As a fanatic devotee of going out to eat in the typical urban centers of D.C. and N.Y.C., the very last thing I expected to find in the heart of a wooded forest in Cary, North Carolina is the best restaurant meal I’ve had in 2013.
Herons, the signature restaurant of The Umstead Hotel and Spa, is well-worth the four hour drive to get there, and I suggest making a reservation before the spectacular kitchen personnel gets snatched up to more expensive and far-flung locales.
Despite it’s recent renovations, the hotel and spa itself is pretty basic. The pool is unnecessarily small. Not even the butler service made up for the lack of size, which was made all the more distinct by the extensive landscaped grounds and the gorgeous lake whose visage was quite apparent from the lake-side room views. In fact, there was a literal showdown between a pampered crew of bachelorettes and a very pregnant lady over the two lounge chaises we gave up. Not a charming southern sight at all, though deftly defused by the poolside management staff.
I would, perhaps, be more charitable in my review of the spa, though there are some missing elements as well. The most glaring omission would be the lack of any bath related (i.e. bath salts, bubble bath, or body scrubs) items for sale. Perhaps this is a strategic water conservation move from the hotel, but with each hotel room having a soaking tub which would easily fit two individuals, I found it hard to believe I couldn’t purchase something from the spa to utilize this amenity.
As for the spa services themselves, there on the main level is a steam room, a sauna, a whirlwind and a microscopic outdoor co-ed resistance pool. On the second level there is both an outdoor lounging area (co-ed) and an indoor lounging area (same sex only). I liked the upstairs better than the downstairs, however I didn’t linger as the outdoor pool was calling my name.
The Swedish massage I got was very relaxing, so relaxing I fell asleep thus slightly defeating the purpose of the massage but effectively so. A friend of mine got the same type of massage and she said she felt “hurried” so, maybe, the massage is a bit of a crapshoot. My friend did say she “loved” her 50-minute “Body Glow” scrub and that’s really saying something. She is very particular, thus I would say skip the massage and go for the scrub. There are three kinds of scrubs but everyone I talked to, including the spa staff, said they preferred the “Body Glow” scrub which is sea salt based.
Regardless of any deficiencies in the hotel pool or spa, you have to drive to Cary just to eat at Herons. The $90 four-course Chef’s Menu, with accompanying wine, is simply sublime! Did I mention it only cost $90? The price point is surprising for the quality of the food, and for $50 more the accompanying flight of wine(s).
It could be argued, the food was so arresting because it was quite unexpected. I thought, with admitted prejudice, I wouldn’t find a great meal in Cary, North Carolina. I pondered on this fact yet still came to the conclusion the food is, in fact, arresting – heightened by the deconstructed visuals – and the combination of the flavorful food with the picturesque plating delighted me.
For my first course, I ordered the Ricotta Dumplings. Sunchoke, fava beans, yogurt and chervil. The night before I had tried the Potato Dumplings at the bar, and I must say the kitchen does a wonderful dumpling. Moist and hearty, cleaving to the flavor of the ingredients surrounding it, I could have eaten just the varietals of dumplings all weekend for breakfast, lunch AND dinner.
Second course was a singularly unique Caesar Salad. When you think of a Caesar Salad, you can’t help but yawn a little. It’s so boring. What is there to bring an element of creativity to? The dressing? But when you see the Heron’s Caesar Salad, your eyes will light up like a pinball machine. The lettuce remains whole, in its bibb, and then it’s held in place with three circular crutons, resembling an onion ring shape. On the upper left corner is a fried organic egg, with the taste and texture of a circular mozzarella stick, and on the lower right corner is a singular curved sardine.
My words won’t do this plating justice, but I hope the photo does what my words fail to convey. I don’t think I’m ever at a loss for words … yet here I find myself marveling at this unique presentation.
The third course was my favorite course: a purely artful Grass Fed Beef. Ribeye, cheek, house cured bacon, porcini. Plated to resemble a perfect modern art portraiture which would feel right at home at MoMA, cutting and moving the food from meat-to-vegetable-to-mouth felt joyous. I was happy to destroy the art with my tastebuds, and my tastebuds binged on this plate with savory satisfaction.
The final course was a gorgeous red velvet. Again in the deconstructed look which Herons seemingly feels quite comfortable with: Quinos of cream cheese, coconut and soft, sweet squares of red velvet, all splashed with pecans and tender arrays of confectionaries. I loved it. If I could have just stared it and marveled, I would have but I just had to eat it. And if there was even a sliver of room left in me after three divine courses, I would have cleared the plate. As it were, I was left to declare mercy and with apologizes to the pastry chef sent most of the dish back.
A savory meal not to be missed.
The Umstead Hotel & Spa
100 Woodland Pond Dr.
Cary, North Carolina 27513
Herons restaurant, call (919) 447-4200