A meal at Raleigh’s Second Empire is itself a special occasion
By Greg Cox
Review originally published 3/18/2016
From time to time, I take a break from checking out new restaurants, and pay return visits to ones I haven’t reviewed in a while. This time around, I go for seconds at a couple of venerable local landmarks that make their elegant homes in restored mansions.
Note: In December 2007, ratings changed from a 4-star scale to a 5-star scale.
Book a table at Second Empire, and you’ll invariably get this question from the reservationist: “Are you celebrating a special occasion?”
More often than not, I’m guessing, the answer to that question is “yes.” Second Empire is, after all, the quintessential special occasion restaurant. Located just three blocks from the state capitol in the historic Dodd-Hinsdale house, it’s also a prime spot for entertaining clients and impressing out-of-town visitors. The imposing Victorian mansion promises tradition and opulence and delivers on that promise indoors, greeting you with a hand-carved walnut staircase flanked by dining rooms whose wainscoted walls are hung with oil paintings and ornate gilt-framed mirrors. Table linens are crisp and white, and with owner/manager Kim Reynolds setting the standard for gracious hospitality, waiters dressed in vest and tie provide service that is formal but not stodgy.
Executive chef Daniel Schurr clearly likes the place. Schurr left his post as chef at the Angus Barn Wine Cellar nearly two decades ago to become the opening chef at Second Empire, and he’s been here ever since. It’s hard to imagine a better match for the setting than the chef’s seasonally changing menu, which showcases prime quality ingredients in inventive presentations that are rooted in classic technique (Schurr graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America) and as ornate as the building’s Victorian woodwork.
A recent visit confirms that the chef hasn’t lost his touch. Setting the tone is a caramelized butternut squash and roasted duck leg tart, encased in a square of crisp phyllo, crowned with a cloud of tender local greens and set on a plate bespattered with the jewel tones of tiny diced fruit, hazelnuts and infused oils.
In another first-course offering, the chef puts a fresh spin on an old-school favorite, pairing sautÈed veal sweetbreads with port wine-braised red cabbage, celery root puree and a crisp wedge of rˆsti potato, set in a puddle of caper- and thyme-spangled veal jus.
Schurr is adept at dancing right up to the line that separates a gratifyingly complex dish and one that’s overwrought, but occasionally he crosses it. In an entree offering of citrus and rosemary grilled swordfish, the fish is irreproachably fresh and expertly cooked. But if a fish can drown, this one does in a torrent of ingredients that – well, let’s just let the menu speak for itself: “ditalini pasta & black-eyed pea ragout, ham hock, wilted spinach, rutabaga puree, spaghetti squash, apricot & curry jus.”
Grilled Australian rack of lamb, on the other hand, nails it with a list of ingredients that’s just as long but more harmonious: “pappardelle pasta & chickpeas, roasted red onion, cauliflower puree, roasted baby carrots, smoked collards, roasted garlic rosemary jus.”
Our server’s raves notwithstanding, key lime pie turns out to be just okay. But chocolate soufflÈ, which she assures us needn’t be ordered in advance thanks to some “kitchen magic,” is first-rate.
A full bar and one of the area’s premier wine cellars round out the list of reasons why Second Empire is a perennial favorite for celebratory meals. It’s not the sort of place most of us can frequent on a regular basis, of course, given a dinner tab that can easily top $100 per person (the downstairs Tavern offers a less expensive alternative in a more casual setting). But it’s unequivocally worth the occasional splurge. Even if you aren’t celebrating a milestone event, you’ll no doubt discover that a meal at Second Empire is itself a special occasion.
330 Hillsborough St., Raleigh
Last review: (2001) 1/2