On Raleigh's Glenwood South, where pricey cocktails and loud music reign, Café Helios (413 Glenwood Ave., 838-5177, cafehelios.com) has quietly unveiled a beautiful new menu.
Chef Rob Bland, formerly of Coquette, the North Hills French brasserie, brings handmade charcuterie, seared prawns and braised pork to a menu formerly laden with store-bought hummus and spruced up cold-cut sandwiches. The barista bar has become an open kitchen, where Bland whips up the delicacies of Southern Spain and the North African coast.
Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Bland spent an extensive amount of time working at restaurants in Seville, Spain. Here, he incorporates his fondness for those pure, yet hearty flavors into comforting small plates and sandwich platters. I tasted one small bowl of merguez sausage and chickpeas, and I was hooked. The handmade lamb sausage, infused with a touch of honey, complements the hint of spice in chickpeas, brined piquillo pepper, roasted eggplant and caramelized shallot. Another small bowl of braised escarole with sweet golden raisins and pine nuts had me stuffed. Depending on the size, these a la carte items range from $4 to $8.
Sandwich options include braised pork shoulder, shrimp and crab remoulade and the "new turkey sandwich": Whole turkeys are slow-roasted in-house, then the pulled meat is drizzled with pan juices before the chef adds avocado, tomato confit, arugula and comte cheese. The filling is served between Neomonde bread, with a salad or chips for $7.50.
Joining his locally minded Glenwood South neighbors Globe Restaurant, Tasca Brava and Zely & Ritz, Helios sources most of the ingredients from the area. In fact, Bland says about 40 percent of the café's herbs, vegetables and fruit come from the Helios garden just behind the store on the corner of Boylan Avenue and West North Street. The tomatoes began fruiting last week, as salad greens panned out over carrot sprouts. A patch of red and fuchsia sparkle in the second bed; home baker Kim Hammer of bittycakes bakes the strawberries and raspberries into her cupcakes and scones and whips lavender into her buttercream frosting and biscotti. Her baked goods, a staple at Helios since last year, now sit illuminated in a custom-made display case by the front entrance.
Counter Culture coffee still highlights the drink menu, now also boasting an impressive selection of wine, spirits and inventive cocktails (try the rhubarb daquiri; the rhubarb syrup is homemade).
As a companion to its rotating gallery for the Raleigh First Friday Art Walk, Helios hosts a cookout on the patio with a new menu each month. Grab a meal for $3 to $6 before hopping back on your bike.
In Durham, find casual, no-frills fare at the new Blue Note Grill (4125 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., 401-1979, thebluenotegrill.com), serving homemade comfort food and daily blue plate specials. Appetizers include fried pickles, banana peppers and plantains, and plates include BLT quesadillas, patty melts and pork chop sandwiches.