Ask for a dinner recommendation in Raleigh and, guaranteed, one of Gaurav Patel’s (otherwise known as, “G”) will be on the list. He’s no chef, but as the founder and President of Eschelon Experiences, he knows his way around a restaurant. Since founding Eschelon in 2006, G’s restaurant empire has been growing, and between Raleigh and Durham, he has six restaurants, with a new bubbly bar opening soon.
G’s restaurants include The Oxford, serving upscale British pub fare; Mura, contemporary Japanese; Zinda, new Asian cuisine; Cameron Bar and Grill, American classics done right; Faire, an upscale steak and seafood house; and Durham’s Basan, sushi and fine Japanese dining. Haymaker, the forthcoming bubbly lounge, will be his newest project.
But where does G turn when it’s time for a bite to eat or a cocktail at the end of a busy day? We caught up with him to find out, and along with a few of his own establishments, he shared some of his favourite local food spots in Raleigh and Durham.
Flavours of home
When G was 10, his family emigrated from the farming village of Zervavra in Northern India to the coast of North Carolina. When he’s craving a dish that tastes like his childhood, there are two places on his radar: Kadhai The Indian Wok and Zayka Indian Cuisine.
“Kadhai does a phenomenal job of making Punjabi dishes,” says G. “They keep the flavour profiles consistent and find the right balance within each dish to accentuate the creamy or spicy or subtle notes in each.”
Kadhai’s Butter Chicken, Chana Masala, and Palak Paneer are particular favourites.
“When it’s time for a sit-down Indian meal, we always turn to Zayka. The service here is exceptional and the flavours they bring to every dish are spot-on.”
For date night, G says he and his wife, Julie, frequent Bella Monica, a restaurant that delivers on homey Italian cuisine.
“Long before we became friendly with the owners, we were impressed with the whole experience of dining there. The level of service is always high, their Italian wines are excellent, and the food is delicious every time.”
Among the dishes G recommends is the Portobello and Sundried Tomato Lasagne, a dish he says, “tastes like it’s right out of [the chef’s] Nana’s kitchen.”
“When I’m in Durham at the end of the day, I usually end up at Bar Virgile. It’s cosy in there, it has that I-know-a-secret feel, and I’m always amazed at what comes out of that tiny kitchen. The charcuterie is outstanding and their bourbon list is a fun one.”
If it’s lunchtime, G heads to Pizzeria Toro where he’ll indulge in one of their specialty pizza pies and a glass of wine. This is no pepperoni-and-cheese pizza place; it’s a spot where you’ll find a spicy lamb meatball, venison sausage, locally grown squash and mushrooms, and imported Italian cheese on a pie. “It’s a pizza, but it’s unexpected and executed perfectly,” says G.
“A few restaurants come to mind when I think inspiration, but one of them really resonates, and that’s Herons, the restaurant at The Umstead Hotel.”
The menu at Herons is decidedly decadent, but the flavours on the plate – truffle, foie gras, exotic oysters, choice seafood; and local, seasonal ingredients like persimmon and chestnut – are one thing, the experience of dining there is the other.
“From the moment you arrive, the experience is seamless. It’s so smooth, almost like a magic carpet ride,” G says. “Every time, I’m amazed.”
If he’s craving Asian close to home, G turns to David’s Dumpling and Noodle Bar, a pan-Asian restaurant that’s something of a local secret. “People know it outside of Raleigh, but not many. And no one knows my secret: David’s Original Half-Fried Dumplings. I’ll get three orders of these, get an extra order of Chef Mao’s Chinese-Chili Sauce on the side, and eat every bite.”
“Lantern, Andrea Reusing’s place in Chapel Hill, is another favourite of ours. She won a James Beard Award in 2011 and the food has always been spectacular. Every plate that comes out is perfect.”
North Carolina is barbecue country, but G confesses that “˜cue out isn’t his thing. “On the occasion I’m craving a barbecue sandwich, I’ll usually ask our chef at The Oxford or Cameron to whip one up for me,” he says.
“Growing up in India, on the occasions when we ate meat, it was chicken or goat, but working in the restaurant industry, I knew I’d eat beef one day. It took me a while, but I finally did. Now, when I eat beef – which is not often – I’ll have a steak at Faire or a burger from Cameron [Bar and Grill].”
G says that at Faire, the Filet Mignon (“I get mine with a double order of pepper sauce,” he says) is more than enough to satisfy a steak craving for a long while. Unless he’s after a burger, in which case, he looks to Cameron Bar and Grill, where burgers and other American classics dominate the menu. “What makes our burger so good there? That’s a secret I can’t tell, but just know that the beef we use, it’s the best of the best in the area and it shows on the plate.”
“Pam’s Farmhouse, hands down. Especially on weekends.”
Yes, G’s go-to breakfast is simple, traditional, and Southern through-and-through. Grits and hotcakes, mason jar drinking glasses on the tables, and, of course, biscuits.
“I love the energy there. It’s always busy, and it’s the kind of place where you’ll see a cross-section of Raleigh: college kids and businessmen and families, all ages, all races, all brought here for a meal.”
Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Book your flight to North Carolina today and explore some of these delicious foodie destinations.
Have you visited any of Gaurav Patel’s favourite dining spots in North Carolina? Which is your go-to when you’re in town? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Jason Frye