Out of Tune

Merriam-Webster defines a mandolin as:  “a musical instrument of the lute family that has a usually pear-shaped body and fretted neck and four to six pairs of strings.”

Many Triangle residents, however, are defining Mandolin as an exciting newcomer to the Raleigh dining scene, where one can enjoy Chef Sean Fowler’s creations. 

I thought I’d share what I thought.

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photo: mandolin-raleigh.com

When I hear the word ‘mandolin’ I think of a few different things: Jethro Tull, Heart, a king’s court, and that lovely kitchen tool for slicing.

I don’t often think of it as a name for a restaurant (and, no, I didn’t do research on why this restaurant is so named, mostly because I really don’t care why).  So when I heard (via Twitter, no less) about this restaurant in Hayes Barton, I was curious.  When I read who the chef was, I decided I had to try it.

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photo: mandolin-raleigh.com

Since I like to be succinct:  Dinner service is far superior to lunch. 

We arrived for lunch on a Tuesday, and the restaurant was subdued, quiet.  Calm. However,  our lunch experience was simply not as good as it could have been.

Our table ordered the spare rib sloppy joe’s (and the kitchen graciously accomodated one  of   my party’s gluten-free needs by making a GF version), the pulled pork “Sammy”, and the burger.  I had the sweet potato soup and the crabcake.

The soup was good, not the best I’ve had, but I did particularly like the balsamic drizzle. My crabcake was disappointingly fishy.  Not what I would expect.

My companions were , for the  most part, happy with their meals – the Sloppy Joes were, by far, the biggest hit.

We were underwhelmed, but having a nice time, until our waiter spilled a glass of ice water down the back of one of my party.

Our comped desserts were better than our meal – banana bread pudding (which , to be honest, I ordered strictly for the whipped cream – which, if I remember correctly, was a bourbon-laced concoction) was delicious – more a banana bread than bread pudding; the Devil’s Food Tiramisu was popular with those who ordered it, but the sorbets were not what was listed on the menu , much to one of my companion’s disappontment.  He didn’t look favorably upon the ginger or beet sorbets (but inhaled the mango) when he’d expected three entirely different flavors.

In my opinion, tiramisu should only be made in its purest form, so that wasn’t my thing.   And the beet sorbet (I do have quite a thing for beets, you see)?  Disappointing. The beet consistency was evident, the texture and flavor inconsistent throughout the portion.

The most interesting parts of our meal, however, occurred over what has got to be the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted (not just my opinion, but that of the entire table – all of whom love good, rich, well-brewed  – or presssed – coffee almost more than life itself):  we were lucky enough to not only witness but clearly overhear what must have been a job interview of sorts .  A lovely young woman came in, described her experience (as a current waitress) to the hostess, then proceeded to discuss her degree from the CIA and the hours she was available.  She wanted a job. 

It would have been better to take that conversation away from the front of house.

Accompanying that interview conversation was a lovely man doing the ironing.  In the dining room. In front of the windows and us.   Did we linger over our lunch? Yes, we did.  However, really?!  You can’t take your ironing elsewhere, or iron the tablecloths *after* all of your patrons have gone?  Bad form if you ask me.

All of this aside, I really wanted to give Mandolin another go.

So, I made reservations for a small group for dinner. It was like an entirely different restaurant.

The energy was electric , the dining room and adjoing (teeny) bar were packed.

Our waiter was patient as we took eons to decide.  

He brought us cornbread muffins upon request (the kitchen had run out when our bread was brought), and I got an extra one. Good man.

Everyone was thrilled – thrilled -with what they each had ordered.   My companions ordered chicken and waffles, oysters (to start) and flounder as a main, the sirloin, and I ordered the panzanella salad and the beet root fettucine with fennel.

While my dining partners marvelled over how well their steak was cooked, how flavorful their flounder and their wonderfully crispy fried chicken were, I was enjoying the second coming of Christ in the form of pasta with some gorgeously crunchy fennel bulb. 

Really. It was like the aliens who had taken over the restaurant just a few days prior were gone (for good I hope).

Dessert was the banana bread pudding (on my suggestion) and apple “pop tart”. The pop tart (a lovely flaky puff pastry encasing a baked apple filling) was underwhelming. It was tasty, it was sweet, but it wasn’t much better than (or different from) a toaster strudel.

The banana bread pudding? A huge hit. (Please keep that on the menu, Chef.)

At the close of our meal, one of my friends ordered coffee. Guess what? He hated it. (I tried to warn him.)

So, I will absolutely go back – for dinner.  But, I most definitely will not order the coffee. And, don’t try to tell me that it’s because it’s made with a French Press.  I have a French Press, have for years.  It doesn’t make my coffee taste like coughed up bile. (ok, that’s extreme, but it’s really really awful, bitter,  flat, not round, robust, rich – just bad.)

So, yes, I am picky – very picky.  I expect that a chef from a 5-diamond restaurant would wow me on all fronts, and well, I wasn’t wowed.   If I’m honest, I have been happier with Magnolia Grill.

Maybe Mandolin is going through some growing pains, maybe just some fine-tuning is in order.

Whatever the cause, my first two visits were as different as a Chatham County high-school band and the New York Philharmonic.  

I do encourage you to go , though – for dinner.   Order the banana bread pudding if it’s still on the menu, but , please, skip the coffee. You have been warned.

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image: zazzle.com

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