Venue Review: 518 West
Those rumors you've heard about three-hour waits for a table at Five Eighteen West are exaggerations. The longest anyone's had to wait, management says, is a little over half that - and those were mostly large weekend parties, notoriously hard to seat in any busy restaurant that doesn't accept reservations. Most diners get a table in less time than it takes to finish a drink at the graceful, hand-crafted cherry and mirror bar.
Still, Five Eighteen West, the biggest culinary venture in the revitalization of downtown Raleigh since Greenshields and the hottest since Wicked Smile, is hotter than a wood-fired pizza oven. Of course, this restaurant had something going for it even before it opened, namely the reputation of sister eatery Four Eleven West in Chapel Hill, whose sunny ambience and reasonably priced California-Italian menu still pack them in. The new eastern twin of the "West" sisters has all that going for it, plus a sensational decor and the cachet of newness. All of which makes Five Eighteen West a place to see and be seen.
If only it was a place to be heard as well. When the dining room begins to fill (which can be as early as 6 o'clock), it gets so noisy that dinner conversation has to approach the level of shouting. Clearly, though, it's a price many diners are willing to pay for the openness and visual drama of a two-story dining room that captures the atmosphere of a piazza in Rome with terrazzo floors, a trompe l'oeil blue sky ceiling and walls the color of lemon sorbetto and a Mediterranean sunset. Balconies overlook the main dining room below through willowy wrought-iron railing, adding to the streetscape effect (and offering a somewhat quieter dining option).
Of the many stimulating ways to start your meal at Five Eighteen West, two of the most rewarding feature wild mushrooms. The grilled portobello in the vegetarian steak, in fact, is cut and fanned to look like a star, moist and smoky atop a cloud of mesclun greens in a balsamic vinaigrette. The other, wild mushroom polenta, is a woodsy assortment of wild mushrooms sauteed with fresh rosemary and cashew butter, draped like a forest shadow over a triangle of baked polenta. The rosemary and cashew butter pairing is one of the kitchen's many surprising touches, and it works beautifully. And the polenta, impossibly moist and light under a delicately crisp surface, is as exalted as any dish made from cornmeal can get.
Carpaccio is another superb choice, extremely rare (but not raw) medallions of beef sliced to a stained-glass translucence and as buttery soft on the tongue as they are pink on the plate. They're offered with either a horseradish cream sauce or extra virgin olive oil, which is the simpler and better match for so delicate a dish. You also won't go wrong with one of the half-dozen salads (Stella's insalate, with toasted walnuts and gorgonzola crumbles, is especially nice) or wood-fired focaccia, which is thinner and crisper than most renditions but is a most toothsome tool for digging into the accompanying herbed artichoke dip.
If you really want to sample the wares from the wood-burning pizza oven, though, then by all means go for one of the 9-inch pizzas called pizzette. The thin crust is a perfect equilibrium of crisp and chewy, and it exhibits the bubbly-blistered top and lightly charred bottom of a properly hot oven. Topping choices range from the classic Italian simplicity of the Margherita with plum tomatoes, fresh basil and mozzarella to the New World zing of the Arizona with grilled marinated chicken, salsa and sharp white cheddar.
If you don't start with the polenta, you'll get another chance among the entrees. Wood-grilled shrimp polenta features medium shrimp, practically bursting with the smoky aroma of a wood fire, on a generous wedge of peerless cheese polenta. An intense, brothy sauce flecked with prosciutto and leeks is more than bold enough to stand up to all that briny smoke, which is visually echoed by several fine wisps of fresh Parmesan drifting over the top.
Shrimp and scallop risotto can also be first rate - when the risotto doesn't turn out with a texture leaning more to the crunchy than to the desirable creamy side. The shellfish are consistently sweet, fresh and properly done, complemented by the flavors of saffron and lobster broth, and just enough lime cilantro salsa for punctuation.
In fact, pasta dishes are occasionally marked by inconsistent texture, the only significant flaw from a kitchen whose consistency is admirable considering the number of dishes it turns out. Black pepper angel hair is especially susceptible, the fine noodles leaving no room for cooking time error and turning rapidly gummy in dill cream sauce if not served immediately. Lemon linguine, too, may soften too much and begin to meld if they don't get just the right amount of white wine and clam broth. To be fair, these are the two most difficult dishes to execute consistently; other pastas, from penne to lasagna, are respectably uniform. And the lemon linguine is so good when it's on that it's worth a gamble.
The menu includes a list of weekly specials, usually including a couple of fresh seafood preparations. Sweet potato crusted salmon with bourbon pecan sauce was a recent choice, and while each element of the dish was perfectly executed, many would probably find the sweet potato "crust" a bit overwhelmingly sweet (and not "crusty" at all except for the bits of candied pecan scattered over them) for an otherwise exemplary piece of salmon.
Better to save your sweet tooth for dessert anyway. Desserts, made in-house daily, include a selection of gelato and sorbetto (the blackberry is so intensely flavored you can practically feel the sun on your back) served with a cookie "spoon" and a positively baroque tiramisu torte, layers of dark chocolate and coffee-soaked yellow sponge cake layered with chocolate mousse and mascarpone cream, served with a rum custard sauce.
It took courage to pour a lot of money and work into this old railroad warehouse on Glenwood Avenue, a street still in the early stages of revitalization. From the preservation of the building's original brick walls to the heart pine that was salvaged from the basement to become the upstairs floor, it's clear this renovation was a labor of love, as much as it is a gamble on the future of downtown Raleigh. From the looks - and sounds - of things, the gamble is paying off.