A couple of months ago, I wrote an entry praising Chapel Hill's [ONE] Restaurant and calling it one of the Triangle's best dining spots. Earlier tonight, a small group of us visited it again to see whether it was still delivering on the promise of its obviously talented chefs.
The answer is a qualified yes, but how qualified depends on the comparison points I use.
If I limit myself to only area restaurants, then I need no qualifications at all: [ONE] remains one of the elite establishments of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. Service continues to be a challenge (more on that later), but the food is both inventive and excellent.
The problem is, I don't want to limit myself. I've eaten in many of the world's very best restaurants, and I believe these chefs have the talent to stand up to any of them. Bits and pieces of various dishes demonstrate what they are capable of delivering, but one offering justified that belief beyond any doubt: the snowball.
A group of chefs served us this dish as a special, after-dessert treat. The serving bowl was ice-cold, and the chefs told us to pick up the snowball with our fingers and eat it in a single bite. It proved to be a mound of cold joy, a concoction whose flavors of lime (I think) and sugar and other goodies mingled and amplified one another perfectly as it melted in our mouths.
This one bite proves just how much game these chefs have.
The thing is, I want them to make every bite that amazing and delicious, and I think they can.
Not, mind you, that the other dishes were bad. All were extremely tasty and quite lovely. My main, for example, featured glazed beef with sweet potato, house-made soy forms, puffed tendon, and other goodies.
As delicious as this dish was, though, the beef was chewy, as if they had gone for a cheaper cut to keep the entree price under $30. That's a very reasonable business decision, but I still regret it; I wanted that beef to melt in my mouth.
The amuses, a strength of my last meal at [ONE], were much weaker this time, three of them served lukewarm and all a bit doughier than they should have been.
Again, though, the comparison issue rears its head, because at almost all other Triangle restaurants, those amuses would have been superstars.
I've put off service as long as I can, largely because I liked all the people I met, and all were trying hard, but it simply was not up to the standards of the area's better restaurants, much less the food. The service team felt shorthanded and in the weeds, and the errors were frequent and numerous. Each and every person was extremely nice, apologetic for all mistakes, and quick to rectify any issues they could, so I hate criticizing them, but if [ONE] wants to hit the levels it has the potential to reach, it must invest in more serving staff and better training for them.
As dinner was ending, I had the chance to chat with C. Paul Jennette, the General Manager. He gave me his card, so I emailed him earlier and asked if he and the chefs would be interested in creating a special, screw-the-cost tasting menu that would let them show off their complete games. I hope they choose to take me up on the offer, because I believe the result could be an amazing meal.
Regardless of their response, however, I will absolutely go back to [ONE], and I recommend it highly. It is indeed one of the best restaurants in the Triangle.
I just want it to aim to be one of the best restaurants in the world. Succeed or fail, that is the goal at which these chefs should aim their talents.