Venue Review: Humble Pie
For years after the original Humble Pie opened in a converted tile warehouse in 1990, it reigned as the supreme nonconformist of Raleigh dining establishments. Besides its hard-to-find location in an area that had yet to earn cachet as the Warehouse District, the restaurant's maverick credentials included an aggressively funky decor, an offbeat menu (Cajun alligator ravioli mingled with vegetarian and organic fare) and an eccentric wait staff whose attitude was anything but humble. Serving hours, posted by the door, were 6:17 to 9:59 p.m.
All that changed this spring, when Jim Beriau, Michael D'Amelio and Joe Farmer bought the restaurant. The new owners rewrote the Humble Pie recipe from scratch, beginning with a complete overhaul of the dining room. Gone are the funky sofas and the band stage, signifying the end of Humble Pie's days as a music venue. The new, more unified look is urban warehouse chic with Asian accents, highlighted by splashy abstract paintings on high warehouse walls and paper lanterns over the bar that separates the open kitchen from the dining room.
A new patio out front gives the restaurant a much-needed boost in visibility and welcome. The hospitality continues inside, where the wait staff are as accommodating as they are well-trained.
The kitchen has also abandoned its contrarian ways by jumping onto the trendy tapas bandwagon. That's not to say that chef Chris Gantt's international menu of hot and cold tapas, offered under the headings of Land, Sea, Vegetable and Soups & Salads, is derivative. In fact, Gantt, who has worked in a number of area restaurants, appears to be reveling in his new freedom to play with a global pantry of ingredients.
That playfulness is abundantly evident in the dishes and in their often whimsical names. Tumbleweeds, for instance, are nuggets of marinated salmon wrapped in crispy shreds of phyllo pastry, while the "short stack" of small crab cakes is served with a tomatillo and corn salsa.
Lipstick chiles rellenos, stuffed with queso blanco and fried in a sturdy tempura batter, are named for the shape of the featured poblanos -- a lipstick to put in your mouth, not on it. But the chiles are considerably larger than a tube of lipstick -- so large that you'll usually be served a single chile rather than the plural promised.
Pork Thai sticks are equally palate-worthy, the bamboo-skewered strips of pork tender and flavorful in a soy-chile-sesame marinade. And lamb "lollypops," featuring a brace of double-cut chops rubbed with a Moroccan spice blend and grilled, are toothsome enough you'll want to pick them up by the bone to eat them. That way you won't miss a shred of their succulent flesh.
Some don't rely on clever names to get your attention, but save their charms for your taste buds. The generically named squash soup blossoms on your tongue with velvety texture and the complex, exotic flavor of toasted spices. Onion tart's surprise, hidden under a creamy, herb-flecked cap of goat cheese, is a whole roasted garlic clove tucked into concentric onion rings baked to caramelized sweetness on a pastry crust.
Duck and mango quesadilla scores a hit with shreds of confit-rich duck weaving a flavor counterpoint with tropical fruit against a backdrop of lime cilantro creme fra"che. And the Caesar salad is a winner, too, although the satisfying crunch of the half-dozen fried oysters on top makes the croutons unnecessary.
Seldom does a dish fail to live up to the enticements of its name and description. Monkfish, "with cumin and coriander curst rolled in steamed banana leaf," arrives overcooked. And Godzilla roll, "savory crab & corn salad wrapped in ahi tuna," is attractive but would rate no better than average in a good sushi bar.
But such minor sins are instantly forgiven the moment you set your sweet tooth into one of Humble Pie's house-made desserts. Mexican chocolate tres leches with a whisper of cinnamon, for instance, or an apricot tarte Tatin subtly laced with anise. I n a town whose pastry carts runneth over with creme brulee and tiramisu, such confections are downright rebellious.
Come to think of it, maybe the new Humble Pie has preserved a bit of its old rebellious spirit, after all.