(Herons Dining Room)
Herons is North Carolina’s lone Forbes 5-Star Restaurant and one of two AAA 5-Diamond restaurants, along with the nearby Fearrington House Restaurant. It is affiliated with the Umstead Resort, which is a sort of luxury retreat in the upscale town of Cary. Although I try not to place much stock in awards/evaluative criteria, Herons does have a reputation for being on the rise as this was the first year in which they were awarded 5 stars from Forbes. One of the benefits to Herons is that they are open for lunch; my brother and I had made dinner reservations at Fearrington House that evening and so we decided to make a grand day of it and secured reservations for lunch that same day.
The Umstead is certainly posh, although more in a resort sense than the Relais and Chateaux sensibility exhibited by White Barn Inn, Fearrington House, etc. The environs were shiny and new, but in a bland sense that didn’t feel particularly unique. I could see people vacationing there, but it doesn’t have the world-unto-itself feel of a Relais and Chateaux property. However, Herons places a strong emphasis on customer service, which was immediately on display as there was complimentary valet.
The inspiration for the restaurant’s name is a bit illogical since the Umstead is actually located in a woodsy setting; however, the interior décor has a heron/wildlife motif. A statue of a heron graces the entryway and the dining room is decorated with a marsh motif. As one can see in the photo above, there are reeds on the mural and the chairs are decorated with a reed design. I suppose it’s commendable that the décor corresponds so directly with the restaurant’s name, but I still don’t think the décor was attractive. There was certainly a polished feel to the setting, but it was a dated polish that veered toward decadence. Overall, the décor was shiny and comfortable, but stale by about a decade (and not in a self-conscious way.) We were offered a two-top alongside one of the banquettes; however, we declined it in favor of a table in the center, for the logical reason that the marsh patterning on the seat cushion was unattractive.
One of the themes raised by the Herons dining room concerns the open kitchen, specifically whether an open kitchen can have a diminishing effect on a restaurant’s décor. In most cases, open kitchens are in close proximity with the dining room. In certain cases, such as at Fore Street in Maine, there is no distinct separation between the kitchen and dining room. This was not the case at Herons, where the kitchen was deeply segregated from the dining room. At the same time, however, the view was enormous and easily large enough to obtain a wide view of the kitchen setting. However, the view was not attractive; to my mind the main attraction of an open kitchen is that it should provide an up-close view of the cooking theatrics and with such a vast distance this was impossible. As one can see from the picture below, the net result was a banal view, and I feel as though the dining room would be better served with a closed kitchen.
Luckily, the shortcomings of the décor were counteracted by stellar service throughout the meal. Our server spoke with commitment and pride, making recommendations and comprehensively fielding queries relating to sourcing, preparation techniques and ingredients. We discussed restaurants and he asked me about some specific Chicago restaurants and mentioned that he enjoys reading up on restaurants in other cities. I appreciated his first-person enthusiasm, and overall he displayed the blend of precision and personality that characterizes excellent service. Every restaurant has a personality to it that stems from the cuisine, décor, and service, and this was an instance where the personality of the restaurant was engendered more by the server than the décor.
Predictably, the lunch menu did not have as much modernist flair as the dinner version, raising the recurring question of exactly how much creativity should be expected of a luxury restaurant during their lunch service. Ultimately, however, my expectation for a lunch menu veers more toward comfort than challenge, and the menu delivered in this regard. The restaurant also is similar to L’Espalier in Boston since they have an affiliated farm from which they source produce, vegetables, and herbs. I settled for cauliflower chowder and cornmeal crusted North Carolina flounder; my brother chose the braised lamb shoulder and the chicken breast.
The amuse bouche was a peach panna cotta; while a bit unusual to receive such a sweet amuse bouche, it was not out of line when considering the lunchtime/brunch seating.
The bread service also veered toward sweet flavors, as there were cranberry scones, golden raisin bread, and baguette. Butter was sourced from Vermont. All breads were all warm and outstanding.
My cauliflower chowder included capers, bacon, and golden raisins. The thick cauliflower broth was enhanced by sherry vinegar, which did a great job of tempering the sweetness of the vegetable. An enjoyable aspect of this dish was the presentation—I’ve never had a tableside pour that was executed from such an elevated height.
Brother’s pork shoulder was served in a surprisingly heavy ingredient combination for a starter, as it was accompanied by potato dumplings and bacon. However, the portion size was modest and the ingredients skillfully executed.
The flounder dish looked aesthetically dubious. It looked like a bit of a mess; the dish was actually a special and perhaps would have benefitted from some careful editing. To its credit, the dish was held together by its expressive use of local corn, which manifested in a few different ways. There was a corn bread puree on the bottom, as well as a corn bread pave and the corn that coated the flounder. I would have preferred the flounder without the corn crust, but it worked well enough and supplied some texture to the flat fish. The sauce on the left side of the plate was a tasty roasted red pepper aioli.
The chicken arrived with aged parmesan orzo, broccoli, sunflower seeds, and natural jus. Another noticeable aspect of the plating composition was the edible flowers, which were the same ones used in the lamb shoulder dish. Lately I have taken an interest in the way in which restaurants garnish their plates, and the use of flowers is interesting as they are superfluous from a taste standpoint but also manage to be a strong focal point.
We were having a great time and so we ordered dessert. The dessert options were interesting because they were far more modernist than the savories. I generally get annoyed when the desserts assume a different sensibility from the savories, but in this case it was forgivable since this was lunch and the dinner menu appears to be more in line with the playful spirit of the desserts. On my server’s recommendation, I chose the “Coffee Cake” dessert, while my brother chose the “Roasted Apples.”
My dessert consisted of coffee cake, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, coffee parfait, and a boozy Irish Cream foam. Before this dessert, it had been a long time since I’d had a decent dessert and this may have positively impacted my evaluation. Still, the dish was excellent and managed to constructively unify contrasting textures.
The apple dessert also managed to balance many different flavors and textures, as the roasted apples were served with green apple gelee, apple butter, oats, and maple yoghurt mousse. The flavors were not quite as explosive as my dessert, but tasty and conceptually interesting nonetheless.
Doing fine dining at lunch can be difficult. On the one hand, I think every restaurant owes it to itself to operate at the best of their abilities, but on the other, the clientele often isn’t as adventurous during the day. Personally, I almost never enter a lunchtime service with the same expectations as I would for dinner; with this concession, I enjoyed this meal very much. At the same time, many of the pleasures of this meal resulted from the interaction with our excellent server and the dining room manager, who stopped by to chat on two different occasions.
Herons is also a difficult restaurant to analyze because the décor is generic and obscures the more ambitious personality evinced by the desserts, which were particularly notable and gave us some idea of the dinnertime cuisine. It will be interesting to return later this winter and see how the restaurant compares with McCrady’s, Fearrington House, and the Carolina restaurant elite.