Venue Review: Harvest 18
You can’t blame Jason Smith for believing that the number 18 is lucky. After working in kitchens all over the world from Magnolia Grill in Durham to Gramercy Tavern in New York to a research station in Antarctica, the Raleigh native returned home to open his first restaurant in 2006. He named the restaurant 18 Seaboard after its address on Seaboard Avenue. The location in Seaboard Station, an old rail freight station that had just been reincarnated as a retail center, was risky.
Going on a decade later, 18 Seaboard still thrives.
That inaugural venture was so successful, in fact, that Smith opened a second restaurant in Cameron Village in 2010. Taking a new direction into Southwestern cuisine, the restaurant’s name – Cantina 18 – has nothing to do with its address.
Nor does the name of Harvest 18, which Smith opened in late March of this year near Durham’s Southpoint mall. You might say the number 18 has become a talisman of sorts for Jason Smith, but in fact it’s more than that. It’s a tribute to the philosophy that has made his first restaurant an enduring success. And it’s a promise that this philosophy – honest food at affordable prices, a strong commitment to local produce, employees treated in a way that inspires a level of loyalty rarely found in a restaurant – will be a common thread woven throughout all of Smith’s establishments, regardless of cuisine.
At Harvest 18, that cuisine is farm-to-fork, backed up by a commitment to North Carolina farmers, fishermen and artisans who, Smith estimates, supply 80 percent of the food served at the restaurant. And Smith’s guiding principles are upheld in the kitchen by executive chef Mike Casey, who has been with the 18 Restaurant Group (as it is now known) since 2006, when he started out as a grill chef at 18 Seaboard.
That early experience serves Casey well, as he delivers on the fragrant promise of a wood-fired grill that greets you even as you walk up to the restaurant from the parking lot. You’d do well to take immediate delivery on that promise by starting your meal with grilled chicken wings, their smoky succulence amplified by a bourbon-spiked “Kentuckyaki sauce.”
If they’re on the nightly changing menu, that is. If not, you can satisfy your atavistic urges for meat cooked over flames in a number of other ways. Fans of 18 Seaboard will recognize that restaurant’s signature grilled meatloaf with house-made Worcestershire sauce, which is quickly earning a comparable status at Harvest 18.
Alternatively, you might opt for grilled chicken or a slab of irreproachably fresh and expertly grilled swordfish. Depending on the, um, harvest, the chef might serve the fish over cheddar grits and grilled young asparagus one night and pair it with a local succotash and heirloom tomato butter the next time you visit.
Recently, heirloom tomatoes have been showing up as a lavish sampler – half a dozen or more varieties sliced and fanned across the platter like a painter’s palette, their vivid shades of red, gold and Cherokee purple set off by splashes of basil, crumbled goat cheese and basil-infused olive oil.
If you miss out on that supreme – and all too ephemeral – taste of summer, you might find ample consolation in a chilled cucumber soup garnished with lumps of Pamlico blue crab and a drizzle of Aleppo pepper oil. Or okra fried in a fragile cornmeal breading. Or an entree salad of mixed greens, wax beans and pickled red onions topped with a couple of flawless filets of pan-seared flounder.
Other worthy options, should they be offered in any variations remotely resembling the ones I sampled, include Sea Island red pea hummus with Neomonde pita and pickled green tomato relish; catfish BLT with Texas Pete aioli; and cracklin’ pork shank, a fist-sized hunk of carnivorous comfort whose aptly named surface is glazed with a piquant cubanelle pepper jelly.
Ashe County cheddar pimento cheese dip, served warm with wedges of toasted tortilla for dipping, has become so popular that I suspect customers would mutiny if it disappeared from the appetizer list.
I doubt they’ll be happy, either, when the changing season deprives pastry chef Amber Boone of the fat local blackberries that she’s recently been using to garnish her superb buttermilk panna cotta. On the bright side, Boone (another member of the corporate family, who previously worked at Cantina 18) has plenty of weapons in her sweet arsenal to stop the grumbling. I, for one, am hoping that her lemon bars earn a permanent place in the rotation.
Taking its cue from the food, Harvest 18’s dining room is a simple contemporary space decorated with an agrarian motif – farm implements and paintings of barnyard animals on the walls, folksy ceramic salt and pepper shakers (barn and silo, corn cobs) on the tables, and booths upholstered in a repeating pattern of fruits, vegetables, flowers and bees.
“We’re still ironing out some wrinkles,” Jason Smith says, and indeed some of the wait staff are still learning the ropes. On the other hand, the only notable miscue I encountered on the part of the kitchen took the form of a too-salty biscuit in a strawberry shortcake.
In fact, given Smith’s track record, I think it’s safe to say that the number 18 is turning out to be lucky for all of us.