Venue Review: Second Empire
When Second Empire opened in 1997, it instantly became one of Raleigh's most sought-after dinner reservations. Many wanted to see the inside of the historic Dodd-Hinsdale house, whose resurrection from spooky derelict to grand Victorian mansion just three blocks from the Capitol had been highly publicized.
Gourmets were eager to sample the bill of fare. Executive chef Daniel Schurr had graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and came to Second Empire from the Angus Barn's Wine Cellar. Few had dined in the Cellar, whose single table was available only by group reservation. This, naturally, only served to pique curiosity further.
Whatever their reasons for coming, few left disappointed. The building's interior, restored with loving but not slavish respect for its architectural heritage, more than lived up to its advance billing. From the hand-carved walnut staircase in the foyer to the Impressionist landscapes on 15-foot high dining room walls to the Christofle silverware on linen-draped tables, it was obvious that no expense had been spared.
The food was equally impressive. In dishes ranging from roasted Guinea hen to grilled veal rib-eye, Schurr's cuisine proved inventive without being affected. Its consistently excellent execution and artful presentation, combined with the lavish setting, made Second Empire a natural for romance and celebrations.
The only fly in the ointment was the service, which lacked a level of polish comparable to the food and setting.
Four years later, service is noticeably improved. The core of the wait staff is now among the most professional in town. There are a few weak links, though. One server confused mizuma (a feathery salad green) and mesclun (a mix of greens). Another, after placing two slices of bread on the plate instead of one, picked up the extra piece and returned it to the common basket. In a restaurant that sets the highest expectations and (with most appetizers priced at $12 or more) charges accordingly, such missteps are a no-no.
The food has also changed since the restaurant opened, if more subtly. The cuisine is still new American, the quality and freshness of ingredients still first-rate, and the cooking still consistently spot-on. But Schurr has gotten more adventurous in how he combines those ingredients.
Take the crispy striped bass he served in September 1997, the month the restaurant opened. Rounding out the presentation were Swiss style roesti potatoes, wilted spinach and lobster jus: a balanced, well-matched -- and safe -- combination of flavors and textures.
Compare that to the accompaniments for crispy striped bass as listed on the current menu: "creamy yellow corn, asparagus tips, Yukon gold potatoes, collard greens, Granny Smith apple & curry cream sauce." Whew. This dish dances right up to the precipice of overkill. What pulls it back is the fact that its flavors work in much the same way as an English pub curry. A most elegant pub curry.
That this approach works most of the time -- and is sometimes even inspired -- is a testament to Schurr's inventiveness and experience. A first course of pan-roasted squab, for instance, whose faintly gamy flesh and crisp, nut-brown skin are tamed by buttermilk-fragrant mashed potatoes and braised Savoy cabbage. Or steamed Middleneck clams, their briny savor counterpointed by the earthiness of cremini mushrooms and Italian sausage, and bright accents of cherry tomatoes and sweet peppers. Or, best of all, a sublimely unctuous slab of pan-seared foie gras against a backdrop of truffled stone-ground grits, with a confetti of diced beets and a drizzle of balsamic reduction for sparkling contrast.
Trout stuffed with jumbo lump crabmeat, paired with a ragout of cannellini, pancetta and broccoli rabe adroitly negotiates the fine line between complexity and confusion. Likewise rack of lamb with a sweet potato and leek gratin, wilted greens and a thyme-roasted fig jus. And a semiboneless chicken breast quarter, golden-skinned and succulent atop a ragout of braised rabbit leg and root vegetables, is the most enjoyable treatment of this humble fowl I've had in a long time.
Occasionally, though, Schurr steps over the line. Pan-seared sea scallops are upstaged by braised lamb shank meat in a presentation that also includes goat cheese, grape tomatoes and angel hair pasta in a mustard scallion cream sauce. And salmon carpaccio gets lost in a muddle of grilled fingerling potatoes, asparagus tips, red onions, orange sections and Maytag blue cheese.
Best among a selection of very good desserts is a picture perfect creme brulee. House-made sorbets and ice creams are excellent, too, especially if the options include lemon-buttermilk, pineapple or cherry-black walnut.
The wine list is well-chosen if pricey, with few bottles less than $40. Stick to the modest end of the wine list and you can keep the dinner tab to about $100 a person.
It's money well spent, especially for a special occasion. Except for a few very near misses, the food is on a par with the best in the Triangle. Service is very good and getting better. And there's still no more elegant setting for a meal than the gracefully resurrected Dodd-Hinsdale house.