This holiday season brought two significant food excursions: the first to Second Empire in Raleigh, the second to Bonne Soiree in Chapel Hill.
Second Empire was pretty enough and pleasant enough if a bit crowded and noisy (we sat in the less formal tavern downstairs). I had the "fillet wellington," rounds of beef served with a puff pastry pocket of mushroom duxelle and laid atop a bed of risotto. This was followed by the chocolate souffle. Based on an admittedly limited sample, the cuisine struck me as workmanlike and merely correct; I enjoyed my dinner but I was not excited by it or even much interested in talking about it. It seemed to hew predictably to the modern formula: grilled or braised whatever served atop slightly exotic starch with grilled or wilted vegetables for background. What's more, the service did not seem to me exemplary. I had to remind the waitress by means of pointed finger to serve the women before the men. I did this spontaneously and unthinkingly and afterwards felt badly for possibly embarrassing the waitress. Was I right? I have no idea. I would return to Second Empire, but not on the lookout for anything beyond a nice evening in a formal setting.
Bonne Soiree is distinctly more interesting and appealing. The space is quiet, simple, and elegant, a small Georgian room with a few rustic and contemporary touches. I was reminded of Chantarelle in New York, and I was immediately pleased by the unembarrassed traditionalism of the decor. I was immediately pleased as well by the service, which is at once friendly and appropriately formal. The menu is pan-continental, but the fare is unpretentious and simple -- in certain instances, almost rustic, the kind of food an adept French grandma might prepare on a particularly good day. I was delighted NOT to find anything foamy or fusiony on the menu, to find, in fact, a sturdy implicit resistance to the cliche of gratuitous Asian ingredients and techniques.
Our meal was consistently enjoyable, but a nit-picker -- say a Michelin reviewer -- would have found grounds for complaint. We started with the dinner rolls, which were dense and characterless, worse than any of a dozen bread offerings at Weaver Street. I confess that I was a bit taken aback and slightly worried for our meal. The first course reassured me. I had the pasta "quills," delicate cheese manicotti garnished with sweet potato, hazelnuts, and fried chicken liver. This was a very nice dish, to my mind, but my wife found it a tad "busy." I suppose, from the Michelin perspective, that she was right, but I enjoyed it all the same. My wife had the pan-fried foie gras. Again we disagreed: I thought it was good, she thought the reduction was slightly assertive and the foie gras ever so slightly charred.
For entree, I had the pheasant with autumn vegetables (chestnut, celery, brussel sprouts) and a cake of stuffing. It was hearty and Thanksgiving-like and I enjoyed it, but the pheasant was undeniably on the tough side. My wife had the rock fish with gnocchi and vegetable. The fish was, again, a bit dry, and the dish generally a bit bland.
For dessert, we had the citrus tart with meringue topping and the gateau basque (with quince compote, I believe). Here was room for debate. Were the desserts appealingly unpretentious and homey, or verging too much on the home-cooked and everyday? Close call. I enjoyed the desserts -- admired their unapologetic simplicity -- but I was not exhilarated by them. I cook equivalently good things fairly regularly, as do, I'm sure, most ambitious home cooks.
Of the higher-end restaurants in the area -- Fearrington, Magnolia Grill, Nana's, Four Square, Il Palio, Second Empire -- I like Bonne Soiree the best. In many ways it has the right idea, but I would say that it has a ways to go in terms of execution before it merits a regional or national reputation.