I loved treasure hunts as a child. It wasn't even reaching the final treasure that was the thrill, it was savoring each step of the way. There was excitement in searching out each clue, trying to uncover its obscured meaning—could "where the hot air blows" mean I should look in a high tree branch, or by the air compressor, or at my blowhard neighbor's front door? And once I found that clue, where would I find the next, and the next, and the next? Not knowing where I was going was half the fun. With each clue, I was rewarded, and then sent on my way to search anew.
This column marks the first in a new series, Food Chain. To find the best meals in the Triangle, we're going to the most seasoned navigators possible—the chefs themselves—and asking, "Where do you like to go out to eat on your night off?" We'll hop from meal to meal to uncover the best dishes in the Triangle, and not necessarily the most expensive. Every third week of the month you'll find a new installment, a new clue for your restaurant treasure trove.
For our first installment, I start in my backyard, at my old stand-by: WARAJI. I've been going there for years, through multiple jobs, two pregnancies, friendships good and bad, with tatami-table-for-10 and by myself at the bar ... and the food and service are always fantastic. I'd eat there twice a week if I won the lottery. The chefs know their stuff.
Sushi bars are a haven for the food-obsessed. And Japanese chefs are notoriously serious about their work: sharp knives, crisp movements, pristine ingredients and traditional techniques. The fish laid out in their cold case like so many jewels. It's theater-in-the-round: You get speed, drama and the occasional insight into the main characters, who work right in front of you. Most importantly, for my needs, it's not that hard to strike up a conversation.
As easy as a $55 sashimi bill, I have my first clue: Two of the three Waraji chefs, asked out of earshot of each other, swear by FINS as the home of the best meal in the Triangle. (The third, the youngest, prefers Wendy's: Is it the tang of the chili that so lures him, I wonder, or perhaps the zing of the Frosty? It's the late-night menu, he answers—he's the most junior chef and works all the time.)
But Fins. At Fins, says longtime Waraji chef Masatoshi Tsujimura, absolutely try Chef William D'Auvray's prix fixe tasting menu. "I've known William 12 years. Very fresh fish. It's not a cheap place to eat, but worth it. Have him make a course for you, with wine pairing." Fins requires 48 hours notice for a tasting menu, but that is the beauty of it: a meal prepared just for you, with the best ingredients of the day, and at the total discretion of the chef (barring food allergies, of course).
It's no wonder the Waraji chefs love Fins: The tasting menu is essentially an omakase; Japanese dictionaries define it as, variously, "to entrust," "to protect" and, colloquially, "I'll leave it to you." I define it as "blissful free fall," for it's rather like getting on a plane for the first time. You show up, check in at the front desk, then take your assigned seat and hope for the best. Leave your worries behind.
Tonight my pilot is chef D'Auvray. I've geared up as if for a major religious holiday or athletic event—fasted for eight hours, taken a lengthy shower, dressed comfortably in neutral colors. I learn the tasting menu is typically five to seven courses. (We end up with 10, and close down the place at midnight.) The menu hops like a puddle-jumper from Japan to Thailand and back again, with the occasional holiday in France. It's extraordinary, and I'm not afraid. The belly of a tuna melts on my tongue; then, before I know it, I'm gobbling raw fluke in lime juice and sucking down cuttlefish. I've never had scallops this buttery, or foie gras this savory. Wagyu beef, chevre, crème brulee, sorbet. It truly is an athletic event, and like the Super Bowl, it must be experienced at least once in your life.
Nine years ago William and Lisa D'Auvray opened Fins in an unlikely strip mall in North Raleigh and built a loyal following for his French and Asian-influenced seafood dishes (some raw, most cooked; it is fine dining, though, not a sushi joint). For ease of description, others have called him a master of fusion, but he thinks of himself as simply a product of his upbringing: childhood years in the Philippines, California, New York, North Carolina; apprenticeships in Los Angeles under Michel Richard (now of Citronelle) for French pastry and at La Petite Chaya (where he was often the only American in an all-Japanese kitchen); and working with the classically trained staff of the Ritz-Carlton's Jockey Club in Washington, D.C. Then, locally, he opened the Columns, Café Giorgios and Parizade, and East-West Bistro in Greensboro before he and Lisa founded Fins.
D'Auvray once told the writer Maudy Benz, "Fusion can definitely mean confusion." At Fins, the fusion is not within each dish, it's within the menu—Thai next to French next to Japanese next to Filipino; the offerings are as international as a line at Heathrow. "There's fusion of technique and there's fusion of ingredients," explains D'Auvray. "The end result on the plate can come together ... [or] can get lost in this quagmire. Too many ingredients." D'Auvray tries to stay true to each dish's culinary heritage. "If I do a Japanese dish, it's wonderful if you just stick to what it originally was supposed to be. I don't need to add another Western influence. I don't need wasabi in my mashed potatoes."
D'Auvray has made connections all over the world with small, specialized farmers, ranchers and fisheries. "Eighty percent of my ingredients I get flown in. It's a lot of work initially, but the end result is I can afford to serve some of the things you wouldn't normally see on a lot of menus." He's very particular about his ingredients, even flying up peas from an organic farm in Florida that he visits now and then. "I deal directly with [a Texas] ranch for my beef—people call it Kobe beef. It's not Kobe beef, it's Wagyu beef. It's not accurate because it's not from Kobe. This guy actually brought the cattle over from Japan—20 head, 30 years ago." And he's particular about his terminology: "Truth in menus, that's my biggest pet peeve. Someone says wild mushrooms and it comes out and I see some portobellos and some shiitakes—these are not wild mushrooms, they're all cultivated. People don't know that."
A second Fins will be opening this spring at Two Progress Plaza at the corner of Davie and Wilmington streets in downtown Raleigh. Lisa D'Auvray likes to call them Fins/South and Fins/North, but they may change the North Raleigh location to something like Fins Japanese. (Fins Dorsal, maybe?) Fins/North will have to adapt when its younger sibling arrives: "We'll make it more approachable, lower the price point, change the focus a little bit on the food, more geared toward Japanese." (But it might be harder to get D'Auvray's personal attention for that tasting menu: Go now!)
The downtown spot will seat 275, three times that of the current restaurant, and boast a much larger bar. D'Auvray has put a lot of investment in the kitchen: "I don't want any limitations."
But that's next spring. Now it's the fall and time to hunt down another fantastic meal. Time for clue No. 2. What's William D'Auvray's favorite meal in the Triangle? He's got to narrow it down. When he's tired of cooking for himself, "It's right back at 'em: Waraji!" And he loves the burger at the RALEIGH TIMES BAR. ("Only place I've ever eaten a hamburger where it comes out the way I ordered it.") But then it hits him. "If I could afford the calories, I'd probably go a lot more often to...."