University Mall’s newest culinary addition dishes up refined American cuisine with an Old World flare
City Kitchen is aptly named.
Because when you eat there, you feel like you are somewhere else. Like DC. Or Chicago. Or New York. You feel like you are in some other city not in a mall in the bucolic, southern part of heaven known as Chapel Hill.
So there’s your “city,” brought on by equal parts ambiance, equal parts Old World simple elegance.
And then there’s a kitchen—open like yours or mine—that has something to offer, something to eat for everyone; something for the kids, for your grandmother and for your discerning brother-in-law from out of town.
City + Kitchen = City Kitchen.
Billed as an “authentically American Brasserie,” City Kitchen is located in University Mall in the spot formerly home to Spice Street. Like Spice Street, City Kitchen is part of local restaurateur George Bakatsias’ cluster of fine dining establishments known as the Giorgios Group. Cosmetically speaking, a few structural changes have been made but it is still similarly structured like Spice Street—open dining room, outdoor bar and garden, plus the Wine Cellar room and private seating options.
With seating for 140 inside and another 100 plus outside, they serve simple food made elegant. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to appeal to the masses,” said Executive Chef Younes Sabouh. From Marrakesh, Morocco, he is French-trained in the culinary arts. He came to the U.S. as a private chef then worked at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club in Durham and The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary before joining the City Kitchen staff seven months ago.
The restaurant hosts events, like the recent Moroccan Night, and a future French tasting is on the horizon. They also are available for weddings and private parties as well as off-site catering. This is a place that seeks to do it all and have cast a mighty wide net.
Chef Sabouh’s goal is to refine southern food. Which is where, on the center of the menu, he gets to flex his skills. The iconic fried green tomato appetizer ($11) is encrusted in a basil cornmeal and served over smoked goat cheese with a pumpkin seed relish. It is familiar yet different. And, ultimately, delicious. What does he do with standard fare like ribs? He coats them in a cola-sriracha glaze with roasted garlic, lime and cilantro and fries them in a wok ($10). Familiar, yet different. Salmon ($22)? Served on purple sweet potato, kimchee, soy and a curry glaze. Rainbow trout ($21)? It is smoked in-house then topped with a fried oyster and served over a mix of crab meat and barley, garnished with brussels sprouts and celery root and plattered on a clam and red pepper broth. Again, an entrée that’s familiar on many menus in the Southeast, yet presented differently. And, undecidedly without a doubt, the trout was my favorite dish of the night.
City Kitchen isn’t necessarily changing the game—they are merely accentuating it. Micro greens and purees are the unsung heroes here. It is a subtle nuance that transforms an average entrée into a salivating and satisfying serving. Chef Sabouh’s strength is in his dedication to building relationships within the local community (he recently partnered up with Jillian Mickens of Open Door Farms to provide them with micro greens). On Wednesday there’s the Farmer’s Plate special which is a dish culled from ingredients he scored at the farmer’s market located in the mall’s parking lot or the one over in Carrboro. My short rib came adorned with chanterelles (wild mushrooms you can’t commercially purchase) that he got at a recent farmer’s market. “When I saw them,” said Chef Sabouh, “I told him ‘I will take them all!’” demonstrating his excitable purchase with an animated dual-arm scoop.
For the finicky or less adventurous, City Kitchen offers brick oven, flat bread pizzas, Caesar salads, burgers, grilled chicken breast and sandwiches like pastrami, turkey club and tuna. Of course, for the kids, their own menu just in case, with all meals including an ice cream sundae for dessert.
Fret not vegetarians, there’s options available for you as well. The daily appetizer special was goat cheese fried briwats ($10) with fresh figs, arugula, mint and a honeycomb dressing. For an entrée try the spring vegetable quinoa risotto ($15), which features the grain-like red quinoa, asparagus, leeks, haricot vert, carrots, fava bean, green pea broth and shaved pecorino cheese.
If you are lamenting the loss of Spice Street’s sushi bar, you need not worry. Sushi is still on the menu with various rolls, sashimi, and nigiri available. You won’t have a problem satisfying your sushi jones here.
My host for a night of endless sampling was jack-of-all trades Sales Director Emma Dunbar. A native of England who has been in the United States for 12 years and the Carolinas for five, she formerly was a regional trainer for Zoe’s Kitchen. The food industry is in her blood. “It has to be,” she said. “It’s surely not the money or the hours,” she said with a laugh. It was Dunbar who invited me to come sample some fare. “The food will speak for itself,” she told me over the phone.
And that it did.
By the time dessert came, I was worried. Worried I wouldn’t have any more room in my belly. The lemon meringue arrived ($8). Cornbread, olive oil jam, lemon cream and a dollop of ice cream on the plate. It’s inviting, and like all the food I had eaten that night, attractive in its presentation. Chef Sabouh explained it succinctly: “You eat with your eyes. It’s the first impression that counts.” You look, you smell, you eat. You fail on the first two, you probably won’t succeed on the third. There was something in the ice cream. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I’d been eating blind all night as they say. In other words, the food was chosen for me I did not choose it. The magic to the ice cream? Honey rosemary. Tasty. Also served was the chocolate stout—a torte served with cocoa crumbs and a Duck Rabbit Milk Stout ice cream ($8). I’m a beer man, I approve!
The desserts, like the rest of the sampled food, are familiar, yet different.
It’s been 16 months since Spice Street slipped away and gave root to City Kitchen. Here’s to hoping they’re here to stay. With a knowledgeable staff and stellar food, they are well on their way.
Photos by Sonnie Plakotaris