Day 104–A Locavore’s Lunch–The Little Hen

A recent girls night out had me wondering if sustainable, locally produced food can truly be accessible. A friend and I had dinner at a locally sourced restaurant in Holly Springs called The Little Hen. The restaurant is not new, but it has received a lot of press lately, so we were eager to try it. While I associate Holly Springs with gated communities and McMansions, it hasn’t exactly been a location for high-end dining, so I figured we were probably in for a nice and affordable dinner. I wasn’t quite on the mark for that one. It was nice, but the pricing made me wonder if it is possible to be local and affordable. Maybe it isn’t. Or, maybe local sourcing has become so trendy that families are now priced out of sustainable dining.

The Little Hen is located in a suburban shopping center and while the exterior is very “shopping center,”  the interior is very trendy and cool. We arrived at 5:30, were greeted and asked if we had reservations (we did not) and told that the restaurant was “very busy” (it was not) so our only option was to share one of two available tables with others. Weird, but ok. We settled in and were given menus and our utensils wrapped in little dish towels, which also served as our napkins (cute). The menu features three entrees, about a half-dozen appetizers (mostly salads or cheese plates) and two special group dinners (either $45 for two or $50 per person) that feature a large carving board with different kinds of food to sample. We weren’t hungry enough for the sampler, so we headed for the entrees. In hindsight, we probably would have done better with the “Big Board” sampler.

The three entrees available were a cheeseburger and fingerling potatoes ($14), a pork chop and vegetables ($22) and a farm egg with ramps and garlic spaetzle ($14). Salads and cheese plates ran between $7 and $14. Not wanting to have ramp and garlic breath, I ordered a salad and the hamburger. I asked the server where their beef sourced from and she didn’t know (not good). She offered to find out, but never did. That, in my book, is a big red flag. I do notice that they claim “we use only sustainable pasture raised proteins from local farmers almost exclusively”. Almost? Well, where did my $14 hamburger come from? With only three entrees on the menu, someone should have been able to tell me.

The burger was good, but overcooked. The potatoes were truly amazing–slightly smashed and fried, then topped with sea salt. The salad was good–baby spinach and arugula with shaved apple, raw beet and cucumber. I’ve decided that while I love beets roasted and pickled, I’m not a huge fan of them raw, but they were ok. We shared a dessert that was some kind of bread pudding, but was really like a big, huge muffin. My total bill was about $40–almost half our weekly grocery bill for a burger, salad, part of a muffin and wine.

In eating out at sustainable, local restaurants, this was my first “meh” experience. It was fine, but not great and well more than many of the downtown Raleigh restaurants serving locally produced food. At one point, a family with small children came in and I wondered if somehow the kitchen has a children’s dinner, because I can’t imagine spending $14 each for 3 hamburgers. As a mom myself, I think I would have run screaming for the door.

I really think that if these locally based restaurants are going to survive, they need to lose the pretension and just get down to offering people good, local food. I get it that locally produced food costs more–I know because I’ve been buying it for my family for the past four months. But the model that sustainable, ethically produced food is only for the upscale trendy will be the locavore movement’s biggest downfall.

We’ve proven that we can eat sustainably at home for a reasonable amount–and we have been eating very well on our budget. So part of me has no patience for businesses that can’t do the same for their customers. If local eating is really to become a bigger reality, then we need to engage a larger audience. That isn’t The Little Hen’s job, of course. They are one business and they have a vision for what they want to do and that’s fine. I’ll be surprised if they are still open in a year, but then, I never thought Build-A-Bear would take off either, so that shows you what an economic genius I am. As for my family, this restaurant is not affordable enough to become a regular place and not special enough to become a new “special occasion” restaurant.

Meh.

Day 96–A Locavore’s Lunch–Sitti

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Hard to tell how warm and soft this pita is from the photo!

 When Ellie was very little, I enrolled her in a creative movement program for preschool children at the Raleigh School of Ballet. We spent every Saturday morning at the school and then we would join one of her classmates and her mom at next-door Neomonde Bakery. Owned by a Lebanese American family, Neomonde features food from the Middle East and the Mediterranean area. Their food is really absolutely delicious. Their homemade pita and flatbread are so good that many local grocers carry it. Part casual restaurant, part grocery, part take out, Neomonde has a stellar reputation in the area for fresh, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food. I don’t know how many quarts of humus I ate during those post-dance meetings, but it was all good–lots of garlic and a topping of cold pressed olive oil. YUM. A few years ago, the owners of Neomonde opened their own restaurant, Sitti, in downtown Raleigh, and while the food and ambiance are more upscale (I wouldn’t bring two rowdy ballerinas here!), it is all fresh, homemade and amazing. Sitti is a member of North Carolina’s 10% Challenge, meaning they have agreed to purchase at least 10% of their produce and food products from North Carolina farms.

Ellie isn’t a tiny dancer anymore, but we took a spring break opportunity to venture out to Sitti for a girl’s lunch. We started with an appetizer of falafel, which arrived carefully placed on a cucumber yogurt sauce. It was very good–crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. We ate them before we could take a photo! We also had a basket of fresh, very hot pita with an olive dipping sauce. Also delish. Could have stopped there, but no, we continued…

Our lunches were huge, super fresh and wonderful. Ellie had the chicken shawarma pizzette–a flatbread “pizza” with chicken shawarma, cheeses, roasted garlic and onions. It also came with a salad as big as her head. I had the curried chicken special–a huge mound of fresh, chicken salad loaded with my new favorite spice, turmeric! The chicken salad was served on a bed of field greens, cucumber, tomatoes, oranges and roasted red peppers. The whole thing was sprinkled with feta cheese. Needless to say, we have lunch for tomorrow as well!

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My curried chicken salad was delicious and lovely!

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Ellie's chicken shawarma pizzette was made on fresh flatbread and cooked to perfection in the wood oven. Yum.

Kudos to Sitti for bringing Mediterranean and Med-inspired food to downtown Raleigh. And for giving us a continuation of mother-daughter time centered on healthy, fresh food.

Day 62–A Locavore’s Lunch–The Busy Bee

The Busy Bee is located in what was the Busy Bee Cafe in the 1920s.

I have to say that lately, I’ve had such great lunches from home that I haven’t been eating out for lunch much (good for my health and my wallet!). But when I do get lunch out, I typically frequent one of our many downtown lunch spots that serve local food. The Busy Bee on Wilmington Street (www.busybeeraleigh.com) is one of my all time favorites. They were, in fact, the catalyst for my new love of the fish taco!

Located in a former cafe of the same name, the Busy Bee features fresh, local, organic produce and NC sourced seafood. Their beef apparently comes from a distributer (according to my server), but much of the rest of the menu comes from local and/or sustainable sources. My favorites are the fish tacos and the spinach and artichoke burger (a hand-made veggie burger with spinach, artichoke and feta). Their sides are also wonderful. If you are a mac & cheese lover, get thee to the Busy Bee! Lighter than many mac & cheese dishes, it is very flavorful and filling. I usually go the unhealthy route on the sides with either the mac & cheese, tater tots (seriously–so good) or the fried green tomatoes.

I’ve also gone to the Busy Bee for staff happy hour, and the place has a terrific vibe in the evening. If you like beer, they have a pretty incredible selection of artisanal brews. If you don’t like beer, I can vouch for the Queen Bee martini with local honey and elderflower (a note: I do not sample adult beverages at lunch. Not that I haven’t been tempted, but still…).

If you’re in the Triangle looking for wonderful, fresh, locally sourced food, give the Busy Bee a try! And if you’re not local, check out their menu for some great flavorful inspirations that you might try at home!

Day 42–A Locavore’s Lunch–Market Restaurant

The Market Restaurant provides fresh, organic, locally produced food!

I work with some really awesome people who, thankfully for me, seem to “get” me. For my birthday, they gave me a generous gift card to a restaurant in Raleigh called Market. Market serves primarily locally grown, seasonal food and locally produced, pasture-raised, pasture-fed meat. How did I not know about this place??? So on my birthday yesterday, my husband and I walked to lunch at Market and enjoyed a very healthy and delicious lunch!

Market is located in Raleigh on the north end of Blount Street (for you Raleigh natives, it’s down near the Pilot Mill Building, where Halifax Court used to be). In a converted service station, Market is on the small side, with about 15 tables inside and a few more on the patio. Lunch begins at 11:30 and when we arrived at 11:20, there were already people waiting to get in. By the time we left at about 12:15, it was full, so get there early! They also serve dinner and sometimes Sunday brunch.

The menu clearly articulates the mission statement of Market and lists their local producers (yay!!). Was glad to see our favorite Mae Farm listed! Since Fridays feature $5 Friday specials, we both had the specials and I had a house salad, which was very fresh and probably the best salad I’ve had in a while. I had the vegan 3 bean chili special, which was a thick, spicy chili served over jasmine rice. On a chilly winter day, it was perfect. My husband had the pulled pork sandwich with apple/cabbage slaw and he really liked it, although he didn’t like the pickled onions served on the sandwich (easy fix, scrape them off and move on). Other specials included rockfish tacos and risotto with mushrooms and squash. Other entrees included fried duck salad and a variation of pupusas.

When we left, we felt full, but not stuffed, which was nice. The portions are satisfying, but not overly huge. Would love to try their brunch sometime. The staff regularly post specials and events to their Facebook page and Twitter, so it’s easy to keep up with the menu.

I hope Market is just the beginning of socially conscious dining in Raleigh. They certainly prove that you can be organic, sustainable and local and still have really yummy food!

Day 32–A Locavore’s Lunch–18 Seaboard

I love restaurants that let you know up front where your food is coming from. 18 Seaboard in Raleigh is a higher end restaurant with a committment to featuring local and North Carolina food, especially seafood, cheese and beef. I’m getting so used to asking servers (who typically have to ask someone else), where the food comes from, so it’s nice to have it laid out there on the menu. I did find on a recent visit, that the staff are pretty familiar with where the menu sources from as well. How refreshing!

If you’re on a budget, go at lunch–you’ll get many of the same entrees for a reduced price. I had a great pasta dish with gemelli pasta, roasted butternut squash and fresh Pamlico Sound shrimp. So delicious and not heavy at all. I think I might be able to replicate this at home! Other entrees included fresh catfish and greens and short rib stuffed ravioli (which looked terrific).

18 Seaboard is by William Peace University in downtown Raleigh and is open for lunch Mon-Fri and dinner every night but Monday. You can find their menu at www.18seaboard.com

Day 26–A Locavore’s Lunch–Big Ed’s

Honey

Honey. If you are the kind of woman who hates being called “Honey” then by all means do not eat at Big Ed’s in Raleigh. Big Ed’s is one of those wonderful restaurants that has become an institution in and of itself, serving up large plates of locally grown vegetables and blue plate specials of NC pork, catfish and chicken pastry. And the waitresses WILL call you “Honey.” Or Sweetie.
Or Sugar. My advice? If you’re averse to such nicknames, suck it up and deal with it. Why? Because it’s meant in the nicest way possible (not in that creepy, condescending way that salesmen and politicians use), the service is amazing and friendly and the food is really good. Gut busting good. Paula Deen needs to come down here and learn herself a few things (and that, I promise, is my last Paula Deen reference).

Southern, homestyle food is not coated in sticks of butter, fried to within an inch of its life and drown in sugar, no matter what celebrity chefs say. True southern cooking is has its roots in necessity, practicality and, in some cases, poverty. Most southern cooking depends on lots and lots of vegetables. Why? Because in our agricultural state, vegetables were more plentiful and affordable than meat. Meat is more often used as a seasoning, stretching out what folks had for as long as possible. And people ate seasonally because, well, you ate what you had. Even desserts rely mostly on local, seasonal fruit (the exception is banana pudding, but that is sacred territory).

If you want to taste true southern, homestyle cooking and you can’t go to your mama’s house, Big Ed’s is a great place to try. All the vegetables at Big Ed’s are purchased from the State Farmer’s Market a mile or so down the road, so the vegetable selection is not only local, but seasonal (don’t ask for strawberries in January). The pork and most other meats are sourced to NC as well. When I asked about the vegetables, the cashier looked nostalgic and said, “Sam even grows some of the vegetables in his own garden. Oh, you should taste those green beans. We sell out fast on those days.” She had such a happy look on her face that I made a note to definitely COME BACK in green bean season. And at $6-$7 dollars for a plate (meat, two vegetables, biscuits, drink and dessert), this is locally sourced food at an affordable price.

My lunch was delicious pulled pork barbecue (NC pork), collard greens, black-eyed peas, biscuit, fresh cabbage slaw and a piece of yummy sweet potato cake. You can also get breakfasts made with local pork sausage and local farm eggs. Or pancakes as big as your head (and I am not kidding).

I’m glad that my town celebrates local eating and locally sourced food both on the high-end and at the homestyle end of the eating spectrum. Because after all, locally sourced food should be available to everyone, honey.