I mean, we sell a lot, so it must be good, right?” Clint and I were definitely on the Same Page.
Oh, and speaking of Beverages, we ordered ours. Mary Lou and The Beloved each ordered a beer (craft brew, of course). I ordered a little number which I believe was called a Sweet Caroline containing some cranberry juice, Absolut Mandarine, Grand Marnier (which I affectionately call GranMa), oj and a little soda water. It was not too sweet and quite refreshing. (The Market folks tweeted me the ingredients just a few minutes ago. See what I mean by attention to detail)? It also packed quite a punch and one 8-oz glass was Plenty. Last but not least, Henry ordered Market’s Signature Cocktail, the Cojito. It was, after all and happily, Cojito night at Market. A cojito is a mojito made with Malibu Coconut Rum instead of regular-old-rum, thus giving a nod to “Put the Lime in the Coconut.” RIP, Nilsson. In theory, this should have worked very well. In practice, for me anyway, it did not work quite as well. I’ve always found coconut rum to taste a bit like suntan lotion. Plus, even though I saw limes in the glass, I couldn’t detect any lime juice. It is entirely possible that our bartender forgot to muddle the limes and mint–he was doubling as our server, and they were down by one that night. Regardless, I found the drink to be a bit flat–a one-note flavor instead of what I was hoping would be a wonderful Mint-Coconut-Lime Trifecta. Personally, I would have stirred a bit of coconut milk into a “regular” mojito for a more authentic and less suntan lotiony coconut flavor.
Next up, the appetizers. Appetizer, rather, since we all shared so as not to Blunt Our Appetites. We initially zeroed in on the corn fritters served with remoulade sauce, but then Henry reminded us that he cannot eat corn. Incidentally, this is why he could not attend The Ken’s Korny Corn Maze Extravaganza. Anyway, we hastily changed our order to zucchini latkes with avocado crema. The multi-tasking Clint brought them to our table, and they were quite lovely. They were the color of spring peas with patches of deep brown caramelized goodness on the outsides–kind of like the Dr. Seuss version of silver dollar pancakes. The interior of our latkes was very smooth and almost fluffy, leading us all to wonder if there was any shredded potato in them at all, or maybe just some potato starch to help bind the zucchini together. The zucchini was shredded into gossamer-thin shreds that added to the delicacy of the dish. The avocado crema was quite delicate as well. I know I’ve used some form of the word delicate twice in the last couple of sentences, but the entire dish was delicate. In fact, my only complaint about the dish was that the seasoning wasn’t quite assertive enough. Of course, I thought it needed more salt. Shocking, right? But, when everyone else at the table agreed, I knew it wasn’t Just Me. Also, I think a squirt of lime juice in the mix would have both perked up the flavor and played nicely with the avocado in the sauce. Regardless, the crisp exterior married to the fluffy interior and the smooth creaminess of the crema (bigamist exterior) worked so well together that it pretty much made up for the lack of salt. And that’s saying a lot, ’cause you know how much I love my salt.
And now, onto the Mains. Mary Lou and The Beloved both had the braised goat served with sweet potato and sage gnocchi. In my mind’s eye, I expected a sauced dish–you know, like a pot roast. What came was a rather elegantly Frenched rack of three ribs painted liberally with sweet pepper jelly. Since I didn’t see the bountiful sauce I expected to see, I thought that the meat might be a bit dry, but it was expertly cooked. They must have let the meat cool in the braising liquid before removing it. The sweet sharpness of the pepper jelly really cut through the richness of the goat and was a welcome and playful take on lamb with mint jelly. The ribs were perched atop burnished auburn gnocchi, obviously house made. Now, making gnocchi is an Art. They should be pretty light, despite the fact that they are made mostly from starchy potatoes with just a wee bit of binder. At Luma, Brandon made his by cutting everything together with two pastry knives–no kneading or stirring at all to minimize gluten development in the flour and the smashing of the potato starch granules into glue. He learned this during his time working with TK at The French Laundry. And his were always light and fluffy. These were heartier: a little chewy, even. The flavor was quite well balanced–well seasoned; the perfect amount of sage–but I found them to be a bit on the stodgy side. The entire dish spoke of fall to me, what the rich fattiness of the goat (and I mean that in a good way) and the Thanksgiving-ish gnocchi, but I know that sweets are certainly in season here in North Carolina–as is sage–so maybe this is a case of truly seasonal cooking that just didn’t mirror my idea of summer.
Henry ordered the prawns and chorizo. I didn’t get to taste this dish, but Henry raved about it. Three or four good-sized prawns with crumbled chorizo sauced with what I took to be a shrimp stock/chorizo broth, making for a kind of a hearty soup. As such, the dish was served with a couple of slices of crunchy bread on the side for Mopping Purposes. And let me tell you: Henry made good use of them, too.
I asked Clint the Smackdown Question: Mushroom and goat cheese tamales versus stewed pork and hominy. Who wins? He immediately shot back “tamales.” There was absolutely no hesitation, and I went with his recommendation. I found the dish interesting and, in the main, very satisfying. Clint brought me two tamales that had been shucked of their corn husk cozies prior to serving. The masa was lightly seasoned with…something. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it as it was fairly subtle, but it added an extra unexpected dimension to what can often be a rather bland mixture. The filling was about as local as it gets–wild mushrooms and goat cheese, both from Triangle-area farms. As far as I’m concerned mushrooms and goat cheese go together like Forrest and Jenny, so I was all about that filling. The tamales were served over a bed of rice, some what-I-think-were refried lentils and a very fresh pico de gallo. The entire dish was lightly sauced with a light-but-flavorful mole-type “gravy” that was perfect for a summer dish and was accented with a few wee squirts of what-I-think-was sour cream sauce of some sort.
As I said before, the dish was satisfying, overall. I did have a couple of minor issues with it, however. Here they are: I thought that the masa-to-filling ratio was slightly off. I would’ve preferred less masa and more filling. And more filling would have meant more goat cheese which would’ve been Very Good, because another minor issue was that I didn’t think there was enough goat cheese. I also found the rice to be a little over-cooked and a bit bland when eaten alone. Mixed with the lentils, pico de gallo and mole Light, the flavors all worked, but I do wish the rice had been a bit firmer.
After the Main Dish Extravaganza, we all looked at each other, and the unspoken mandate was Dessert. So, our friend Clint brought out the dessert menus. There were four desserts, and there were four of us. Appreciating the one-to-one correspondence, we asked for one of each to share among us. Sadly, Clint said that the watermelon sorbet served with pickled watermelon rind was 86ed. Too bad, too. I can imagine that the tang of the pickle was quite wonderful with the sweetness of the sorbet. We countered the loss by ordering two of the chocolate desserts, thereby keeping our one-to-one correspondence and doubling our Chocolate Intake in one fell swoop. Yay, us.
First, I shall describe the desserts to you. The chocolate came in the form of Chocolate Mole Cake, made with the complex bittersweet South American chocolates made right next door at Escazu. A short (1/2″), wide wedge of cake–more like a brownie, actually–was garnished with a sweetly/tangy tamarind sauce and some sort of cream made with cocoa nibs–maybe creme fraiche. I’m not sure. There was also a double decker round of creme fraiche cheese cake. By double decker, I mean crust-cheese cake-more crust-more cheese cake. Don’t freak out, though. The entire stack was only about 1 1/2″ high. This was served with brandied peaches. Our third (fourth, if you count two mole cakes) dessert was the seasonal berry crumble. Our seasonal berries were local blueberries in an unthickened sauce of their own juices, with maybe a hint of lemon or lime juice topped with a pretty basic streusel and garnished with a quenelle of mascarpone ice cream.
First, the cheese cake. The texture was very smooth and creamy, and I loved the double-decker-ness of it. I adore crust, and it was nice to have lots of it. Having the two textures layered twice made for a much more interesting mouthfeel than just a regular one-two crust-filling combination. The brandied peaches were heavy on the brandy and not too sweet–these are two Very Good Things. It was a solid, if not spectacular, dessert. I thought the filling could have used a bit more salt, some good vanilla and a shot of lemon juice to round out the flavors and punch them up a bit. The peaches were very assertive, and the cheese cake filling felt a bit more like an under-the-peach garnish than the main event.
The berry crumble was superb. The berries were cooked just enough that none had burst but all were ready to at the merest bite. So, we got to enjoy little pops of bursting berries along with the warm-sweet-crunchy-fruity goodness of the dish as a whole. As you can imagine, this just added to the experience. It was one of those simple dishes executed so perfectly that you just have to close your eyes and moan. Just a little. And we all did. It was borderline pornographic, although we tried to contain ourselves. Oh, and the mascarpone ice cream? Gorgeous. Completely smooth, completely rich and completely creamy.
“So, how was the chocolate mole cake?” you ask. This was, hands down, the most complex, rich, decadent and truly chocolate dessert I have ever had. The chocolate from Escazu is already deeply dark and complex, and add to it a little heat, a little sweet spice and just enough binder to be able to slice it, and what you have is The Perfect Dessert for the Adult Chocolate Lover. This is not the kind of chocolate that you’d make s’mores out of. It’s not kid friendly, unless the kid-in-question’s palate is pretty sophisticated. It is, however, deeply, darkly decadent, and just as the Europeans took a spicy, bitter brew and turned it into a sweet and creamy drink, Chef Chad has taken the notes of a spicy, savory, complex mole sauce and has made them work seamlessly as a dessert. The tamarind sauce brightens up the whole affair, and the swoosh of cocoa nib cream on the side offers a lighter texture as a counterpoint to the dense chocolate. If it were me, I’d serve that Bad Boy with some mascarpone ice cream on top of it (and we all tried it like that by stealing from our berry dessert). Better yet, take that cocoa nib swoosh mixture and make it work as an ice cream.
I must add that there was some rather liberal use of cloves in one of the desserts. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know which, although I think those little suckers were in the peaches. I do know that, for literally hours after dinner, my mouth tasted like I’d been chewing Clove Gum. Which is fine, if you are a Fan of Cloves.
Despite a couple of hiccups, the entire evening was a Rousing Success. Market is bringing a young, environmentally responsible, creative energy to an older part of the city that has been, until recently, pretty run down, effectively participating in the revitalization of an historic neighborhood. They are not afraid to experiment with flavor combinations and play with their food. While the results are not always a home run, in my admittedly limited experience, they are always fresh, local, interesting and creative. Market has only been doing its thing since the beginning of May, and I cannot wait to see how the concept evolves over time. They already have a loyal local following, and it’s well worth seeking out if you’re visiting in the Raleigh area. Check them out at their site, their facebook page and/or follow them on twitter.