Death & Taxes
105 W. Hargett St., Raleigh
The kitchen at Death & Taxes includes a mammoth fire, many bearded men and one little pink hair dryer.
It’s early on a Wednesday night at the downtown Raleigh restaurantAshley Christensen’s long-awaited latest ventureand I am in one of the hottest seats in the house. My companion and I dine at an end of the bar that borders the open kitchen, and our cheeks are flushed from the wood-fire grill. The view is entertaining, even entrancing, like sitting around a campfire on a late summer night, if that campfire happened to be in one of the region’s most ostentatious restaurants. As the front door opens and shuts, its motion drafts a cool breeze against our backs.
But the truly hottest seat must be opposite us, at the grill station. The line cook is young and lanky, with quarter-size plugs in his ears and a black knit beanie on his head. He sweats under a growing line of yellow tickets. I do not envy him. The sense of his responsibility radiates toward us, much like the flames he works with or againstI cannot always tell which.
He juggles the handling of copious menu items (chicken, octopus, steak, oysters, marrow and okra, often at once) with restacking logs and taming orange flames. When time permits, he chugs water from a plastic quart container. At one point, I watch him hold his chest, as if checking his pulse. But before I can worry, he whips out that pink hair dryer and blows more fury into the flames. The sparks fly upward wildly, like midsummer lightning bugs.
Though Death & Taxes has only been open a few months, this line cook is standing in a spot already used by some greats. Before the restaurant’s official launch, Christensen hosted a dinner series called “The Firestarters,” meant to test out the kitchen’s grand equipment. During the spring, famed Southern chefsincluding Husk’s Sean Brock, Gunshow’s Kevin Gillespie and FIG’s Jason Stanhopeflocked to Raleigh to cook on the 2,200-pound, custom J&R grill, overnighted from Texas in March. For each event, diners toured the Bridge Club, Christensen’s event space above Death & Taxes, and enjoyed a four-course meal. Tickets could cost nearly $200 per person.
After dining at Death & Taxes twice, the sum no longer shocks me. Take away the guest chef, the private tour and the special occasion, and your dinner will still be expensive, relative both to Raleigh and Christensen’s other capital city spots. It is almost impossible to spend less than $60 per person if you don’t want to leave hungry and want to enjoy yourself. Even that is a conservative estimate.
Death & Taxes loves small plates as much as it loves an open fire and open kitchen. The menu splits into three categories: “Of the Sea” (seafood), “Of the Land” (vegetables and salads) and “On the Land” (meat), each of which includes six or so items. The minor dishes run around $14, while the larger are double that, or more. “The Pig,” a 20-ounce pork chop that’s braised then grilled and served with summer squash and heirloom tomatoes, will put you out $38. The dry-aged rib eye goes for $2.50 per ounce, which meant $60 for the smallest weight available during my two visists.
My exceedingly courteous and informed waiter recommended two-to-three à la carte plates per person, a meal that left me neither hungry nor overstuffed. Still, the sum added up quickly. If you order, for instance, a cocktail, two small plates, dessert and you tip graciously, you’re well past $60. If you’re a devotee of Christensen’s Beasley’s, where a big plate of fried chicken and waffles will run you $13, that will sound steep.
But Death & Taxes isn’t Beasley’sor Chuck’s or Joule, all of which offer quality fare at a moderate cost. It also isn’t Poole’s, where prices are higher though the food is still rooted in the homey and the familiar, what with its funky furnishings and famous macaroni and cheese. Actually, Death & Taxes isn’t anything you’ve seen from Christensen before, which seems to be the point.
The chef who made her name by elevating comfy Southern classics has officially entered the realm of fine dining. Cheesy mashed potatoes are now potatoes aligot and cost $18 per serving. Your vinaigrettes are poured tableside. Napkins are re-folded as soon as your tuchis leaves the chair. Water glasses are never less than half-full. The bartender has his own signature shaking style. And the décor is deliberate, from ceiling to floor to the custom-made pottery plates.
While the food looks froufrou, though, it almost always tastes sublime too.
The octopus alone is reason to go (and go back). First marinated in winecorks included, as this apparently mattersand then grilled to order, the dish is a charred, purply tangle of tentacles and meat, almost as tender as the creamy butter beans beneath.
The chicken liver toasts shine, too. The pâte is so rich, smooth and buttery that it made me wonder: If margarine is a sad excuse for butter, is butter a sad excuse for pâte? A plump, pristine quenelle adorns each piece of toast. There are four per order, plus pickles and a green strawberry mustard. “Spread at your leisure!” the toasts seem to say. “But, please, do so elegantly.”
And the marrow bones are shamelessly classic, with shallots, parsley and capers accompanying crusty bread. Some may call this combination old-fashioned, but if fried chicken can be praised in established pairings like waffles, why not marrow? There is comfort in this upscale cuisine, but there are a few twists, too. The shallots are pickled, and the capers are fried until they crunch like peppercorns. The marrow itself, which you’re encouraged to dig into with a sundae-style spoon, is rich, bubbly and fragrant.
“Foraged and fought for” mushrooms, on the other hand, show the kitchen’s more creative side. Including lion’s mane, oyster, shiitake, maitake and chanterelle specimens, they are loosened up with a bit of sherry, smoked high on the grill and tripped out on brown butter. By the time they arrive at your table, they’re an ugly and irresistible mosh pit. It’s fun, really. Likewise, a generous portion of okra gets cooked among the coals and polka-dotted with a piquant pepper aioli. I like to think of it as a retort to anyone who reduces okra to “slimy.” Here, it is distinctly crisp, with a lush center, like little tapioca pearls.
Be warned, however, that misses, like death and taxes, are inevitable. The roasted chicken changed between my two visits, from a half-chicken to a young poussin, though the accompaniment of yogurt, cucumber, za’atar and benne stayed the same. The Middle Eastern flavors were nutty and bright (I especially enjoyed the grilled cucumbers), but the rosy-hued meat just skirted an undercooked status. Though handsomely charred, the skin was limp.
The peel-your-own shrimp were skillfully cooked, juicy and tender. The accents of parsley and lemon were subtle. As I plucked off the little heads, I thought about little northeastern seafood shacks, where the menu reads “lobster” and means exactly that, maybe with butter. With spectacular ingredients, the minimalism works, but I’m unconvincedgiven the setting and the pricesthat Death & Taxes pulled it off.
Roasted with chili butter and topped with preserved lemon, an order of eight oysters felt like a liberal helping. But by the last one, I found myself craving briny, raw on-the-half-shell simplicity. Somewhere between the butter being thickly piped from a pastry bag and the oysters hitting the grill, the cooks drowned the ingredient’s oceanic integrity.
When Death & Taxes isn’t perfect, the restaurant vacillates between too much and too little, sometimes doing both at once. The heirloom tomatoes, for instance, sounded great with creamy burrata, Castelvetrano olives and torn croutons. They were only OK and could have used less black pepper but more olive oil.
I imagine no one goes to a place like Death & Taxes for desserts, but spearheaded by executive pastry chef Andrew Ullom, the names of these dishes seem to speak best to the Christensen that Raleigh already knows. There is pickled muscadine pie with peanut butter, and pound cake with whiskey pecans.
Unfortunately, the cozy descriptions don’t translate to the plate. The pie turned out to be a tiny tart, with a brushstroke of peanut butter and quenelle of soft creamfinely executed but stiff to the point of unsatisfying. And the pound cakesupposedly, the only grilled dessert itemseemed to have never encountered a grill in its life. The preserved rhubarb ice cream on top was so overchurned that it broke like a heart at the touch of a spoon.
When I return to Death & Taxes for that octopus, I’ll repurpose that $11 for another small plate, or perhaps another cocktail. The eight-item drink menu showcases names that rival the restaurant for finality (Widow’s Joy, Dearly Departed, Prophets & Loss) or otherwise offer enticing combinations. With whiskey, blackberries, orange and mint, the Rye Cobbler is zesty, sharp and, unlike many fruit cocktails, not so cloying that you can already taste tomorrow’s hangover. The Boil the Ocean, with sherry, rum, carrot and apricot, is equally balanced.
But a meal at Death & Taxes ends not with octopus or whiskey or even ice cream. It ends when you get up from your table, start to leave, stop at the sight of the fire and stand transfixed before its primitive power.
Or even after that, perhaps: You’ll go home and, suddenly, smell that wood smoke on your clothes and your skin. I did, at least. Despite the occasional menu miss or the high price tag, I didn’t mind the memory one bit.