205 E. Franklin St., Raleigh
The time neared 1:30 p.m. when I finally lost track of the micheladas.
A few months after a long-delayed opening, Standard Foods in Raleigh was busy for lunch, though the bar was empty. I asked to sit at the end near the open kitchen, close enough to see the restaurant’s gleaming red Le Creuset dishware and chef Scott Crawford’s florid forearm tattoos.
Like most of the staff, the bartender was young and stylish, in a plaid shirt-meets-tattoo-sleeve-meets-Apple Watch way. As I sat at the gray marble counter, he made Standard Foods’ Southern riff on the Mexican beer cocktail. And again. And again.
By the time I paid the check and wrote in the guest journalwhat, exactly, we’ll get to later onhe’d made so many that I felt prepared to get a few more tattoos, hop behind the bar and make some micheladas myself. (Rim a highball with salty paprika. Add ice, Tabasco, Worcestershire, fresh lime juice and, instead of tomato, sweet potato. Top with Pilsner. One metal straw, two pickled dill beans.)
As I sipped one, I surveyed the room’s vast ceilings, rustic beams and unclothed wood tables. A server delivered a grilled cheese of cheddar and foraged mushrooms on oat bread, and Crawford stared out into the dining room, surveying his domain at last.
All the hype leading up to Standard Foods’ openingoriginally slated for fall of 2014whirled around Crawford. After five years as executive chef of The Umstead Hotel’s restaurant, Herons, the three-time James Beard Award semifinalist announced that very summer he was leaving. He had a new partnership, the Nash Square Hospitality Group, with Raleigh realtor and developer John Holmes, and they planned to open not one but two restaurants: Nash Tavern (still in the works) and Standard Foods.
But Standard Foods’ concepthyper-local restaurant meets groceryis actually about everyone but Crawford. It’s about the farmers, the artisans and even the butcher, who stood proudly behind his counter, offering liver pâté and pork butter samples and answering questions.
“So, all the beef is grass fed?” (Yes.)
“Are there nitrates in the bacon?” (No.)
If exposed kitchens are the current trend, Standard Foods may have tapped into the next one: exposed pantries. The grocery not only showcases the ingredients the cooks are using but also ones they’re creating. You can buy smoked chicken broth, butternut squash soup and brown butter to take home.
In fact, while relishing the sunchoke saladthe best thing I ate during two trips to StandardI mouthful-muttered to my companion, “They could bottle and sell this dressing.” Turns out, they do. The bright salad and raw apples contrasted wonderfully with the dark flavors of house-smoked trout and hickory vinaigrette. It made my head spin, as though I were lost in a dreamy michelada daze. I could take the feeling with me.
Two years ago, the magazine Walter profiled Crawford, who described the then-embryonic Standard as “a modern version of a neighborhood market.” If you write items like handmade, smoked cheese (Boxcarr’s Campo, $25 per pound) and fresh red turmeric (Spade and Clover, $18 per pound) on your weekly grocery list, it is. Deborah Underwood Brown, who serves as farm liaison for the grocery and restaurant, has indeed assembled an irresistible supply.
Ironically, the local fare detracts from the neighborhood feel. Corner stores, if anything, evoke familiarity and frequency. The dried lavender leaves, whiskey honey, ginger drinking vinegar and smoked pepper of Standard’s grocery ooze indulgence and special-occasion extravagance.
That, at least, is in line with the restaurant, which serves lunch, dinner and, as of this week, late-night pop-up meals. The dinner menu features snacks, small and large plates, sides and desserts. Though appetizer-entrée-dessert menus are decreasingly chic, Standard’s sections were confusing. Are a snack, small plate and side collectively enough for a meal? Is a side bigger than a snack?
“Small doesn’t necessarily mean small, and large doesn’t necessarily mean large,” the server said. “So it’s deceiving.” I wrote this advice off as a strange slip of the tongue until she repeated the riddle to every table.
And certain plates at dinner did arrive tinier than expected, considering their price. Take the gougères, served with Lindale, a ripe, buttery cow’s milk Gouda from nearby Goat Lady Dairy. I adored everything about themthe cloud-like pâté à choux, the swish of persimmon butter, the pink pickled onions. I only wish, for $8, there had been a few more cheese puffs. They may have been sliced in halftwice as many, right?but it’s easier to deceive eyes than stomachs.
Our server recommended the rabbit and dumplings, a $14 small plate with sweet potato, green apple and tarragon. The really small aspect was the meat. When I did find the rabbit, I also found a tooth-size bone, only to look up and see my companion spitting into his napkin, too. The large plate of porka boneless chop, sous-vide cooked for 48 hourswas noticeably more generous, nestled between brothy peas and mustardy apples.
Elsewhere, the kitchen flaunted its youth like a smart kid with a fake ID. The butter lettuce with miso ranch, radish and scallion was almost thrilling, if whoever seasoned the greens didn’t forget how salty miso is. And the mushroom bread pudding”AHmazing!” according to someone in the guest journalwas almost AHmazing, its crusty, custardy loaf drizzled with cream and crowned by a mountainous tangle of mushrooms.
Oh, had it only been hot…
But by the end of my second visit, when I sat at the bar during lunch, watching the michelada man work, the qualms with which I had wrestled at dinner made me feel delusional. The prices were now approachable, the portions ample, the food piping hot.
Sure, the hip bartender, like our previous server, sometimes seemed to know less about the menu than I did. But everything else was so pristine, so Instagram perfect, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had been recognized. Or had I taken too many sips of my cocktail at dinner? (Mecca-Lekka-Hi Mecca Hiney-Ho: gin with lime and lemon verbena shrub, highly recommended.) Did the kitchen staff turn over? Or does the presence of Crawford, staring from the kitchen, really make that much of a difference?
As we both took a bite of that hickory-scented sunchoke, my companion leaned in and whispered, “The phrase ‘night and day’ comes to mind.” He was right: The sunshine streamed over next-door Raleigh City Farm, through the big window to our backs. In that instant, Standard Foods shone.
Your best bet, then, is the Standard Lunch, a prix fixe with a soup, salad, sandwich and dessert for $18. Mine included apple soup, that sunchoke salad, a BLT and a cookie bar. Any confusion that came with the dinner menu is charismatically avoided, as if Crawford walked up to your table, smiled and said, “Don’t worry. I got this.” The presentation is whimsical, with everything on a parchment-lined tray, as if cast from a cafeteria of your dreams.
The apple soup was so close to the sunchoke soup I had at dinner, they might as well have been twins. A pureed, creamy base came with brown butter and nuts (the former peanuts, the latter hazelnuts) on top. Who doesn’t love twins, especially when they’re this beautiful?
And then there’s the mushroom broth, poured tableside from a French press and accented with truffle, turnips and mustard greens. The flavor is so concentrated and clean that to call it mushroom broth feels technically correct but wholly inadequate, like describing espresso as mere “coffee.”
As for sandwiches, the BLT, with house-smoked bacon and charred sourdough, stands out, as does the corned beef tongue with egg yolk mustard and soured, violet cabbage. But after Food & Wine‘s restaurant editor Kate Krader gushed about the Standard burger on Instagram”killer good”I just had to. And it was, Kate. By the end, Boulted Bread’s buckwheat, cornmeal brioche bun was soaked from the rosy-centered, delightfully fatty patty. The toppings have changed since my visit, from smoked cow’s milk cheese, fermented sauce and pickles to farmer’s cheese, charred onionaise and lettuce. I suppose I’ll have to go back and see which one is better.
I scored the chocolate-bourbon-pecan cookie bar as dessert with my Standard Lunch. It was fudgy and a little boozy, a highlight on a sweets menu that does not disappoint. I nibbled it as I paid the check and flipped through the guest journal, already half-full with love notes.
“Should I write something?” I asked my companion.
He nodded as he finished our michelada. I knew just what to say.
“See you soon!” I scribbled. “P.S. Holy crap, that sunchoke salad.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Mixed metrics”