Those who follow North Carolina's culinary renaissance typically name Bill Neal as its founding member. Neal was the man behind two nationally recognized restaurants: La Residence and Crook's Corner, both in Chapel Hill. (La Res started life in a Chatham County farmhouse, but relocated.) Fortune raved about La Residence in 1979, and in 1985, New York Times critic Craig Claiborne showered praise on Crook's Corner. The latter occurred at a time when regional American cuisine was garnering attention and Neal's book Southern Cooking was published.
Ultimately, Neal changed the focus of Southern cooking from fried to fresh and elevated the status of this regional cuisine. Although Neal died in 1991 at the age of 41, his name still invokes respect.
Memory of Neal's contributions is summoned at NoFo on Liz, which opened last June. On the menu is Neal's famous Shrimp and Grits recipe, made famous at Crook's Corner where NoFo's co-owner Steve Flaugher trained under Neal.
NoFo is a funky combination of a retail shop, a takeout deli/wine shop, a doggie diner and a restaurant/bar. Co-owner Jean Martin operates the retail end. Some may remember her original shop, Simple Pleasures in Raleigh, which was also a retail/restaurant combination.
NoFo on Liz is the third outpost of the NoFo brand. The original shop was located on North Fourth (hence the name NoFo) in Wilmington. That shop has since moved and is now NoFo at the Forum near Wrightsville Beach. The second location is NoFo at the Pig in Raleigh. This store is located inside a former Piggly Wiggly at Five Points.
NoFo on Liz, part of the Grubb Properties redevelopment of Elizabeth, is located in a 7,000 square foot building beside the Visulite. The restaurant has a separate entrance from the retail, but there's a connecting interior door allowing the patrons to access both the retail side and the café.
The mood is casual and fun. Large glass disks focus attention to alcoves while colors change in the 25-to-30-seat bar area. Beware of the yellow light if you spend too much time drinking at the bar. The 54-seat dining room is filled with dangling colorful stars while textiles sport squares and circles. This room is offset by a glass wall and curtains to delimit a private area. Tables are bare-topped and the chairs, although plastic, have the ability to recline. One can actually push back from the table and sit a while. Besides, patrons are invited on the menu to help maintain a relaxing environment and "take unhappy children and ringing cell phones outside."
NoFo is not a chef-driven restaurant. Here, the emphasis is on comfort food. On the roster are pizzettes, salads, sandwiches, starters and entrees. Entrees range in price from a half order of Paella for $9 to a 6-ounce beef filet with mashed twin potatoes and green beans for $17. Flaugher is the Executive Chef of all three stores and designs all the menus. Brandon Hilliard, the restaurant manager, noted that each location's menu is tweaked for the predilections of the natives. How do they play to the locals here? Fish tacos. According to him, "Charlotteans love fish tacos. They're everywhere." Nofo offers a tequila lime fish taco with pico de "gayo." A NoFo typo?
The menu fits the interior: There's nothing upscale about either, as both share a funky simplicity. NoFo is not meant for discerning food snobs who are looking for the painstaking minutiae of a chef-driven kitchen. Here, you can start with Southwestern spring rolls and Crab Rangoon Wontons, a pleasant East-West diversion that clearly leans westerly. However, both of these items had spent too much time in the fryer and some were too crispy to enjoy. Better was the 1990s flashback: the ubiquitous goat cheese salad. This mix of greens, grilled Roma tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette had a heady hit of creamy breaded and sautéed goat cheese. The deeply flavorful lamb burger is served on pita with spry raita sauce.
Not everyone loves grits as I do. I sense that many had their first taste at a pancake house, where the glutinous mass sat in their stomachs for an interminable time. Not so with stone ground white grits cooked properly. The Neal version of grits at NoFo's has the underpinning of creamy white cheddar and then zestily dotted with sautéed shrimp, bacon, mushroom slices, garlic and a hit of Tabasco sauce.
All of the desserts of pastry chef Erin Fesperman have a bold, tantalizing presence. Her amazing chocolate cake will not take a back seat to anyone's grits. If you visit NoFo on the weekends, you can sample an a la carte brunch with benedicts (traditional and crab cake), omelettes, waffles, quiche, salad and, of course, shrimp and grits.
Service is pleasant and keeps a steady pace.
Again, NoFo doesn't intend to be anything but a fun neighborhood spot. They succeed in this endeavor.
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