Venue Review: 18 Seaboard
Raleigh native Jason Smith worked in some of the East Coast's most celebrated restaurants, from Durham's Magnolia Grill to New York's Gramercy Tavern, before returning home to open his own restaurant, 18 Seaboard. Nobody would have blamed him if he had followed the path of other rising star chefs, creating a money-is-no-object menu to show off his gourmet cooking skills.
Instead, taking a cue from Robert Frost, Smith took the road less traveled by, focusing his efforts on cooking food that is both memorable and affordable. That's a narrow path with little margin for error, even for a talented chef. But Smith walks it with assurance.
Sometimes he even dances. Smith's chilled cucumber soup with cherry tomatoes and shrimp is the essence of summer in a bowl. The creation is a melding of recipes he learned from mentors Ben Barker of Magnolia Grill and Tom Colicchio of Gramercy Tavern. It delivers more flavor for $5 than you'll likely find elsewhere for twice that.
Smith elevates an iceberg wedge from country-club staple to the truly special with big, crunchy, smoky squares of custom-cut slab bacon from the Tennessee mountains. His fried green tomatoes are a revelation, made with locally grown tomatoes whose cornmeal-crusted tartness he contrasts with the silky richness of a crawfish aioli.
And his sauteed clams, a frequent special featuring plump, briny bivalves in a white wine-vermouth broth enriched with house-made creme fra"che, would do a Parisian bistro proud.
A bistrolike simplicity characterizes the entire menu. This approach, in the hands of a talented chef, accounts for the fact that a meal at 18 Seaboard is as consistently satisfying as it is unpretentious.
Any chef worth his salt can turn out an excellent dry-aged strip steak for $40. To serve a succulent flat iron steak for $16, working with a cut of meat that Smith describes as "not quite as tender as a filet, not quite as flavorful as a rib-eye - but you can afford it" - now that's impressive. The chef's secret? A 24-hour marinade in red wine, soy sauce and rosemary, a wood-fired grill and a watchful eye.
The flat iron steak is one of six grilled steak and seafood options; others include a grass-fed filet mignon, yellowfin tuna steak and a Carolina Gulf Stream wahoo whose moderately assertive flavor is a superb foil for the smoke of the grill. Grilled entrees are offered with your choice of half a dozen sauces, from champagne tarragon butter to house-made Worcestershire. Ask for the sauce on the side; you may well find that your steak is perfect just as it is, straight off the grill.
One of the most challenging tests of a restaurant kitchen - so challenging that many ambitious kitchens fail it - is the humble roast chicken. 18 Seaboard's fire-roasted rendition passes with flying colors: juicy breast, succulent thigh and mahogany-brown, crackle-crisp skin.
Other current entree options, on a list that evolves seasonally, include pappardelle with broccoli, country ham, pulled chicken and walnuts; cornmeal-crusted catfish with grit cake, sauteed spinach and smoked corn relish; and pork porterhouse with maple baked beans and green tomato marmalade. Quinoa with fines herbes, seared summer squash and a roasted tomato vinaigrette is a vegetarian option that's tempting even for nonvegetarians.
Smith rarely stumbles. The only misstep I encountered was underdone shrimp in a starter presentation of grilled shrimp and watermelon skewers.
Pastry chef Billy Apperson maintains the high standards - and the Southern-accented bistro style - with indulgences including buttermilk pie, and Sandhills peaches and cinnamon ice cream sundae. Those adventurous enough to try the mint pineapple soup will be richly rewarded.
18 Seaboard has been open since May 2006, the first tenant in the recently renovated warehouses of Seaboard Station. Already, crowds are flocking to the airy, industrial-chic dining room and spilling onto the balcony, which affords a rare view of the Raleigh skyline. It just goes to show that if the right person starts down the road less traveled, plenty of others are willing to follow.