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Venue Review: Four Square Restaurant

Setting and flavors match the menu's ambitions
Four Square Restaurant
By "Greg Cox"

You pull into a parking lot framed by ancient crape myrtles, and when you get out of the car you find yourself looking up at the massive Doric columns of a Neoclassical Revival mansion.

Built in 1908 and beautifully preserved from its slate roof to its leaded stained glass windows, the structure is the home of Four Square, one of the area's premier fine dining destinations. Even if you know nothing of the restaurant's reputation, as you pass between those columns you get a strong feeling that you're in for an extraordinary experience.

Indeed you are. But, as the colorful modern paintings on the walls of Four Square's cozy dining rooms suggest, the experience is anything but a staid tribute to the culinary past. Owner/chef Shane Ingram, whose star-studded résumé includes nationally acclaimed restaurants Emeril's, Charlie Trotter's and The Inn at Little Washington, draws from a seemingly bottomless well of creativity to present a menu of contemporary American fare that changes every two months. Though his flavor palette is global, Ingram works extensively with local produce, much of which he and his wife and partner, general manager Elizabeth Woodhouse, grow themselves. He prides himself on rarely repeating a dish.

In late summer, the chef translated the harvest into a dazzlingly varied offering that included a local fig and baby lettuce salad in a cabernet-thyme vinaigrette; pan-roasted veal sweetbreads with a spicy tomato and butter bean ragout; and a house-smoked tuna summer roll that married the flavors of East and West, punctuated with sweet basil and nasturtium.

And that's just for starters. Entree offerings covered a similarly broad spectrum, from pan-seared scallops with pickled peaches and fried cremini mushrooms to green tea-brined pork tenderloin with five-spiced apple pot stickers. Piquillo pepper relleno, a vegetarian presentation spilling over with field peas, grilled avocado, mashed sweet potatoes and plantains, queso fresco and mole verde, surely tempted more than one customer from the carnivorous fold.

Ingram's cornucopia ofideas is just as brimming when the peak harvest season has passed. On the current menu, first course highlights include kung pao-spiced sweet potato gnocchi with birch mushrooms and Brussels sprouts petals and maple-brined foie gras with cracklin' biscuit and apple butter. Especially on a chilly night, the truffled potato, leek and portobello mushroom soup is just what the doctor ordered.

You can always count on Ingram to transform a simple chicken breast into a memorable dish, and his current presentation - fall-spiced Poulet Rouge with candied beets, braised mustard greens and roasted pumpkin grits - is no exception. He does ample justice to North Carolina rainbow trout, too, serving up crisp-skinned filets over a pastiche of braised olives, pickled tomatoes and smoked trout-potato agnolotti.

Red meat cravings should find satisfaction in seared grass-fed beef tenderloin, or in a pistachio- and mint-crusted rack of lamb. Or, for a walk on the wild side, grilled bison flank steaks with smoky black beans, fava bean-jicama-avocado salsa, and a queso añejo and bison taquito.

With such an ambitiously roaming, ever-changing menu, even a chef as talented as Ingram is bound to wander out of bounds occasionally with an overwrought presentation or mismatched flavors. Happily, it's rare that he goes as far astray as the dense, overcooked pretzel-crusted oysters I was served recently.

Nor does the level of quality drop off when it comes to dessert. Depending on the season, pastry chef Janna Wardle's sweet temptations might include such gems as almond-grape tartlet with rose geranium-scented panna cotta or fig and coriander cheesecake with pink peppercorn brittle. You'll have no trouble pairing either of these with a glass of dessert wine from Four Square's extensive cellar.

For the time being at least, Four Square's weak link is service. The wait staff has experienced significant turnover in recent months, and a number of the newcomers are still learning the ropes. Ingram and Woodhouse are experienced restaurateurs who are clearly in it for the long haul, however, and it's a good bet they'll have the team running smoothly before long.

As it happens, Four Square celebrated its 10th anniversary last month. A decade represents just a fraction of the lifespan of the historic mansion it inhabits, but it's a major milestone for any restaurant. In the case of Four Square, it's long enough to earn status as a venerable local landmark in its own right.

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November 13, 2009 - Triangle.com - Greg Cox

You pull into a parking lot framed by ancient crape myrtles, and when you get out of the car you find yourself looking up at the massive Doric columns of a Neoclassical Revival mansion.

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