Can the Reopened Standard Foods Thrive Without Its Star Chef? | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Can the Reopened Standard Foods Thrive Without Its Star Chef? 

Sommelier Tristan Pennell, executive chef Eric Montagne, and chef de cuisine Will Cisa take a break after a dinner shift.

Photo by Ben McKeown

Sommelier Tristan Pennell, executive chef Eric Montagne, and chef de cuisine Will Cisa take a break after a dinner shift.

I haven't been to Standard Foods in almost a year. Since, that is, the first time I reviewed it. But let's catch up before we eat.

The restaurant opened in September 2015 after much hype and many delays. Five months, one James Beard nomination, and many corned beef tongue sandwiches later, its starry chef, Scott Crawford, announced he was jumping ship—and Standard Foods started to sink, fast. In June, it closed "for at least six weeks" to regroup. But as the summer came and went, it looked unlikely that the restaurant would ever reopen. And then, in October, it did.

So if you can take Crawford out of Standard Foods, what does he take with him? (Presumably, you can't take him out of his new restaurant, Crawford and Son, a mere three-minute walk from Standard Foods. But, we'll see.) Unsurprisingly, he snagged some kitchen crew—chef de cuisine Bret Edlund and pastry chef Krystle Swenson—and, unsubtly, some menu items: apple soup with brown butter, rosemary, and peanuts. And all that hype.

What he couldn't take with him was the concept. This restaurant-meets-grocery store-meets-butcher counter—an upscale interpretation of a neighborhood corner store—is grand, innovative, and, most of all, collaborative. Imagine, for instance, that corned beef tongue. The farmer raising cows, the butcher brining beef, the baker benching bread, the line cook assembling sandwiches, you taking a bite.

In retrospect, I can only wonder: Was the original Standard Foods really about the farmers and producers and butchers and bakers and cooks and you and me, as it claimed? Or was it about Crawford and Crawford and Crawford? Was that the iceberg that sunk the ship?

We'll never know, of course. The ready-for-press story bobs above water, while the rest of the cold, hard truth hides deep below. And I hate diving. There are other questions I'd rather swim after instead. First and foremost: Now that Standard Foods is finally back, is it better?

Enter the restaurant's new chef, Eric Montagne. Less fanfare, ample promise. Raised in North Carolina, Montagne notably served as executive chef at Boiler Room Oyster Bar in Kinston, the second venture from Vivian Howard, famous for her PBS show, A Chef's Life. He was previously slated to open a wine-focused restaurant on Glenwood South with Fred Dexheimer, the only certified master sommelier in the Carolinas (there are 230 in the world), and John Holmes, the developer behind Standard Foods. This summer, the trio decided to redirect their efforts into saving Standard Foods.

This strikes me as exactly what was supposed to happen all along.

When it comes to décor, imagine Apple unveiling the newest iPhone. You buy into the buildup, sell your old faithful on eBay, only to end up searching frantically for the updates. The changes are subtle; the chairs might be different (new leather cushions, perhaps?), and what about those cream-colored curtains overlooking Raleigh City Farm? The cherry Le Creuset dishware remains in use, as does a chalkboard wall mural. Mostly, Standard Foods looks just like it did pre-crash. Which is good. It was beautiful to begin with.

What did get a dramatic makeover was the menu. The restaurant's debut menu was broken into various, similar-sounding sections, like snacks, small plates, and sides. The difference between them all? Even the staff wasn't sure.

Fresh raw oysters from Harkers Island, North Carolina, emphasize the restaurant's focus on sustainable and local food. - PHOTO BY BEN MCKEOWN
  • Photo by Ben McKeown
  • Fresh raw oysters from Harkers Island, North Carolina, emphasize the restaurant's focus on sustainable and local food.

Now it is crisper and cleaner, with fewer categories and no kitschy names. There are small plates—lots of them—entrées, larger shareable entrées, and sides. Like many modern, trendy menus, this one puts us in a bit of a pickle: Should we split a bunch of small plates? Each get our own entrée? And what about that spoonbread? Fortunately, at Standard Foods, this pondering is the good kind of pickle, crunchy and sour and a little bit sweet. As I sip my gin martini—icy coupe, buttery olive—I relish my indecisiveness. Flounder crudo? Persimmon salad? Thirty-three-ounce T-bone?

I settle on chicken liver pâté. It arrives blush pink and freckled with crunchy salt, thick-sliced in a slab. The absence of a rustic-chic mason jar feels as refreshing as the complementary bubbly poured for my friend's almost-birthday (a shameless, albeit genuine, diversion). And the pâté? Smoother and richer than butter, accompanied by open-crumbed toast and Dijon to spread around.

Other standout dishes are similarly classic. The half-chicken has crisp, charred skin and juicy meat, which, in true Judy Rodgers style, drips dreamily onto a bed of toast. Alongside, a miniature gravy boat asks to be poured anywhere or everywhere.

The spoonbread—part of a recurring feature that supports local non-GMO corn farmers and millers—is textbook, fluttering between cornbread and custard, honey and salt.

click to enlarge Spoonbread at Standard Foods in Raleigh, N.C. - PHOTO BY BEN MCKEOWN
  • Photo by Ben McKeown
  • Spoonbread at Standard Foods in Raleigh, N.C.

The dessert menu's playfully named "cheese plate" is really a traditional tarte tatin, something like the French answer to American apple pie, only with Gouda ice cream. While the tart's caramel treads confidently into dark, delightfully bitter territory, the Gouda ice cream is a lot shyer than I'd hoped for.

Some fall short of their name, like Jeb Bush or Rob Kardashian. The pickled shrimp with mustard seeds and Castelvetrano olives were good but hardly pickled. The beef tartare with fermented mushrooms and pickled turnips (the tiniest and cutest in all the land) promised punch and delivered a handshake. And the whole fried bass—though thrilling in presentation, with the fish propped upright, as if about to swim off the plate—downright lies. The server said it was inspired by Nashville hot chicken, but the only hot part about it was the temperature.

In an early interview with the Raleigh Agenda, Montagne hinted at his intention to stretch the menu's scope: "My food isn't identifiably Southern," he said. "We're turning Standard into more globally inspired cuisine."

Be on the lookout for the dishes that travel to Italy. There they are gleeful, like red-wine-drunk tourists eating gelato in the sun. There are butterbeans with fatty, salty Bolognese. Grilled oysters with Boxcarr pecorino and butter, brightened by lemon. And funghi fritti—fried mushrooms—tossed in an umami-laden gold rice vinaigrette, spangled with sesame seeds, nasturtiums, and slivers of raw cremini. It was somewhere between those fried and fresh mushrooms that I found the answer I had been probing for: Standard Foods is better than before.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The Gold Standard."


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