I kind of have a crush on 18 Seaboard.
On our first date, this iconic Raleigh restaurant did everything right. And for Triangle Restaurant Week, an event that can be fraught with negatives like boring choices and uninspired food, the joint nailed it again.
Located on the outskirts of downtown in the ever-busy Seaboard Station, this restaurant always appears to be bustling, and the same held true for Restaurant Week’s Friday night, of course. All three of my hot “dates” came down with the flu, so I was flying solo. I was the only lone soul in the dim, romantic, completely packed dining room. But the place was so abuzz and the lights were so low that you couldn’t really see who was sitting two tables over, anyway. If you’re looking to hide any blemishes on a first date, remember 18 Seaboard.
While I perused the wine list, I noticed that owner and chef Jason Smith was stopping by tables and chatting with the diners. This might seem like an overdone touch, but in such a convivial atmosphere, you mostly want to hug him when he visits. Instead, I relished the food.
The menu offered three choices for all three courses, and each was varied enough to provide a grand overview of what this bastion of local food sourcing can do.
First course: The three selections included tomato soup with crispy eggs, croutons and olive oil; Sunny Creek Farm lettuce with local apples, butternut squash, Holly Grove goat cheese & herb dressing; and Cantina 18 Heritage Farm pork belly with corn, cilantro and crema. I opted for the pork belly. The “appetizer” would have been enough for an entire meal, honestly. Before me sat two grilled tortillas overflowing with crispy hunks of steaming pork belly. The toasty, grilled flour tortilla and fresh corn were texturally perfect foils to the meat. The crema slightly marred the flavors with a bit too much sweetness, but overall? A win.
For the second course, 18 Seaboard proudly showed off its Southerness by offering Pamlico Sound shrimp over Old Mill of Guilford cheddar grits with barbecue pork, spicy sautéed kale and champagne tarragon butter; braised Heritage Farms pork cheek with goat cheese, smashed potatoes and collards; and a Carolina Plantation Rice-and-Sea Island Red Pea hoppin’ John with roasted root vegetables and crispy sweet potatoes. I opted for the shrimp and grits.
I was smitten from the start. Whoever came up with the idea of pairing pulled pork barbecue with grits deserves an award. The thick but creamy grits packed just enough cheddar to make them sing, and the nearly crisp kale popped with flavor. The perfectly cooked shrimp made for a dish that had this northeastern North Carolina gal gasping. When Smith finally arrived at my table and asked how I was doing, I thought I might weep. I managed to shake his hand. “You know, I’m especially proud of my poor man’s surf and turf,” he offered.
For the third course, the offerings included a hot mug of chocolate cake with house-made marshmallow fluff; a hazelnut semifreddo with pear coulis; and vanilla bean crème brulee. Having already eaten a vat of marshmallow fluff at The Little Dipper, I opted for the semifreddo. Two beautiful creamy white slabs of chilled egg whites and whipped cream arrived. This Italian dessert could stand on its own with no other frippery. It didn’t really need the sweetness of the coulis, but that was a nice touch, too.
After this meal, and after having visited four other restaurants for Triangle Restaurant Week, I mulled over how this relative Southern upstart got everything right about the event—great service, even on a packed Friday night, and a prix fixe menu that shows off the kitchen. If the intent of participating in Triangle Restaurant Week is to generate repeat business, go ahead and call me an 18 Seaboard regular.
I hope we’re going to be dating for a long time.