Some people are just good at what they do. You know, they have a certain knack and therefore it seems that failure really isn’t even in the cards. Know what I mean? I don’t know this from personal experience, but I’ve been around people with this kind of talent. Can’t help but be a bit envious.
Kevin and Stacey Jennings are those kind of people and their talent is creating and running great restaurants. Porter’s and Frazier’s are two of my favorite restaurants in Raleigh. Their food is great, the service is consistent, and the atmosphere is a good mix between cozy and lively (with Frazier’s appropriately leaning towards the cozy side and Porter’s the lively). When I have folks in from out-of-town, their restaurants are always among the first that come to mind because I don’t worry about having a bad experience.
Their latest venture, Vivace, opened on Tuesday night in North Hills. And, in perfect Raleighing fashion, we were there the next night. Not standard practice for restaurants to be reviewed so early in their existence, but we like to give you all a "first impression" review (so please take it as that!). Before we even made it to the front door, we were impressed with the large outdoor dining area complete with outdoor bar and a large fountain. While it was too chilly this week to enjoy it, my wife and I quickly started envisioning many a summer evening spent out there.
Upon entering the restaurant itself, the beloved feeling of escapism is felt immediately. The ceilings are very high and the first feature that I noticed was the collection of long sheer white drapes hanging between the bar area near the door and the dining area in the back half of the restaurant. Soft in appearance, but dramatic in height, these drapes achieve the separation function quite nicely while still allowing for an open air feeling to be maintained throughout the space. Several of the walls and posts are covered in a type of wallpaper that gives the appearance of soft, flowing fabric which, along with the drapes, gives the space a touch of what my untrained eye interpreted as a classical Italian feel. But, the rest of the design is contemporary in nature. Throughout the space, dark wood is used which provides a pleasing contrast to the white of the walls and drapes. The tables were without tablecloths, adding to the clean lines and the openness. The whole effect is to please but keep the focus on the colorful food headed our way.
The only major splash of color, save a few paintings on the wall, is delivered by a very long, tall, yellow/tan leather upholstered bench in the nicely-sized bar area. We didn’t spend any time in the bar, but it was inviting for sure and we are surely going to pay a visit to that bench soon!
The last interior feature I’ll mention (get to the food already, man!) is a food bar (or pizza bar, perhaps?) situated facing the kitchen in the back of the restaurant. Imagine a sushi bar in a Tuscan restaurant. Several folks were sitting along this bar and sampling various items such as the enticingly thin crusted pizzas. I would expect this area would make for a fun, casual dining evening but will make an official report once I have the chance to try it out myself.
Ok, now for the food. Both my wife and I enjoyed Frazier’s when Chef Jeremy Sabo was in the kitchen, so we were excited to see what he had to offer in this setting. We ordered a Caesar Salad and the Vivace Meatball appetizer to share. When ordering the salad, we were asked if we were Ok with the white anchovies that were to be placed on top of the salad. Luckily, my wife was in a brave mood that night and we agreed to give them a shot. Take my word for it, make sure you don’t shy away from them yourself. They are very light, very mild, and a perfect compliment to the very tasty Caesar dressing. Absolutely ranks up there as one of the best Caesar salads in Raleigh, if not the best. The meatball appetizer is one very large meatball in a bed of polenta and a little tomato sauce. We both enjoyed this as well.
For our entrees, my wife ordered the four cheese ravioli and I ordered the NY Strip and Braised Short Ribs. Her dish, for which the pasta is made in-house, was mouth-wateringly good and cooked perfectly. I only had a couple of bites, but it was enough to agree with her that they are doing a good job with the requisite pasta. My dish was quite a bit more complex. The small piece of NY Strip and the bit larger piece of braised short ribs were stacked up on a bed of Gorgonzola potatoes along with wild mushrooms. Of all the items on the plate, I’d say the NY Strip was the least enjoyable. I am not completely sure, but I’m guessing that they are still in that break-in period for their grills as it looked like it had been cooked too quickly leaving a distinct line between the cooked layer and heated layer. This is not surprising in a new restaurant as I have been told it takes a while to get things set just the way they should be and it is my opinion that this one should fall into the "first impression" category.
Now, the braised short ribs were exactly the opposite as they were obviously slow-cooked to perfection. I didn’t even need a knife, using just my fork to pull off bites. This along with the Gorgonzola potatoes was a taste to behold, my mouth watering as I type this.
Oh, and before I forget, I wanted to point out something on their drink menu. Of course, they have a strong wine and beer menu and all the standard bar offerings. But they also have when they call their ‘cellos, which basically consist of grain alcohol infused with various fruit flavors over a long period of time (I believe they told us these were infused for 2 months!) and then sweetened with simple syrup. My wife ordered a mojito which was prepared using their limoncello along with crushed mint leaves and soda water. She is quite picky with her mojitos and enjoyed this one very much.
For dessert, we had the Almond Semifreddo, which was basically a pyramid of almond ice cream surrounded by a sauce that had almonds, cherries, and, surprisingly enough, black pepper. Sticking out of the top of the pyramid was hardened caramel drizzle, which was, whether on purpose or by accident, in the shape of a "V." We inhaled all of this in record time (granted, it was only their 2nd night open) and were unable to convince our server that he actually never brought us the dessert… Oh well.
So, as far as first impressions go, I’d say this one is love at first sight. But, before I get in all kinds of trouble for writing a good review so early, please take everything I say with a grain of salt. Many things can change in the early weeks/months of a restaurant’s existence so I make no guarantees that things stay this good.
Rather than just relying on me though, I think the Jennings’ track record is a lot firmer a foundation to lean on when deciding whether or not you think this one will make it. I know where my money lies.
P.S. – One thing I neglected to mention above was the top notch service we received. This is pretty commonplace in their restaurants so maybe I’ve just come to expect it. The wait staff and management seem to have a firm grasp on the fact that we are all there to enjoy ourselves and they do a splendid job facilitating that. I was surprised at how knowledgeable the staff was already even though it was just the second night. I think Kevin and Stacey and their management team need to write a book on customer service and employee motivation. They seem to be able to ensure their teams keep it all in focus.
We went back to the restaurant tonight and it was PACKED! Even so, we received impeccable service and had a fantastic meal. Everyone in the place had a smile on his or her face and really seemed to be having a good time. And the staff, who had to have been overwhelmed, didn’t let us see them sweat. Even their bus boys were the most courteous I have ever experienced.