"To want to own a restaurant can be a strange and terrible affliction," Anthony Bourdain wrote. "What causes such a destructive urge in so many otherwise sensible people?"
Even more mystifying: those who want to own multiple restaurants. In the Triangle, the afflicted are plentiful. Since opening Poole's, Ashley Christensen has added five ventures, with more to come. Andrea Reusing of Lantern now runs the multiple levels of The Durham Hotel. Gray Brooks will expand far beyond Pizzeria Toro this year.
One group you may hear less about, though, is JMR Kitchens, the partnership of brothers Ryan and Justin Riek. In four years, they've already opened three Raleigh restaurants—Taste, The Oak, and, most recently, more.
Local restaurant groups tend to stem from two sources: a chef or an entrepreneur. With the former, it's easy to connect the dots; cooks usually specialize in a certain cuisine, whether Mexican or molecular gastronomy. With entrepreneurs, it gets complicated. Are the similarities culinary or conceptual? Are there similarities? Or are the restaurants separate fruits sold by the same vendor?
After more. opened in November, I couldn't help but wonder if there was a trail of breadcrumbs among JMR's restaurants. If so, what does it taste like? Where does it lead?
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A morsel-meets-wine concept that opened in February 2012, Taste is the oldest of the JMR children. If you're wondering what a "morsel" is, I must admit that my first thought was chocolate chips. Alas, it's a small plate.
The menu contains a dozen or so items and daily features. There are a few global nods (to Mexico, with a roasted vegetable empanada and "deconstructed" tamale), but the selection is mostly Southern-slanted American—chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, pork belly jalapeño poppers. My server recommended two to three dishes per person.
If Taste is busy when you visit, and it probably will be, you must crane past the L-shaped bar to see the chalkboard-scribbled specials. Do crane: on my trip, the "veg" special featured fresh pasta in a garlicky, wine-tipsy cream. The fettuccine was pristine, bathed in sauce and decorated with chili oil polka-dots. If this is what it means to eat your vegetables at Taste, consider me a regular.
The other standout, the cheesecake, arrived last. I only ordered it because the brownie with bourbon whipped cream was gone. Let's call it fate, then; had I left a single bite on my plate, I would have invited it back to my place.
The other dishes would have earned only a "Call me?" The "tamale" was cleverly reinterpreted as a grain bowl: polenta, topped with a hearty portion of cumin-rubbed, slow-roasted pork, salsa, and, as though the queso fresco had run out, feta. If you're not one for spice, order the other polenta bowl: shrimp and "grits," where the polenta is wooed with goat cheese and drowned in pork belly gravy.
As for the wines, the list is well composed, with bottles ranging from twenty-three dollars to sixty-nine. Or you can order from the owner's selection and drop $275 on a 2008 Luigi Bosca Icono.
When I visited, Taste was packed like an anchovies tin, with a forty-something-heavy crowd dressed up less for Taste and more for themselves. A couple leaned in close. A table of women wore plastic tiaras. A man left with a smile on his face and gift in his hand. When I paid the check, the bar was bedecked with half-full glasses—red and white, shimmering like Christmas ornaments.
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If Taste is Prince William—pretty, preppy, good with the parents—The Oak, JMR's 2014 sapling, is Prince Harry, a man's man who doesn't care if he's king of the restaurant group or not.
The Oak's concept is twofold, too—food and, in this case, bourbon. The restaurant offers an "adopt-a-barrel" program, which seems extravagant and expensive, and a house selection of whiskey and bourbon, re-aged in American white oak barrels. They thrive in an Old Fashioned, which you can customize with an infinite array of bitters—rhubarb, celery, plum, black walnut, orange, chocolate, lavender, lemon, mint, and, well, I lost track.
I visited the night of the Pro Bowl, the NFL's all-star game. Even the few people watching—one bachelor, three college-age kids—didn't seem invested. The bartender knew the former's order (an Old Fashioned, natch) and made sure to check in with the latter about taxis.
Divided into bar bites, dinner plates, and sides, The Oak's menu is a metaphorical fondue pot—gooey cheeses from all over the globe, with just enough Velveeta to remind you it's American. You could go Mexican with short rib tacos, Italian with angel hair and pesto, all-encompassing Asian with sesame ahi tuna, "Asian vegetables," and wasabi aioli. Or you could be jingoistic, a feeling that dominates the menu like Guy Fieri or Chili's or Guy Fieri eating at Chili's—pretzel-bun chicken sliders, bacon-jalapeño tater tots, loaded pork belly fries. Taste is a reminder that Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is in its twenty-second season.
Still, the blackened mahi-mahi tacos could make a food truck famous. With pickled cabbage, pico de gallo, and tequila-lime aioli, they nestle inside crispy shells. And those tots should be screened for steroids; with their chipotle sour cream, they're perfect.
The spicy bourbon BBQ chicken lettuce wraps with pineapple relish and cashews (whew!) were as busy as they sound, and the romaine seemed to have been battered by the cooler's other produce. The braised pork shoulder with "southern-style" (read: box-style) mac and cheese, fried Brussels sprouts, and BBQ "drizzle" (read: grease) relied more on gluttony than execution.
The brownie, not available at Taste, reappeared at The Oak. It was no cheesecake, and I left wanting, well, more.
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More small plates, more wine, more homemade pasta: as I headed toward JMR's most recent restaurant, I wanted it all. The concept oozes with similarities to Taste, as if the Rieks reflected on their first venture, and thought, "What would we do differently?" Italian-inspired rather than vaguely global, the menu is sharper, as is the décor. Given its youth, more's service is impressively refined and erudite. Coats are taken at the door. Wines are recommended thoughtfully, explained vividly. Our server spoke like a sommelier.
I had trouble ordering, in a good way. I will have to return for the lamb, pork, and veal meatballs; the fried duck and Fontana biscuit; the N.C. shrimp with olives, capers, and tomato.
My scallops, with parsnip puree and fried sage, were seared stunningly, with a caramelized crust and a creamy center that evoked a pearl, an oyster, an ocean. They were supposed to come with "roasted grapes," though that turned out to be roasted grape. The risotto fries—essentially arancini, or breaded, deep-fried risotto balls—with pork ragout (or, if you like, mushroom) are essential. There were three per order, but I could have eaten thirty.
Skip the Caesar salad and get the one with roasted vegetables, where parsnips and sweet potatoes are dressed in a caper salsa verde and bejeweled with goat cheese. The short rib osso buco anchors mahogany-hued beef to marrow polenta; it's topped with sunny gremolata and framed by transparent tomato skins, perched like little stained-glass windows. If this were a beauty contest, there would be no contest.
Only one dish, the eggplant caponata, missed. I struggled to understand it before giving up, as if it were high school algebra. Traditionally, caponata is sweet from raisins, sour from vinegar, and punched up by anchovies or olives. This was a bland, heavy fritter, accompanied by hummus and too much balsamic.
For dessert, there was that brownie with bourbon whipped cream. This time, it was "liquefied" (uncooked batter?) but, again, not worth getting.
Sweets may not be JMR's specialty, but thoughtful neighborhood eateries are. Aside from the food-and-drink pairings, the small plates, the Southern flares, I noticed something else everywhere: regulars. If restaurant groups crave any one goal across all their endeavors, it's convincing guests to return.
In Raleigh, the Rieks are doing just that.
This article appears in print with the headline "Gluttons & Punishment."