Halfway through 2018, here are the best reviewed restaurants of the year so far

With dozens of sweet temptations from dainty macarons in pastel hues to rustic apple, sour cherry and frangipane hand pies to utterly decadent chocolate-dipped cream puffs, the only way you can go wrong is to skip dessert at Rose's Noodles, Dumplings & Sweets.Juli Leonard

Man, what a grind! One night it’s foie gras and lobster, the next it’s oysters Rockefeller and a dry-aged porterhouse. Sometimes I even have to eat out two meals in the same day.

Then there are the grueling hours. On mornings when I have a deadline looming or a Sunday brunch on the schedule, I have to roll out of bed at the crack of 9 .m.

And don’t get me started on clothes. Every time I leave the office (aka the converted second bedroom in our home), I have to put on clothes with no holes in them. If it’s a nice restaurant, I might even wear long pants and a shirt with a collar.

Yeah, I know. You feel my pain. So I’m sure you’ll understand when I say I’ve decided to kick back a little this week. Indulge in a verbal palate cleanser, if you will, in which I savor the highlights of the best restaurants I’ve visited so far this year, and share them with you in the form of excerpts from my reviews.

By “best” I mean restaurants I’ve rated 4 stars or better. And by “4 stars or better” I mean, “Wow! I didn’t realize how well I’ve been eating lately.”

Looking back over the first six months of 2018, four restaurants have earned a 4-star rating, and a fifth (Saint James) scored 4 1/2 stars.

Then there’s Saltbox Seafood Joint, in a class by itself. Because it isn’t a full-table service restaurant, I wrote a mini review (which doesn’t include a star rating) about that in June. But if I awarded stars based on the food alone, Saltbox would be a slam dunk 4 stars.

That’s a veritable galaxy of stars — or in mathematical terms, an average of one stellar restaurant a month. The fact that half of these places specialize in fresh seafood — a category that has long been underrepresented in these parts — is icing on the cake.

And to think I ate at least twice in each one. Guess my job isn’t so bad after all.

Here are some of the restaurants listed chronologically by publication date and excerpts of the original review.

Rose’s Noodles, Dumplings & Sweets

121 N. Gregson St., Durham

919-797-2233 or rosesmeatandsweets.com

Cuisine: Asian-inspired contemporary, desserts

Highlights (Reviewed Jan. 11)

▪ Roasted pork — local, pasture-raised and butchered in house — with sautéed mustard greens, a fried egg and Korean gochujang chile sauce between thick slices of house-baked sourdough.

▪ Katsu Sando, which piles Japanese style panko-crusted pork cutlets, shredded cabbage and tonkatsu sauce between slices of light, subtly sweet milk bread.

▪ There’s also a house made Shan-Xi noodle dish — two variations, actually, one pairing the broad, very long wheat noodles (their Chinese name means “belt”) with an animal protein such as stir-fried pork belly or braised monkfish, and the other a vegetarian alternative.

▪ If ever there was a grownup version of “a kid in a candy shop,” it’s the feeling you’ll get when you’re looking at the display of Katie Meddis’ pastries. With dozens of sweet temptations from dainty macarons in pastel hues to rustic apple, sour cherry and frangipane hand pies to utterly decadent chocolate-dipped cream puffs, the only way you can go wrong is to skip dessert.

The USS Nimitz towers above the table with its three tiers of lobster, oysters, shrimp, clams, mussels, crab claws, king crab, ceviche, tartare and smoked fish dip at Saint James Seafood in Durham. // Casey Toth

Saint James

806 W. Main St., Durham

984-219-7900 or saintjamesseafood.com

Cuisine: seafood

Highlights (Reviewed March 22)

▪ The oyster bar selection alone is enough to keep me coming back, with nine or 10 varieties on a typical night ranging from briny-sweet Jarrett Bays from North Carolina to minerally Beau Soleils from Canada, with an occasional cameo appearance from the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

▪ Shellfish towers raise the ante (figuratively and literally) with jaw-dropping presentations of raw and steamed seafood. Minimum bid is $46 for the Jon Boat, which nets you a catch — ample for two as a starter — of oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp, crab claws (cracked for easy nibbling), and Kelly’s bright riff on coctel de camaron, served with fried saltines.

▪ Baked oysters, voluptuous with bone marrow and maître d’ butter beneath a delicate crust of parmesan and bread crumbs.

▪ When is the last time you saw lobster Newberg on a restaurant menu? You can relive the memory here with a respectful rendition that’s tweaked only slightly with a touch of paprika to reinforce the lobster shell color in its sherry cream sauce. Or roll up your sleeves and dig into an old-fashioned steam pot (OK, technically it’s a Le Creuset braising pan), redolent of Old Bay and brimming with half a lobster, shrimp, clams, oysters, andouille, potatoes and corn on the cob.

▪ Exemplary key lime pie on a crushed saltine crust (shades of North Carolina’s own Atlantic Beach pie).

See the full list here


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