Stepping into Plates in Raleigh's Glenwood South neighborhood is like entering an interior design mag's spread on European farmhouses. The bar is roughhewn. Plates of varying age and value are arranged on one wall. A large rack of wine covers another wall with a smattering of British flag decorations mixed among the bottles.
The look is stylish, put together, cool. Your dining experience, though, will be a warm one. Owner Steve Day is a primary reason. I've visited several times, and he has always been there, greeting people at the door, walking the floor to check on diners, helping servers ferry food.
Day's approach filters through to the rest of the staff. A server greeted me with "welcome back" on a return visit. Whether waiting tables or tending bar, all were enthusiastic and chatty about the menu.
Of course, it doesn't matter how nice they are if the food doesn't measure up. No worries there. The staff could be gruffer than boot camp drill instructors and I would still come back. Promising "globally inspired, locally produced" fare, Plates delivers.
The kitchen has a nice touch with grilled seafood. Grouper and mahi (in a champagne ginger jus) were both flaky, moist, delicately seasoned to allow its flavor to stand out. Perfectly cooked, they avoided the pitfalls of too short or too long a time on the grill. Both come atop an assortment of seasonal vegetables.
That precise touch is also evident with the steak tartare appetizer, based on the enthusiastic endorsement it received at a neighboring table. The dish incorporates a truffle emulsion, ginger and sesame. The gentleman who ordered raved and kept proffering bites to his companions.
There is some overlap between the dinner and lunch menus but daytime offerings also include sandwiches. The fried catfish po'boy with cornmeal breading, lettuce and tomato was worthy of a lakeside joint I frequented as a kid in Alabama. Blackened jalapeño mayo added a piquant layer of flavor. I have my eye on the roast pork Banh Mi sandwich for my next lunch visit. It features pickled carrots, cucumber, spicy mayo and cilantro; the menu bills it as "Vietnam meets North Carolina."
Leave room for dessert. Options include warm homemade carrot cake and vanilla crème brulee, but your choice should come down to the chocolate stout brownie or the sticky toffee pudding. Dense and rich, the brownie is composed of Young's Double Chocolate Stout, house-made vanilla ice cream, Irish cream caramel and toasted almonds. One bite feels like four. If you're unsure about ordering dessert, it will be too much for you, but if you have the room you will savor every bit of it. A moist date cake smothered in toffee sauce and whipped cream, the Sticky Toffee Pudding is much lighter but equally enjoyable.
Plates uses locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. Obviously such a policy makes freshness a given but it comes at a cost. My favorite menu item may not be there much longer. On one visit, the soup of the day was sweet potato coconut. The sweet potato announces itself with the first few sips of the smooth liquid. As you continue, the coconut makes its presence known. By the end of the bowl—and believe me I spooned my way to the end of the bowl—the two flavors are entwined in a perfect blend that makes your mouth happy.
Soups rarely impress me. This one did. When my server asked if she could get me anything, I jokingly suggested a vat of the soup to take home would be nice, fantasizing about rolling a keg of it to my car so I could have it on tap. Later, Day checked on my meal and said he'd heard I was a fan of the soup. As I finished my dessert, a server brought me a wrapped Styrofoam container and said "Compliments of the chef."
It was the soup.
I had it for breakfast, and Plates had a new fan.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Clean your plates and bowls."