By Greg Cox
Original review published: 4/8/2008
Among the items on the chalkboard menu at Poole’s Downtown Diner the night it opened in December were calf’s liver with rosemary pan gravy, Russian tea-brined pork belly, venison meatloaf, and duck hearts with sherry and bacon.
That’s right, duck hearts. And while the board also listed plenty of familiar alternatives everything from fried flounder to burgers to mac and cheese it was clear that owner/chef Ashley Christensen’s seasonally evolving menu would not aim for the least common denominator of tastes. That comes as no surprise to those familiar with Christensen’s work at Enoteca Vin, where the gifted young chef’s uncompromising approach to food has earned national praise (and where she is still involved as consulting executive chef).
At Poole‘s, Christensen’s eclectic tastes and her passion for sourcing the very best ingredients are as abundantly evident as ever. So is her instinct for treating those ingredients with a respect bordering on reverence, never allowing her considerable cooking skills to upstage the ingredients themselves. She makes corned beef hash using all natural Prime beef, for instance, then tops it simply with a poached egg. Nothing less than Prime will do, either, for a 10-ounce burger fried in duck fat and topped with Jarlsberg cheese and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms.
In one recent appetizer offering, the chef tempered the oily richness of steelhead trout by brining it in tea and gently smoking it, then punctuating it with finely chopped Moroccan olives and lemon zest. In another, a blackberry-honey reduction proved an inspired foil for an unctuous rillette of duck confit and a pate of chicken, duck and guinea hen. Crunchy Niman Ranch bacon and hard-boiled egg topped a salad of impeccable locally grown Bibb lettuce leaves, lightly dressed in a Banyuls vinaigrette. Frog legs in a crisp, translucent batter were so good that even the most squeamish companion at my table of four was won over.
A similarly delicate batter encrusted flounder fillets in an entree presentation, and a “slaw” of julienne tomatoes provided sunny, sweet-tart contrast. Another fresh fish offering paired the sweet flesh of pan-roasted striped bass with the ethereally earthy perfume of a black trumpet mushroom vinaigrette.
In part because Christensen is partial to obscure and underappreciated ingredients, she can offer one of the most exciting menus around at diner-like prices, with entrees typically ranging from $12 to $14. Those prices don’t include sides or even bread. But given the fact that the bread is superb and it’s served with house-churned butter, and that side dishes ranging from buttermilk-fried tomatoes to Yukon gold potatoes roasted in duck fat are prepared with the same perfectionist attitude as everything else, you’d be crazy not to spring for a couple.
The vintage chrome barstools and double horseshoe counter that give the dining room its distinctive retro look have been retained in the same spirit. The most significant additions to the decor are the blackboard menus spanning two walls. Poole‘s offers no paper menus, in fact. “That was a green decision,” says Christensen, an effort to reduce the paper that would otherwise be spent on a nightly changing menu. The decision is a laudable one, though some might object to having to walk across the room and stand over an occupied table to read the rather lengthy menu or to being seated at the table under the menu.
Still, the paperless approach certainly hasn’t kept Poole’s from quickly catching on. Reservations aren’t accepted, so it’s a good idea to arrive early or late. And be prepared to wait, because the kitchen staff of three (including Christensen) can get overwhelmed. Our party didn’t get appetizers until 50 minutes after ordering them one night, and I’ve heard similar reports from others. On the other hand, with the exception of wilted greens that were oversalted that night and a poached egg that was slightly overcooked on another occasion, I couldn’t fault the kitchen’s execution. In short, if you’re as passionate about food as Ashley Christensen is, I’m betting you’ll find the food is worth the wait.
Poole’s Downtown Diner
426 S. McDowell St., Raleigh
Cuisine: American bistro
Prices: Entrees $11 to $16
Atmosphere: retro diner
Service: friendly and generally attentive, but can get overwhelmed
Recommended: follow your whim
Open: Dinner Wednesday–Saturday, brunch Saturday
Reservations: not accepted
Other: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover; full bar; smoke free; get a sitter.