Review: Harper’s Table

11 July 2019

I headed back north out of Wilmington, still thinking about how good that duck was from last night at Rx. Wow, still one of my favourite places to eat in the US, too bad it’s so out of the way! I headed north, snaking along the eastern side of North Carolina.

Made a few stops, including a stop at Pettigrew State Park for a bit of a hike — though not sure what I was thinking considering it was humid and reaching the 90s this late morning. Fun trek through the lake-side woods, I was completely soaked when I got back to my car… A change of clothing and the AC blasting, I kept going north and crossed back into Virginia and reached my destination of the night, Suffolk.

I planned to pass through Suffolk in any case, but when I was doing my trip research I noticed a place called Harper’s Table and that was intriguing enough for me to choose to make this my final stop of the trip. I was tired, so needed to rest a little. Plus, I need to plan out my drive for tomorrow as I’m hugging the east side of the state, along the necks, cutting into Maryland to get home.

I eventually drove into town and just as the showers began, I got to Harper’s Table. A nice relaxing table, and soon a nice relaxing, refreshing strawberry gimlet — perfect for today. The menu looked very good, so I ordered and relaxed. Soon the 2 snacks I ordered appeared…

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Mmmm, a nice pork belly biscuit. Done quite nicely, definitely something I can keep snacking at. The devilled eggs were excellent, almost as good as last night’s rendition. So far so good! And I then ordered their house Manhattan and chilled with it…

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The drinks have been good, and then my main course arrived — the pork chop.

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Oh my these are done perfectly, uncompromisingly pink and not overzealously trimmed as so many places do. Lovely quality pork cooked perfectly, one of the best pork dishes I’ve had this year. Really excellent, with some sorghum, radish and greens to go alongside the fabulous meat. What a great last meal for this trip!

I relaxed and had one last drink, and went with a dessert — something simple…

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Just some rather nice house-made ice cream and sorbet — chocolate, bourbon, hazlenut & strawberry. A really nice way to end this evening. I thanked my very capable and friendly server and thanked the chef as well before I headed out for the short trek to my hotel. I’m so glad this trip is ending in such wonderful ways!

I must say, this is a discovery. It’s very much worth a stop, especially if you are headed south from DC. Easily the best place I’ve eaten in the entire Hampton Roads area. Very highly recommended!

Harper’s Table
122 North Main Street
Suffolk, Virginia

* And thank goodness everything went smooth for the next day’s drive back, despite some traffic issues. Often these trips don’t end well, but this was a rare exception. Still thinking of that excellent pork chop…

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Review #2: Rx

10 July 2019

I headed out of Raleigh still shaking my head from that really awful lunch at Brewery Bhavana. What were they thinking… Anyway, I fought through some traffic and eventually reached my next stop, Sanford. I had been on the hunt for a specific grave for several years now, and with only an obituary from an obscure local newspaper noting the name of the cemetery, I was on my own.

And my quest came to a fruitful end, as I had found the grave of Frederick WB Coleman, the first US minister (ambassador) to the Baltic states, from 1922 to 1931, spanning the Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations. I headed south-east happy, as this was the main quest of this roadtrip. I had a longer drive now, as I was headed to the Atlantic coast for tonight’s stop in Wilmington.

My main motivation to go to Wilmington is to re-visit Rx, where I had a wonderful meal 3 years ago when I found the place by accident. That meal was good enough to persuade me to take this detour to go further south. After a few hours I reached Wilmington on a rather warm late afternoon.

A short rest at my hotel and I headed to Rx for dinner. Same as I remembered, I relaxed at a table near the door and looked over the menu. A jovial server greeted me, and I happily ordered some food and drinks. The cocktail reached my table first.

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I enjoyed my smoked Negroni as my starter arrived — devilled eggs. These are delicious, graced with some smoked tilefish as well as sorrel. Really a nice addition to already excellent morsels, and it worked so nice with the cocktail. But that was drained, so went with a nice cucumber-based cocktail for the next dish.

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It came just in time for my next dish, tomato soup.

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Delicious, even better than the good rendition I had at Crawford and Son in Raleigh last night. I love the cold element here in the sour cream ice cream, just created a nice touch for the soup. Light touch of peppers, as well as basil, and you got a winner here.

Lovely stuff so far, I’m enjoying this as much as last time. Lots of walk-ins which is good. I switched to a wine for the main course, which soon came out…

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Oh my was this duck good, perhaps one of the best duck dishes I’ve had this year. Easily beats the Michelin-ranked duck I had at Roganic in London last month. Perfectly cooked meat, the skin beautiful, all accentuated by a fermented blueberry sauce. Usually I don’t go on about the sauce, but this was fabulous. What a great dish!

Once again Rx proved that you can be in a small city and have dishes that blow away Michelin-starred places with ease. Twice in a span of 3 years I’ve had wonderful meals here, which says a lot. This place easily remains one of my favourites in the US.

I enjoyed a little tipple as my dessert of bread pudding arrived.

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Ah, too bad, as the advertised cinnamon was perhaps too understated. Not bad, but weakest item of the evening. A nice after-dinner drink and that closed out the excellent evening. I thanked my excellent jovial server and headed out, hoping that it won’t be another 3 years before I make it back here.

Most people don’t give Wilmington NC any love when it comes to food, but Rx is certainly one of my 10 favourite restaurants in the US. Fabulous cooking with wonderfully fresh ingredients, what’s not to love? So many places use the farm-to-table label with no real thought to it, but this place is the definition of farm-to-table — and that very important –TO– is excellent quality cooking. Fabulous once again.

It’s out of the way, but it’s worth a drive down here. Wilmington is a charming little town too, with a lot of history. But it’ll always be Rx that’s my focus for any trip down here, and it is indeed worth driving for several hours to get here to enjoy this place.

Rx
421 Castle Street
Wilmington, North Carolina

Uh…no. Just no… (Review: Brewery Bhavana)

10 July 2019

I woke up quite early the next day, still rather full from that heavy dinner at Crawford and Son. After a quick stop in Chapel Hill, I headed north of Durham and went for a hike into the woods at the edge of the county. Was knee-high in foliage as I cut through the terrain, but luckily it being 8am it wasn’t hot and humid. A bit of muck from all the rain the area received in recent weeks, but a relatively smooth hike.

Sometimes I love going off-grid where there are no signals. And I’m also glad for part of my childhood, as I still had good navigation skills using geolocation, topography and instinct. I was searching for a lost family cemetery (yes, it’s Mel, it’s of course a cemetery he’s looking for) and I did find it. I took a bit of a longer hike around, but started to fret a bit more as I didn’t bring an orange vest or anything identifying me as something other than game waiting to be hunted, so I eventually navigated my way back to the country road.

A fun morning, then I headed back to my hotel to take a quick shower and check out and head back into Raleigh’s downtown. One quick stop, to visit Oakwood Cemetery to see if they’ve managed to repair some of the damage from recent vandalism. I’m sorry, but cemetery vandalism, even for figures you don’t like, is shameful. I don’t care if you want to do that to a statue or a monument somewhere, but NOT A GRAVE. But I’m glad it’s been fixed.

I then headed to lunch at Brewery Bhavana. An odd choice, as originally I wanted to check out their parent restaurant, Bida Manda. The Laotian place gets a lot of buzz, but their limited lunch menu made me go with their sister restaurant instead. This place seems to be some kind of fusion-dimsum-ish place, which worried me but it’s quite popular locally, so…let’s see.

I got there a little early so they asked me to wait and browse their small shop in the meantime. After a little I was seated and I looked over the menu. I was puzzled, but ordered anyway. Soon a nice microbrew arrived, albeit a sour it was refreshing on this increasingly hot day. I kept sipping at it as my first item arrived…

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Not the best shumai I’ve had, to say the least. It was ridiculously bland, and the tobiko is a mismatch with the blandness of the stuffing. And at $12.80 for these 5 pieces it was probably the most expensive shitty shumai I’ve ever had. I was flaberghasted by this, and by the time the next 2 items arrived I had lost any excitement I had for this place…

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The pigs ears were done quite well tho, but again very bland. I had to use a lot of the fish sauce for this, but it was cut (and cooked) well so I’ll give them that.

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But I stared at the turnip cakes that came out…what are they thinking? The texture of this is so odd I can’t describe it. It really tasted like they’re trying to go fusion but got lost. I appreciate using different types of turnip to make this dish, but you need to do the prep right or else it tasted like eating fried mush… Just filling and not in a good way.

Oh I made a mistake coming here. I should have gone to their parent restaurant Bida Manda despite the cut-down lunch menu, or just somewhere else totally. This turned into a stupidly expensive and poor lunch. How are people taken in by this is beyond me…

I didn’t stop shaking my head until I got to the 5th floor of the adjacent parking garage…

Brewery Bhavana
218 South Blount Street
Raleigh, North Carolina

Review: Crawford and Son

9 July 2019

I had a very busy morning running around Richmond, doing all the stuff I deferred from yesterday due to uncertainty about the weather; I wish I had something better than last night’s rather mediocre dinner at Shagbark to keep me going tho… After my Richmond rounds, I headed south on this Tuesday, snaking around the northern parts of North Carolina, making a few stops before I rolled into Raleigh — tonight’s stop.

I indeed did not have time for lunch, so I snacked at what had been the dreadful quality pork sparebibs from Buz and Ned’s in Richmond. Using some hotel room creativity, I basically turned what was horrible pork sparerib meat into edible, jerky-like nibbles that I could eat easily whilst driving. That kept me going until dinner, somewhat…

I was staying a little outside of the centre of Raleigh, but tonight’s dinner destination was downtown, Crawford and Son. This place has a lot of good buzz, and it was not an easy choice as there are so many new interesting places in the entire area since my last visit a few years ago.

I decided to Lyft into town as the rates are relatively cheap, and this afforded me a little more relaxation when it came to drinks. I arrived at Crawford and Son and they were somewhat busy already. I offered to take up a bar seat as they could use the extra 2-top, and I relaxed after squeezing into the bar seat.

I looked over the menu and enjoyed a cocktail, and decided on tonight’s dinner. Hungry (and thirsty) but wasn’t too sure what to do — especially about portion sizes on the dishes. After talking it over with my bartender/server, I made a choice, and decided to do a bottle of grenache blanc as well since my dishes will not crawl into the red meats tonight.

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And I smiled when the first dish arrived, chilled tomato soup. Perfect for a warm day, quite a tasty dish here. I was surprised that they only used some ordinary sweet peppers in this, as there was certainly an unexpected complexity in the soup. Perhaps the grenache blanc was an inspired choice. The very lightly pickled shrimp were a nice addition, alongside the touch of citrus and the excellent radish. A good summer dish!

So far this place has blown last night’s Shagbark away already, which is a good sign. I enjoyed more of my grenache blanc and then the second dish arrived, the braised octopus.

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This is quite a heavy dish to be a starter frankly, and on a hot day. I went with 3 starters for tonight’s dinner, avoiding any large plates — but this turned into a large plate already. The garlic sauce, which weighed down the annoying potato crisps and ham, made this really heavy and perhaps too rich. The octopus is cooked well, but this was really not a summer prep, and I feel full already after this dish. The grenache blanc couldn’t cut through this dish enough…

I felt full already, but I had one more dish coming, and I’m starting to worry because I suspect the last “starter” may be even bigger. And I was right, my pasta “starter” was on the big side…

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And this pappardelle dish looked even richer than the previous. I usually am a huge fan of egg, but this added even more richness that I so wished I had a sharper wine to cut down. Sadly, the poor-textured truffle just soaked up so much of the yolk and turned into a horrible mush — exactly the way I detest truffle. A lot of people may like this dish, but for me, a person who doesn’t like truffles on a good day, on a sunny hot summer day after another heavy dish, just didn’t work.

Sigh…perhaps I just ordered wrong. My bartender/server seemed quite okay with my choices, but this is on me. I should have done the usual appetiser and main, but I thought I was hungry from not having a proper lunch. Oh well… I was just finishing my wine and oddly ordered a dessert…

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I just had to have some of this cream pie with peaches. It was quite good, back to the correct seasonal feel, but I was too full to properly enjoy this. I finished up, had a last tipple or two, thanking the fates I chose not to drive, and then eventually headed out to meet my Lyft to head back to my hotel.

Perhaps I ordered poorly, as the evening turned a bit too heavy for me. The opener was spectacular, perfect for a hot summer day, but then it felt like I was having winter dishes all of a sudden. I’m not gonna fault this kitchen, as the dishes were good, but just heavy. It’s more of me ordering badly.

Overall a friendly place, I can see why people like this place. But for me it just didn’t quite click. Again, probably my own fault for ordering badly…

Crawford and Son
618 North Person Street
Raleigh, North Carolina

Review: Shagbark

8 July 2019

I ended up taking it quite easy for the afternoon here in oddly-sunny Richmond, still puzzled by that fabulous-awful rib experience with Buz and Ned’s… With the weather situation tomorrow looking absolutely clear, I decided to just defer everything to then and just chilled out catching up on emails, also checking in with things back home to make sure my place isn’t flooded, until it was time for dinner.

Since I was staying out in the burbs, I decided to eat out there as well. There’s a new-ish place getting some buzz called Shagbark, and it was not far away, so that was a perfect choice. I headed there and it’s in a new mixed-use development that’s not quite built yet. Not very busy, but I happily sat at the bar.

I looked over the menu and a few things caught my eye, and I ordered. A cocktail in hand, soon my starter arrives…

1-oysters

Ah, a nice dozen local oysters. Virginia oysters are quite good, always underrated as supply is never consistent. The Seaside Salts were quite briny and nice, and I’ve always had a soft spot for the Tangiers as they have a hard-to-describe complexity and density that I really like. The Victory Points worked like a palate cleanser as they are relatively mild. A good start, working well with the boozy libation.

So far so good. Friendly staff but a little slow in getting my drink as my main appeared quite quickly — the monkfish.

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Oh dear, this may have been the most utterly overcooked monkfish I’ve ever had. Imagine a chicken that you’ve accidentally doubled the time in the oven, and this is what we have. The sweet corn and leeks could not save this, nor could the cheesy risotto, as the fish had morphed into some mystery meat that was about as poor in quality as the meat on my pork spareribs from lunch. Sigh…

I finished it barely, and I was pretty much spent — but decided to give dessert a go as the friendly crew talked me into it…

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I ended up with this carrot cake, which sadly was pretty ordinary. The bourbon gelato was okay, a nice substitution from the raisin one (which would have clashed with my libation), but the carrot cake should have stood out far more. I had somewhat high hopes. Sigh.

I finished up and thanked the staff and headed out. I’m a bit disappointed as only the oysters were good. The kitchen didn’t perform very well, and there is no way they can justify the price with such weak plates as I looked at my surprisingly high tab. Perhaps good for a drink, but I wouldn’t really recommend this place for food. Not sure if it was the Monday disease striking with the kitchen, but it was certainly nowhere as good as a handful of other places in Richmond.

Shagbark
4901 Libbie Mill East Boulevard #175
Richmond, Virginia

Review: Buz and Ned’s Real Barbecue

8 July 2019

Just before I left for my previous Europe trip, I had re-exacerbated the neck injury that had evolved from the car crash I was involved in last summer. After I got home, I came to the difficult realisation that unless there is some major improvement, my days of long-haul travel may be over. Sensing that already, I had not planned any travels this entire summer. However, I also knew that keeping myself mobile is the best way to help alleviate the issues with my neck and other ailments, so I decided to take a short roadtrip south.

I decided to take a few days to head south towards Wilmington, North Carolina — making overnight stops towards there and back. I plotted a lot of stops en route as well, but the more I get the heck out of my car the better it is for me. So as I had a few stops to make in the Richmond area, that would be a naturally good place to make my first stop.

And of course Mother Nature had other issues. I woke up early that Monday morning to see absolutely horrific weather in the area, and by mid-morning much of the DC-area was flooded. Some of the flash flooding was quite ugly, and I was heartbroken to see my former butcher (when I still lived at the Arlington-Falls Church border) completely devastated by the flash flooding

I kept an eye on the radar and tried to figure out when to head south, making sure all the roads from my building to the highway was clear; a few blocks away it wasn’t, as water rose by 9 feet (?!) in a very short time and part of my busy street was closed. I decided to go for it, taking a little loop to eventually get to I-95 southbound.

Fought through some traffic but the weather co-operated. Turns out also the storm had shifted a bit eastward, so the path down was actually quite clear. I arrived at a sunny Richmond a bit shell-shocked, as I had cancelled some of my plans because of the forecasted ugly weather.

Oh well. I decided to just grab some barbeque for lunch and take it easy. I headed to Buz and Ned’s, one of the most popular BBQ places in town, opting for the suburban location as it is near my hotel. I usually go to Alamo BBQ in town, but alas today is a Monday and they are closed.

I enjoyed a nice IPA as I waited for my food then I headed to my hotel nearby. And at first, I opened up the beef ribs…

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Oh these were fabulous. Not as big as they can get, but the flavour is about perfect — even if it’s a little heavy on the sauce. It worked really well. A great balance, not easy with beef ribs. I ate a piece and saved the rest for later as I then opened up the pork spareribs…

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Yikes, talk about 180-degrees different. These were just awful, like they were microwaved or — worse — boiled. There was absolutely NO FLAVOUR in the meat, it was all sauce-dependent. And the texture was dreadful… How can they make such amazing beef ribs and completely screw up the pork? This is shockingly bad. In fact, I ended up abandoning a good part of the pork and finished all the beef ribs intead.

All I could do was to strip the pork from the bone and prep them as something I can use as a snack tomorrow as I drive further south. I have a busy day tomorrow and may not have time for lunch, so these can end up being tomorrow’s somewhat questionable lunch…

I’m still puzzled on how a place can have such different quality outcomes on 2 types of ribs. I’ve rarely had beef ribs so good, but I’ve never had pork spareribs so bad. Wow… At least now I know what to get next time!

Buz and Ned’s Real Barbecue
West Broad Street
Richmond, Virginia

Review #3: Bocca di Lupo

20 June 2019

My last full day in London, and I get up with my neck in pain… Two weeks before I started this trip I woke up with my neck in terrible pain, and when I got on the plane from New York my neck still had issues turning to the right. It seems sleeping in this crappy crash-pad-like “hotel” has cost me more than I thought I was saving…

Throw in some major bus diversions due to construction that forced me to make a major detour just to get to Hampstead in the morning, today is turning into a cluster. Then an argument at Spink, the world-famous auction house, for them botching my collectibles in now 2 separate auctions…and they LOST some consigned items for goodness sakes! What a cluster of a morning…

Luckily I had a good lunch at Noble Rot with a good friend, so that made today a far better day… But I had to rush back to my hotel to deal with some logistics as I was headed back to North America tomorrow. I had been fighting to change my flight to an earlier one, so I can deal with the stolen phone mess at a proper AT&T location, but no help from Virgin Atlantic despite my two decades of loyalty (and a much-coveted Lifetime Gold Flying Club membership). This whole trip…

Anyway, I then headed out to another early dinner in Soho before the last of the King Crimson gigs at the Royal Albert Hall. Tonight’s stop is somewhere I’ve been to many times, Bocca di Lupo. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this place… The food always brings me back, though other issues — from overcrowding to odd service — always makes me think twice.

And it didn’t start well. I had a booking at 5pm, when they supposedly open. Yet they made us wait outside in the rain while their own staff meeting ran late. And it didn’t help when the FoH wine meeting kept going after 5pm, and the BoH crew were outside smoking… This all left a bad taste in my mouth before the meal even began.

Finally they start letting people in, and of course they put me in the middle of nowhere on the counter. And of course they were slow to take orders. They have such a strict “you need to leave after a certain amount of time” policy and they can’t seem to get things going, it’s ridiculous. I finally got a drink and put in a food order.

I sipped at a so-so Negroni until my food started to arrive…

1-calamari

Well, the grilled calamari had absolutely no flavour. Usually chefs that just ended a cigarette break over-season their creations, but it’s the other way around here. Sigh…

2-fennel sausage

The fennel sausage was pretty lame, yet very, very oversalted. Could they have shifted some of the salt here to the calamari. But little did I know it would be the best thing all night…

3-trippa

And this plate of trippa was crying for help. Bland, poor selection. After all the good tripe I had in Italy over the years, including recently, this is just pathetic. I’ve never had such poor food here before, never such weak tripe here before. What is happening? Sigh…

I was still hungry, and then a collective sigh went around the now-very-busy counter…the Tory leadership results came in. Everyone started to order stiff drinks, so I order another wine and a little more food, but time was starting to creep up on me. Surprisingly it appeared very quickly…thanks to the server that took over my area who is a rare wonder amongst the FoH staff here…

4-fried sage leaves with anchovy

Well, it was lame, this fried sage leaves with anchovy. It was anchovy-lite and battery-heavy. Sigh… This is by far the worst food night I’ve had here. I’ve had enough. I ordered a dessert and coffee and grappa to close the evening off…

5-cannolo

And this cannolo, well, meh. Really, come on. This place used to be so special, with so many amazing dishes each and every time. It’s like it’s getting tired and the cooks don’t care — like so much of the FoH. I’m glad the server that took over my station was quite excellent, so she saved the day. But the food ruined it…the usual opposite situ in this place where my love-hate relationship has dipped very far into the latter after this crappy evening…

I headed out very disappointed, knowing that this, my 10th or more visit here since the first few weeks they opened, would be my last. This was about a step above Olive Garden frankly, and yes, I know that’s a grave insult. But come on, we all know this place can do better, but it’s not. And the attitude too. Too symptomatic of London dining these days. I’m glad I’m done…

Now off to the show…

Bocca di Lupo
12 Archer Street
London, England

* Well, it turned out to be my last meal in London, as the next day before my flight I was running around finishing last-minute things before Heathrow, only to be slowed by a trainee security screener that dinged everyone in the queue, causing a massive back-up that likely caused a few people to miss their flights. I had half an awful burger in the lounge and had to run to the flight. I didn’t eat again until I got to my hotel in Newark, having been stuck at immigration because only 2 immigration workers were there on a Friday night where they were processing hundreds and hundreds. And yes, I didn’t manage to get to an AT&T store in time. I somehow got home that next evening smoothly after a surprisingly good day, managing to visit West Point for the first time in 30 years and a few other places before I hopped on a train south for home… The hellish trip is OVER.