Fine Dining reviews

The name notwithstanding, this is a new restaurant. Personnel — from management to kitchen staff to wait staff — have changed, in some cases multiple times, since LaRue Elm was originally established. I think renaming the property, therefore, would improve public perception.

The executive chef, in place since early September, is Darius Cohn. He went to Johnson and Wales after earning his bachelor’s degree in biology at Elon University. He makes frequent visits to tables, albeit brief, a function of direct, hands-on attention to preparation and execution in the kitchen. His creations are easily accessible, while displaying unique twists and polished executions.

We started our first visit with crispy shrimp and calamari. Initial impression: This guy can fry. It’s an unusually large portion, with jumbo shrimp and calamari piled over tempura vegetables — onion, sweet potato, zucchini and yellow squash. The shrimp are remarkable for crispness and tenderness, as well as solid flavor. The baby calamari and sliced tentacles are inherently firmer, but equally crisp and flavorful. An aioli, which the chef makes from scratch, is blended with his own blend of Cajun spices, plus a little garlic. It could use a little more, but a request for extra was promptly filled.

Lots of places place fried seafood, especially starters, over lettuce. It looks attractive, but the lettuce is seldom edible, because it takes up grease. Here, there is no grease, and the spring mix lettuces are dressed in light vinaigrette, creating a complete conception, in terms of nutrition as well as appearance.

Fried oysters are plump and juicy, crisp from the fryer. These also come with tempura vegetables. Leaves of crisp, fried kale are scattered about.

A crab cake hosts large pieces of crab — crab flavor predominant — augmented with diced peppers and onions, the exterior light brown and slightly crisp. A fairly spicy remoulade lends character. I rank this in the upper echelon among area restaurants.

Seared ahi tuna revealed not a single streak of gristle, delightfully tender overall, deep red in color, coated with black and white sesame seeds and lightly seared. The slices are arrayed over sesame dressed seaweed salad. A word of caution: A couple of pieces of what looks like potato, coated with sesame seeds, are actually wasabi. Use it sparingly until you determine the level of intensity you want.

Deuces Wild is a novel combination of jumbo shrimp wrapped in bacon, plus Moroccan spiced ground beef on skewers placed alongside. Rarely in this popular combination is a kitchen able to get the bacon crisp without overcooking the shrimp, but this one does. And the beef flavor is excellent.

Entrees sustained these extremely positive initial impressions. This guy can bake and grill and blend, too. He even makes mustard from scratch, a wonderful whole grain concoction that I would buy on its own, if it were available.

The menu vows that seared salmon is wild caught from Alaska. It arrived cooked just as requested, with a light crust, still moist inside, ladled with beurre blanc sauce scattered with capers. Although the menu does not say so, the serving includes vegetables — broccoli, zucchini and squash, al dente, lightly flavored with butter.

Fish and chips presents a large portion of fried cod, pleasantly nutty in flavor, along with thin cut French fries that actually taste like potato, along with jicama based slaw — a really good, original creation. Caper tartar sauce and malt vinegar lend accent.

Shrimp and grits have become ubiquitous, but so many kitchens serve this dish because so many people want it. The rendition here uses chorizo sausage, ground and distributed through the grits, broadening flavor impact, enhanced with bits of crisp pork belly. The shrimp are large and tender and fully flavored. Grits are yellow stone ground, enriched with cheddar cheese.

Bacon-wrapped Cajun scallops proved that the technique demonstrated with the similar shrimp dish was no fluke. Tender scallops and crisp bacon get a mellow Cajun spiced cream sauce treatment, quite rich, deeply satisfying.

Braised short ribs have been pulled off the bone. The meat, simmered in red wine, is delightfully tender and richly flavored, enhanced with brown gravy. Grilled Napa cabbage is the vegetable.

A pork chop off-menu special had been slit, a wafer of spinach and goat cheese inserted, grilled moist and tender, enhanced with that homemade whole-grain mustard and blackening seasonings. Flavor ranked among the best such renditions I have encountered. This was well matched with sweet potato hash and al dente broccoli, cut bite-size.

Steak au Poivre, another special, used a thick filet mignon, lean yet tender, with depth of flavor appropriate for the cut. I would be hard pressed to identify a better filet mignon in our area. Add peppercorn cream sauce, and you get a range of complexity that extends the initial quality impact of the steak. Mashed potatoes did not quite live up to the other dishes — a little on the thin side for my taste, but OK. The green vegetable was tempura asparagus, another winner.

In general, I did not perceive the depth of food knowledge from servers that characterizes restaurants of the highest rank. Deliveries on two visits, however, were accurate and appropriately paced, checks correctly tabulated. But no one seemed to know about an advertisement the restaurant had run offering a complimentary appetizer with two entrees. Another visit was marred by multiple errors. In the restaurant’s defense, the server was new, but the supervisor should have caught the mistakes.

None of these problems would keep me from returning. The food is too enjoyable to miss. Starting in late December or early January, current sous chef Lin will become sushi chef Lin, adding another dimension to the menu. I’m looking forward to repeat visits.

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John Batchelor has been reviewing restaurants for 30 years. His reviews run the first Thursday of the month. Contact him at john.e.batchelor@gmail.com.

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