Frazier’s on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh is evolving. For six and a half years the restaurant has been growing, both changing with the neighborhood and leading the way for neighborhood change. What started as a casual American restaurant serving sandwiches and pizzas is now elegant and eclectic, with New American and internationally inspired cuisine, and a new trendy interior to match.

As Kevin Jennings (the owner of Frazier’s, along with his wife Stacy) describes it, the Frazier’s transformation has been a kind of ongoing conversation between the restaurant and its customers. “We started out serving more casual bistro-type food, but after a while people wanted more,” Jennings explains. “Two years ago, when we opened our second restaurant, Porter’s, two doors down, we had an opportunity to upgrade the china and glassware at Frazier’s while we were at it. And between what our kitchen was turning out already, the direction that was going, and what our customers demanded, the food kept going to a more eclectic, more refined place. The only thing that was dragging behind was the interior.”

Last year, that problem was addressed. Frazier’s closed for the entire summer, re-opening with a modern, urban decor. The long thin dining room is now painted in earth tones, with wooden walls and modern art. The Jennings have acquired the building that separates Frazier’s from Porter’s, and that building is becoming an extension for both restaurants, with the option of opening up the space into one large room for private parties.

The Jennings’ expansion doesn’t stop there. In the fall, they plan to open another restaurant in North Hills. The restaurant will be Italian, and Jennings compares the concept to Mario Batali’s Babbo in New York. If they even come close to Babbo, which took New York by storm with Batali’s inventive Northern Italian cuisine, this will be a restaurant worth watching.

The evolution of Frazier’s is in many ways representative of the area, and especially the area’s dining sensibilities. As such, I thought they would be the perfect subject for the first in a series of columns called Twenty Dollar Dinners. The Indy will provide an area chef with $20, and the chef will then use that money to shop and cook a meal for two. We’ll print their shopping list and recipes, and you’ll get an idea of what’s going on with their restaurant’s cuisine, as well as a great meal you can make for under $20.

Frazier’s chef Jeremy Sabo and his sous-chef David Zoller gamely took on the task. Sabo has been in the kitchen at Frazier’s for three years and has seen the restaurant through a number of changes. Staying true to the current nature of the restaurant’s menu, he and Zoller took standard crowd-pleasing ingredients and presented them in appealing, inventive ways. They made two courses: a salad and a salmon dish.

Looking at the basic ingredients of the salad–spinach, asparagus, tomatoes and blue cheese–you can imagine many salads that would fit in on the menus of country clubs and national chain restaurants. But what Sabo did with these ingredients gave the salad a very modern feel. The asparagus was cooked just right, nestled beside the spinach, and the whole slice of Stilton cheese was laid on top, drizzled with a tomato vinaigrette. This gave the dish a duel identity: both salad and cheese plate. Leaving the Stilton whole allowed it to really be savored, and the wedge of cheese with the red vinaigrette made for a very attractive plate.

For the salmon dish, Sabo went in a different direction, using Asian ingredients. The fish was seared and then placed on top of Chinese noodles, which were bathed in a soy broth and surrounded by crisp green vegetables. The dish was appealing and well balanced, and not at all difficult to make.

The prices below reflect what the chefs spent on groceries. I directed them to keep the meal within the $20 budget, although I let them off the hook for basic ingredients like oil, salt and pepper, soy sauce and vinegar.

Stilton and asparagus salad
Total: $9.04
4 oz. English Stilton cheese $3.64

1/4 pound baby spinach $1.26

1/2 pound asparagus $2.24

Garlic $0.25

4 Roma tomatoes $1.65

Additional ingredients: extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper

To prepare the vinaigrette: In a small roasting pan, toss whole tomatoes with 2 tbsp. olive oil, 1 tsp. minced garlic, and salt and pepper. Roast for 20 minutes at 375 degrees. Remove from oven and cool. Remove the tomato skins and mince. Mix with 2 tbsp. olive oil, 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Let rest for 30 minutes.

To prepare the salad: Blanch the asparagus in boiling water, then shock it in ice water. Strain and toss in 1 tbsp. olive oil and salt and pepper. On each plate, put down a handful of spinach and half the asparagus. Cut the block of Stilton in half and top each salad with a piece. Drizzle the tomato vinaigrette on top.

Salmon with Chinese noodles
Total: $10.55
1 can chicken broth $0.69

2 8-oz salmon (Atlantic filets on sale) $4.30

Garlic (1 tsp., minced) $0.25

4-oz package Chinese noodles $1.79

1 Thai chili (minced) $0.02

Fresh ginger root (1 tsp., minced) $0.12

2 heads baby bok choy $1.63

4 Asian eggplants (cored and julienned) $1.00

15 snow peas $0.56

Bean sprouts (handful) $0.19

Additional ingredients: 2 tbsp. soy sauce, oil for cooking, salt and pepper

Cook Chinese noodles following directions on package. Drain and set aside. Sprinkle salt and pepper on each side of the salmon filets. Using a pan that you can transfer to the oven (a cast iron skillet works well), heat the pan over high heat until it is close to smoking. Add just a small amount of oil to the pan and sear both sides of the salmon until crisp. Transfer the pan to a 375-degree oven for 3 minutes (this will give a medium cook on the fish. Add a minute if you would like the fish well done).

In another pan, sauté garlic, ginger and Thai chili in oil. After a minute, add the Asian eggplant, bean sprouts, snow peas and bok choy. Sauté until tender, then add chicken stock and soy sauce. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat. In two large bowls, arrange the vegetables around the noodles, then pour the liquid from the vegetable pan over the noodles. Top with salmon.