Travel | Videri Chocolate Factory: Raleigh’s Sweetest Attraction


Travel | Must-Try Eateries in North Carolina’s Food Mecca, Raleigh

img_1529On my trip to the capital of North Carolina, I had the awesome experience of going on a guided food tour through the downtown area of Raleigh. If you’re looking for a guide, I highly recommend going on a excursion with  Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours. Here’s a rundown of the eateries I had the opportunity to try out during my tour and overall trip, each being distinctively delicious.

Raleigh is home to award-winning restaurants, creative chefs, breweries, local hotspots, as well as restaurants steeped in history. I was surprised to learn, after chatting with several Raleigh entrepreneurs (who also tend to be chefs and owners themselves), that each of them not only wants success for themselves and their businesses, but also for the community.

Each of the spots I visited utilized local ingredients from their next-door neighbors. The produce, dairy, and more come from local outposts, and moreover, each restaurant will openly boast about how awesome their fellow chicken farmer or tomato grower is.

Centro is a lively and welcoming Mexican restaurant. Centro looks like a colorful work of art. Framed portraits, paintings, intricately designed masks, and vibrant creations cover the already bright walls. There are many Mother Mary, crosses, and Jesus depictions adorning the restaurant, as well as hanging, glowing lanterns and rainbow papel picados.

img_1516The food is authentic Mexican and Latin American cuisine; the menu ranges from enchiladas and tamales to chilaquiles and tostadas, and, of course, craft margaritas, mezcals, and cocktails.

Owner and chef Angela Salamanca decided to whip us up a special item for us to try: arepas with chicken salad and a side of plantain black beans. The warm, buttery arepa was filled with a fresh, flavorful chicken salad ― which couldn’t be more different from the mayonnaise-laden goop sold in many grocery stores.
img_1521Originating from Colombia, Salamanca explained that she chose to serve us arepas in order to highlight how each region and state has its own version of the cornmeal bread. Each interpretation of what makes an arepa authentically “good” is reflective of the area’s heritage and culture.

Chef Sean Fowler’s classy, spacious Southern bistro offers local, fresh and fabulous cuisine. While continuing to use local purveyors for its sourced ingredients, Mandolin also has a lovely culinary garden on site.
img_1501img_1500I left Mandolin stuffed and beyond happy with my brunch. The Mandolin Skillet with stone ground grits, house smoked bacon, black-eyed peas, fried eggs, ranchero sauce and crème fraiche is creamy, rich and decadent. I chose to balance it out with a bowl of beautiful fresh fruit and orange juice. And coffee, of course. Definitely looking forward to returning and trying out other standouts on the flavorful menu, like the Chicken & Waffles with braised greens, sautéed mushrooms, bacon–mushroom emulsion and truffle honey.

Gravy is a family-friendly Italian-American eatery that specializes in quality, locally sourced fare. What’s gravy? According to the pasta experts here, “gravy” is “the pasta sauce that their [Italian-Americans] mothers and grandmothers cooked fresh every night.” This restaurant offers crowd-pleasing classics such as house-made gnocchi with mushrooms and a leek cream sauce; tagliatelle a la Bolognese with local beef and pancetta Bolognese and house-made ricotta; as well as authentic, cheesy, layered lasagna.img_1526

Chef Justin Bartolet treated us to an off-the-menu creation: espelette mezzaluna, moon-shaped pasta filled with smoked ham and served with poblano pepper sauce and marinated tomatoes. We also enjoyed a wine pairing that complemented the salty, smokiness of the pasta. Fun fact: Gravy butchers its own whole-hog meat in the kitchen and uses each hog’s meat entirely — as in nothing goes to waste — in dishes that range from traditional pasta sauces to head cheese and more.

Pharmacy Café
For dessert, get a sundae at the one-of-a-kind Pharmacy Café — an eatery that is actually a part of the Pharmacy Street Café. The Pharmacy Café is a modern take on an old-school pharmacy lunch counter set in an historic building from 1910. This Raleigh favorite offers local beer, wine, breakfast, lunch and quick bites, and homemade ice cream, fizzes and milkshakes.
img_1418I went with the Sweet & Shine: sweet potato ice cream laced with moon-shine syrup topped with candied pecans, white chocolate and an orange-fig sauce. It was everything I dreamed it would be. And more.

The Roast Grill (Hot Weiners)
This was a very special ― and unexpected ― stop on my culinary adventure in Raleigh. The Roast Grill has been in business since 1940, strictly selling hot dogs and glass-bottle Cokes only (plus its famed authentic Greek desserts). This hot dog eatery has been run with the same dedication and love by the same family since it first opened.

The only things that are allowed to go on these dogs are The Roast Grill’s famous chili, mustard, slaw, and onions ― ketchup is forbidden. Why? Founder Mary Charles and host George Poniros will tell you that “it interferes with the chili!”
img_1539img_1534This nostalgic spot has been visited by everyone from Elvis Presley to Man Vs. Food’s Adam Richman. “You won’t find generic ball-park dogs here,” said the famous eating machine. “At the Roast Grill, every frank is 90% beef with just a bit of lean pork flavor, uniquely cooked to a crisp black char on their 70 year old original grill.”

Lucettegrace is a lovely patisserie that offers French-inspired savory and sweet pastries, lunch items, and indulgent desserts. This welcoming downtown spot has a bright, industrial design that’s accented with bright yellow stools, chairs, and freshly picked flowers.
img_1562Pastry chef/owner Daniel Benjamin features outrageously fabulous treats such as the candy bar cake (almond cake with milk chocolate praline crunch, and a dark chocolate hazelnut mousse); the escazu PB pretzel cake (escazu dark chocolate mousee, caramel cremeux, and a peanut butter crunch — I tried this, but a brownie version with coffee mousse and gold flakes); and a blueberries + cream vanilla cheesecake with a blueberry mousse, pistachio cake, almond cake, and a blueberry compote.

Savory items are equally tasty and inventive, and include items like bacon jam and cheese Danish and buttermilk scones filled with pistachios, figs, and cardamom. I also had the pleasure of tasting one of the fresh peach ice cream macaroon sandwiches, which was heavenly.

Bittersweet is an excellent spot for people who are into cocktails, desserts, and coffee (that’s everyone, right?). This charming eatery/ lounge has a slightly retro feel and is beautifully designed with a classic bar, back wall filled with all sorts of colorful spirit bottles — especially gin ― cocktail glasses, espresso-makers, coffee cups, and barista equipment. Of course, it also has freshly baked goods lining the countertop.

Owner and baker Kim Hammer got her start baking for friends, and then one day it became clear that there was a demand for her goodies. Hammer began commercially baking straight from her kitchen and began selling her home-baked goods throughout the Triangle-area, including at the famed Carrboro Farmers Market.
img_1580From there she made her passion into a full-time job by opening a “terribly wonderful dessert, coffee and cocktail lounge” that offers all seasonal treats and complex, innovative flavor combinations. Also noteworthy ― she has some of the most badass tattoos I’ve ever seen. My favorite? Her dagger-through-the-heart tattoo with one, wonderful word: butter.

Death and Taxes
If you’re looking for a memorable dinner experience, get yourself a seat at the newest restaurant in Ashley Christensen’s Raleigh-Durham empire, Death and Taxes. While she maintains her other dining establishments which include Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Chuck’s, Poole’s Diner, and Joule Coffee & Table, Death and Taxes is absolutely fantasic, having been named one of America’s Best New Restaurants by bon appètit.
img_1485img_1488img_1490This Southern brasserie is distinct in that the majority of its menu features wood-fired cooking. Sit at the counter where you can watch the talented chefs in the busy kitchen work their magic. With a menu divided in to three sections — of the sea, on the land and of the land — it’s pretty tough to decide what inventive dishes to order. I absolutely fell in love with the ember-killed salad with country ham vinaigrette. For my main, I ordered the incredibly succulent The Pig with charred cabbage and caraway, topped with chicharrones. Dessert was sweet summer on a plate: tres leches cake, fresh peaches, soft cream and malted milk.

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Travel | The Umstead Hotel & Spa

Top rated cuisine, immaculate grounds, and 12 acres of forest are just a few things that set this destination apart from the rest. {Credit: The Umstead}
 As one of only two five-star, five-diamond rated hotels in North Carolina, The Umstead Hotel & Spa is a gorgeous retreat that is absolutely worthy of its reputation. Located within 12 acres of lush woodlands that overlook a private lake, the atmosphere is serene, tranquil, and downright magical.

Unlike many hotels, The Umstead is very tastefully decorated; no kitschy, tacky artwork around here. Huge, fresh, and artistically designed bouquets of flowers welcome you in to the hotel. Moreover, aside from being immaculately clean and well-manicured — both inside and outside — The Umstead prides itself on a uniquely curated and creatively displayed collection of art.

Works of art by both local and national artists can be found throughout the property. Currently, The Umstead boasts 95 pieces of original art in its collection. One of the most noteworthy pieces is a stunning Dale Chihuly glass sculpture titled “Ardea Figura,” which sits in the main lounge of the hotel.
img_1659The design of this hotel and spa embodies its desire to be a luxurious space “where nature and art collide.” The Umstead’s emphasis on appreciating the forest surroundings is showcased everywhere you go on the property. For example, if you feel like taking a walk, there’s a charming lakeside trail that gives you an even more immersed-in-nature feel. Further elevating guests’ experiences is the luxurious two-story, 16,000-square-foot spa which offers 11 treatment rooms, including three couples’ treatment rooms, separate men’s and women’s private lounges with a steam room infused with eucalyptus, deluge shower, whirlpool and sauna, a relaxation lounge, an open-roof current pool, and more.

UmsteadThere are plenty of areas to both lounge and dine al fresco, a pristine garden, benches to simply take in the peaceful beauty of the lake, and all the while you can hear the sounds of birds chirping. For chillier evenings, you can cozy up on the outdoor terrace, which is decked out with an impressive fireplace and seating to enjoy a meal or drinks.

My room was lovely, quiet, and the bed was wonderfully comfortable. (There’s nothing worse than an uncomfortable bed in an otherwise excellent space.) The first thing I indulged on was the fresh bowl of fruit waiting for me as I entered my room. I was a huge fan of the Umstead Spa Signature botanical bath amenities, which only made soaking in the super deep bath tub even more of a luxurious experience. I also loved the fact that the plants in my room were actually living — a nice touch. The staff was very nice, attentive, polite, and available 24/7 to make sure all needs were taken care of.

img_1595The food was on point. I highly recommend dining at The Umstead’s signature restaurant, Herons, even if you’re not staying at the hotel. Headed by executive chef, Steven Devereaux Greene — a current semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s 2016 Best Chef: Southeast award — this restaurant offers modern American regional cuisine that showcases seasonal, local produce. Greene has been with The Umstead since 2009 and has transformed the now award-winning restaurant, along with the hotel and spa’s other dining options, into culinary heavyweights.

The dining room is elegant and the wait staff is knowledgeable, attentive, and friendly. Dinner at Herons was a fantastic experience. Each course was unexpectedly unique in terms of presentation, creativity, and flavor.

The meal began with a trio of fun amuse-bouches, which included foie gras bon bons in the form of freshly picked cherries; quail corn dogs with truffle ketchup and pickled cucumber; and smoked trout cannoli with American sturgeon caviar. The menu is divided into four courses, plus an artisan cheese option, and each dish is described with only main ingredients which leaves much to the imagination.

Corn dogsI started with a course of cubed beets, roasted salt, elderflower, a dollop of frozen yogurt, pistachio, and lemon sorrel. I can’t exactly say how all these layers of flavor came together in the dish, but it was delicious. My dining companion ordered the oysters, which was an exceptionally impressive dish. With saffron dashi, yuzu, cauliflower, scallion, white poppy, and sturgeon, each oyster came in a ceramic oyster shell and was presented on a platter that (thanks to dry ice, I assume) was literally smoking. One of the coolest dishes I’ve seen.

My second course was the 62-degree egg, and for those of you not obsessed with food, this is widely considered to be a perfectly cooked egg. I’ve never tried to cook an egg like this, but I can say that the result is a silky, creamy, delicate egg white that gently encases a liquid gold egg yolk. It’s no joke. This special dish was served in an urchin-shaped bowl and accompanied with another spiky urchin holding crisps to scoop up the soft, eggy goodness. Along with the egg was a serving of sea urchin, Charleston gold rice, mushroom espuma, and a crinkle of edible gold.


For my entrée, I decided on the pork loin and belly, which was artfully plated with edible violets, black plum, purple yam, fennel, salted oats, and braised walnuts, topped with a single pork rind. This loin and belly combo was tender and rich and had a flawless, well-seasoned searing. Overall, the entrée was sweet, savory, and indulgent; I’m always a fan of pork belly.

Dessert was quite a difficult choice for me. From the coconut with lime caviar, caramelized pineapple, passion fruit, black cocoa, and mango; to the tira-mushroom made with coffee, mascarpone, lady fingers, branches, and flourless chocolate cake; I was at a crossroads. So, I decided on the peach: Carolina peach nectar, raspberry cells (literally individual cells of the berry), amaretto nuage, and spun sugar (aka fancy pink cotton candy), topped with pink flower petals. This dessert was a work of art; I couldn’t have been happier with my choice.

peachAdditionally, we were served chocolate “cigars” — out of a real cigar box — complete with a chocolate-dust-covered “ash tray.” We were also served an incredible “glass” orb filled with a chocolate mousse-like filling, along with tiny balls of white and dark chocolate, and gold leaf. And just when we thought the experience was over, the servers brought over the most adorable dessert/piece of artwork.

chocolateSituated on a wooden log was a forest scene with a bed of river rocks, branches, leaves, chocolate-dipped and golden-dust-coated fruits, sugar-coated raspberries, and several green, marshmallow… caterpillars! Complete with drawn-on faces. I was amazed.

The Umstead also has a bar and lounge open for lunch that offers Herons-inspired cuisine. Before I hopped on a plane back to New York City, I had a lovely lunch al fresco, overlooking the lake scenery with a succulent plant on my patio table and chirping birds on the deck.
img_1700Smaller plates at the bar and lounge range from tuna tartare with a spiced mustard and cucumber; and fried okra with a buttermilk pimento dressing and pickles; to beef carpaccio with a curry aioli and charred beets with a goat cheese mousse and pistachios. For hearty entrées, they offer a nice selection that includes grilled salmon with asparagus and a lemon broth; and beef tenderloin with baked mac and cheese and a house made steak sauce.

dessertSaying yes to dessert at The Umstead — courtesy of pastry chef Jonathan Fisher — is a no-brainer. Having worked at fine establishments such as The French Laundry in Yountville, California, and El Cellar de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, Fisher takes desserts to new heights both in taste and creativity. I chose to indulge on the salty/sweet milk chocolate cremeaux, which came with corn ice cream, caramel, and Anson Mills corn cake. Served with corn kernels, caramel popcorn, and a brilliant yellow, marbled chocolate coating, it was fabulous.

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