Sunday, September 5, 2010


When News & Observer food critic Greg Cox gave four (of five) stars to this hotel restaurant, I was both intrigued and concerned. I've been disappointed by the quality of several of Cox's four-star picks, and we are talking a restaurant in a Raleigh hotel, not some big-city establishment, but I ultimately decided to give it a try.

Walking into the Renaissance Raleigh North Hills provided another of those "my town is growing up" moments. The lobby is lovely and on par with what you'd expect from a Renaissance anywhere. Flights sits at the back of the lobby. My first impressions upon entering it were that it was surprisingly small but also quite nice, with a view out the rear windows of trees and lush, green life.

Executive Chef Dean Wendel's menu is similarly lush, rich with strong flavors and full of locally sourced ingredients. Every dish we tasted was at least both good and interesting, and some were much more than that. The pork belly initially struck me as overcooked, but when I ate it with the accompanying sauces, it proved to be perfect. The mac and cheese dish was a delightfully playful and upscale take on comfort food, baked with truffle oil into small cubes of cheesy goodness that sat on a tomato puree that combined with it to evoke memories of grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup on fall days.

The playfulness continued throughout the meal and included such treats as shrimp and grits turned into lobster and grits with a tasso ham sauce, as well as a pork shank whose rich, dark sauce and fork-tender texture was the barbecue you always wish you could have.

I'm definitely going back, and after a chat with the sous chef, who previously held that role at The Mint back when that place was interesting, I left convinced to return and have them create a tasting menu for us.

All that good stuff said, the experience was far from flawless. The portions are too large, though that's a forgivable flaw and one that results in yummy leftovers. The real problem was the service, which just was not up to the food. Every single person on the wait staff was nice and trying hard, but they seemed to lack the training necessary to make the entire experience enrich the meal. Again, though, their niceness made up for a lot of the inexperience.

If you live around here, definitely check out Flights.

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