Academy Street Bistro’s new owner and chef, Tom Havrish, is making big changes to the menu, which he sees as an opportunity to spread his culinary wings.
By Greg Cox
Published by 5/4/2017.
CARY When Academy Street Bistro reopened last November after a two-week closure, even regular customers might reasonably have assumed that the owner had just taken a vacation.
At first glance, the place looks unchanged – same upscale casual dining room in muted earth tones, same metallic-weave place mats on tabletops stained a dark shade of mocha, same burnished hardwood floors, same black granite bar. Outside, the same sleek metallic chairs on an umbrella-shaded patio offer a view of Academy Street – which, as a result of a major downtown Cary renovation project, appears considerably more altered than the restaurant.
True, a keen eye might notice a few tweaks in the dining room decor: new artwork in the bar area, fresh flowers on the tables, sound-absorbing curtains. But you’d have to peek inside the kitchen to discover the big change at Academy Street Bistro: its new chef and owner, Tom Havrish.
Havrish is best known locally as the owner/chef of the popular Lugano Ristorante and its affiliated catering business. He retained pretty much everything about his new venture, including its name and entire staff.
But he’s making big changes to the menu, which he sees as an opportunity to break free of the constraints of Lugano’s Italian repertoire and to spread his culinary wings.
You can generally count on those wings keeping you aloft throughout the course of a meal. For the duck confit bruschetta on his inaugural menu, the chef piled succulent shreds of the meat onto grilled bias-cut slices of baguette lined with a thin slice of brie and showered with microgreens in a presentation at once contemporary and playfully retro. In another winning starter, he punctuated pork belly’s stratified layers of crunch and unctuousness with garlic-tomato-bacon jam and a vibrant roasted pepper relish.
Mini crab cakes, panko-crusted spheres riddled with sweet jumbo lump crabmeat, reaffirm the reputation for seafood that Havrish has earned at Lugano. So does an entree of roasted salmon and jumbo shrimp, served over asparagus and tomatoes in a fragrant saffron-orange cream sauce.
If the menu doesn’t always soar to those heights, you can still count on a relatively smooth flight. Certainly, crash landings such as the one I recently experienced – a filet mignon utterly devoid of seasoning and with an herbed panko “crust” so loose you could blow it off with a puff of breath – are rare.
But you might encounter an otherwise fine dish of P.E.I. mussels marred by a few unopened shells and a couple of cracked ones. Or pappardelle a smidge too soft – but not so soft that you don’t eat them – in a delightful riff on a bolognese pairing chorizo and whipped goat cheese.
Complaints about the food usually amount to little more than quibbles, but service is downright spotty. Depending on the luck of the draw, your server might be welcoming and attentive, or – well, neither. And call me spoiled, but the $5 martini special on Tuesdays – loaded with ice shards from vigorous shaking and with no garnish whatsoever – doesn’t inspire me to try one of their $12 house cocktails.
Given Havrish’s track record (he’s logged more than 25 years in the business), no doubt he’ll soon have the wrinkles ironed out. It’s certainly a safe bet that the kitchen will be maintaining a more consistently high altitude as he settles into the cockpit of his new restaurant.
The chef already has filed a new flight plan. For his new spring menu, he’s adding a charcuterie board of local meats and cheeses to the starter selection and celebrating the local harvest with a spinach and strawberry salad with candied nuts and a sherry vinaigrette. And if you thought duck confit bruschetta was rich, brace yourself for foie gras crostini.
The entree list is getting a more extensive makeover. The salmon dish is making way for N.C. flounder with cauliflower puree and citrus salsa, and the filet is being replaced by a balsamic-marinated Saratoga rib-eye. The popular beef short ribs are getting a seasonal tweak and now will be served with a spring pea puree and crispy fingerling potatoes.
And if you’re pining over the duck confit that flew the coop, then you’ll surely find consolation in a bowl of charred spring onion risotto topped with seared skin-on duck breast.
Turns out there’s plenty of change going on at Academy Street Bistro after all.
Academy Street Bistro
200 S. Academy St., Cary
Atmosphere: upscale casual in muted earth tones
Noise level: low to moderate
Recommended:mini crab cakes, pork belly, seafood entree, short rib
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Sunday.
Other:full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.