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Fins Restaurant -- Raleigh


Varmint
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I’ve said for years that Fins is hands-down my favorite restaurant in Raleigh, and after eight of us dined there last night, I’m happy to conclude that it’s still my number one. What is Fins? Well, several years ago, you might have referred to it as a “fusion” restaurant in that it combines Asian flavors with Western technique. For some reason unbeknownst to me, the term “fusion” is completely out of favor, so let me try to describe Chef William D’Auvray’s cuisine as contemporary East Asian-American. Gee, that’s so much better, right? Rather than wasting time trying to tag some sort of label on the food that comes out of Fins’ kitchen, I urge you to head to North Raleigh and sample it yourself.

D’Auvray’s style of cooking comes naturally, as he spent time as a young child in East Asia and learned his chops in the kitchens of Southern California. Most of his dishes contain some form of Asian influence, including Thai, Indonesian, Japanese, and Indian flavors. He combines sweet, sour, salty, and piquant. No one has accused D’Auvray of being subtle (although the flavors of some of his dishes actually are). He’s willing to challenge the diner, without going over the top with ridiculous combinations. D’Auvray knows these flavors and how they work together.

D’Auvray prefers to source his ingredients from local purveyors, but he is by no means a slave to that approach -- he doesn’t hesitate to spend whatever is necessary to have the best products flown in from afar. Seafood, microgreens, and specialty meats come from across the country and beyond. We’re the beneficiaries of this extra effort (and cost), as diners at Fins know that they’ll get the freshest fish – as evidenced by the sashimi platter Fins offers as an appetizer every day. This emphasis on the best and the freshest resounds throughout the meal. Yes, the prices at Fins are somewhat steep, but that doesn’t bother me when I know what goes into the dishes.

I was fortunate to be dining with a large group celebrating my wife’s birthday, so although I was able to sample a lot of dishes, I focused more on the company than the food. Thus, if my descriptions are a bit cryptic, it’s because I wasn’t wearing my analytical hat. Moreover, I didn’t bring a camera.

We started with an amuse of a vegetarian spring roll with a sweet dipping sauce. This has been a standard item served by Fins, and I always look forward to it.

A special appetizer was lightly seared bluefin tuna served on a bed of seaweed salad with shiitake mushrooms, with some sort of sweet and sour vinaigrette. This was a perfect example of how Chef D’Auvray is able to perfectly balance the sweet, sour and hot with the earthiness of the seaweed, mushroom and tuna.

Mrs. Varmint had a bowl of roasted tomato with peekytoe crab and a plantain chip. I only regret that I had one spoonful of this delightfully simple, but incredibly tasty, dish.

I ordered a grilled octopus salad with preserved lemon, Thai chili, sunflower tendrils, toasted almond and tomato water vinaigrette. Although I was worried that the flavors of the salad would overpower the octopus, that was not the case. It was an extremely delicate dressing with very muted flavors, enough to make you wonder what it contained while recognizing how it enhanced the flavor of the octopus.

My sister-in-law and her husband had the donabe-style hot pot, but other than using a Japanese donabe, this dish is all Thai -- lime leaf broth and coconut milk with roasted tomato, crab, spinach and chili-basil pesto. This soup alone would make a great meal.

All but one of the entrees were smash hits. Lamb was served rare in noisettes in a wide cylinder of wild mushroom-Lyonnaise potato hash, surrounded by roasted red curry cream. My mother-in-law, who claimed she hates curries but loves lamb, raved about this dish. After tasting it, I could see why. The lamb pieces had a crust of mint and pine nuts which alone would have made this a great way to serve the meat. However, adding the potatoes, mushroom, and the curry brought everything together. I don’t know why, but this again was not overkill – the dish worked exactly as Chef D’Auvray had planned. I wonder how he comes up with these combinations.

Mrs. Varmint ordered black bass with a tamarind glaze, served with asparagus, trumpet royale mushrooms, tomato conserve, and topped with a tempura-battered lobster tail. The black bass may have been the best piece of fish I’ve eaten in the last several years, with its shatteringly crisp skin. I’m as guilty as the next guy of not eating fish skin, but I’d be glad to eat black bass skin sandwiches all the time if D’Auvray made them for me. I’m also not a big fan of lobster tails, as they’re so frequently overcooked and tough, but frying the crustacean in tempura batter is an excellent way to protect its fragile flesh. The batter itself also offered a great textural balance to the overall dish. Did I mention that the fish skin was perfect?

Perhaps the greatest complement to D’Auvray’s cooking, however, came from my 70 year old father-in-law after he dug into roasted pork tenderloin with roasted tropical fruit, Indonesian sambal bakal risotto, and adobo sauce. My F-I-L, a native North Carolinian who has eaten more pork in his lifetime than I’ll every consume, interrupted our dinner conversation to inform all of us that this was the single best prepared piece of pork tenderloin he’s ever tasted. Unfortunately, he truly meant this as he never offered anyone else at the table a taste. I think we can take his word on this.

A staple on the menu, plantain-crusted Chilean sea bass, was served with caramelized noodle squash, green mango salad, and a brown butter and tropical fruit vinaigrette. This dish was the only item I sampled that pushed the sweet and sour elements too far without greater balance from earthy flavors -- the brown butter alone didn’t accomplish this. It was a tasty dish, but after several bites, the flavor of the fish was lost.

Desserts are all made by D’Auvray (he does everything in this kitchen, including baking his own great breads), and he sticks more to the tried and true Western-style sweets -- usually with a twist. Mrs. Varmint had a rum baba with a caramelized honey pecan topping served with fried banana ice cream while I ordered D’Auvray’s take on tiramisu, which appears to be some sort of cake, lightened marscapone, and dark chocolate served in a tall parfait glass. The coffee element of this tiramisu is not in the glass, however, as the dessert is served with a small bowl of Kahlua and espresso. You take a long spoon, dig in the middle, and pour the coffee mixture into the hole on an “as-needed” basis. It’s fun, original, and, of course, delicious. Even the typical crème brulee offering is slightly different at Fins, as you receive a trio of flavors served in individual sake cups, including vanilla, chocolate, and a clean-flavored ginger. The kitchen was gracious enough to send out a sample of four very good sorbets, including mango, guava, raspberry and strawberry.

Unfortunately, Fins still does not have a web presence. D’Auvray’s delightful wife Lisa, who runs the front of the house, informed me that they’re working on building a website, but it just hasn’t been a priority. However, if you want to see a copy of Fins’ menu, they’ll be happy to fax you one.

I’ve often said that when I go out to eat at a fairly expensive restaurant, I want to eat something that I wouldn’t or couldn’t make at home. Fins is just that type of restaurant. I don’t have the creativity to put together such complex flavors as William D’Auvray. I can’t get the same ingredients as he does. This is restaurant cooking taken to another level, so if you want to have fun with different flavors, head out Lead Mine Road to Fins. And don’t forget to get some of that crunchy skin.

Fins Restaurant

7713 Lead Mine Road

Raleigh, 27615

(919) 847-4119

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Excellent review Deano!

That is Exhibit A as to why I can't do reviews. Somehow, "I had the chicken, and it was good," just doesn't measure up.

Fins is a great place. I've eaten there quite a few times over the last 5 years, and every meal has been great.

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The prices are all over the place. The soup was about 6 bucks, the hot pot was $10 per person as was my octopus salad. Entrees were generally in th mid to high 20s. Between the 8 of us, we had 6 apps, 8 entrees, 6 desserts, 5 or 6 bottles of wine, and a few shots of espresso. Total, including tax and tip, was about $640.

I didn't talk about the wine much because I'm a wine ignoramus. They have what appears to be a solid selection, with most of the choices in the high 30s to low 50 dollar range. We had an inexpensive pinot noir (Wallace Brook -- about $30) and a crisp white burgundy (Poillot -- about $38).

The service was also very good, and our waiter was very knowledgeable and helpful with the menu.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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I like Fin's too. A lot. I don't care for the decor (a little too Miami Vice at times) and sometimes I've found the service to be...austere may be the right word, at times. However what comes out of the kitchen is exemplary. I get cought up on the appetizer plates and don't really leave.

It should be noted that their sashimi plate is probably the best in the Triangle. I have had flounder, grouper, blue fin belly, Panamanian blue fin, etc. etc. All of it was delicious and fresh.

William McKinney aka "wcmckinney"
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Yes, great review. Thanks, Varmint! Definitely need to check Fins out... now just need to invent a special occasion...or not.

- Weka

"Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least."

- Goethe

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  • 6 months later...

In previous discussions with Chef Owner William D'Auvray, he didn't hide his desire to move his restaurant downtown. He loves the people who venture into North Raleigh to sample his great food, but he thinks that the place to be is downtown.

Well, according to the most recent Triangle Business Journal, it looks as if this move may be closer to reality.

The owners of the Fins restaurant in north Raleigh are in talks either to relocate from Greystone Village or to open a second high-end restaurant at Progress Energy's Two Progress Plaza tower in downtown Raleigh. If Fins agrees to a lease, the retail and restaurant portion of the Progress building, considered a centerpiece of downtown revitalization, will be filled.

This would be a major coup for downtown. Frankly, I'd prefer that they open a second restaurant, but knowing how much of hands'-on owners William and Lisa are, I find it unlikely they'd try to run two restaurants simultaneously. Regardless, I wish them well.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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  • 2 months later...

I had the pleasure of eating at Fins again on Saturday and really have no need to discuss the food, as everything coming out of that kitchen is as good as it ever was.

The good news is that Fins is indeed going to open a larger downtown restaurant. The better news is that they'll be serving lunch, too. The best news is that the original Fins on Lead Mine Rd. isn't going anywhere -- there will be two Fins in Raleigh. Chef William D'Auvray feels comfortable enough with his staff that he can operate two restaurants simultaneously. The name of the new restaurant, according to co-owner and manager Lisa D'Auvray? Fins, of course. I guess we'll just have to refer to them as Fins North and Fins South. Or maybe y'all can offer suggestions here!

One other note: Until this most recent meal, I had no idea that Fins had a separate, lower-priced bar menu. Sure, portions might be a bit smaller, but base on my quick glance of the menu, these dishes appear to be a great value.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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  • 3 weeks later...

I think that Lisa D'Auvray said that it was going to be in the Progress Energy's Two Progress Tower, just as the Triangle Business Journal stated. And they will be serving lunch, too, so you downtown lawyers can have some mighty fine places to take the summer clerks!

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Well, maybe with a version closer to downtown, I'll give it another try. My last experience there (which, judging from what Varmint has written in the past, makes me wonder if I hit some disaster night) was not worth driving back out to North Raleigh.

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  • 11 months later...

Construction is moving forward with Fins, and it will be relocating downtown, rather than opening up a second location. I'm going to try to get some access to the construction scene, and perhaps some pictures.

In the meantime, William and Lisa D'Auvray are excited about this new venture, which should open up in early Spring. They are looking for lots of help both in the front of the house and in the kitchen. Lisa has even given me permission to post a number to call if you're interested in an interview: 919-834-6963.

Details to follow!

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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  • 3 months later...

Where exactly is Fins located? My understanding is that it's in the Progress Energy building. I drove by there recently but didn't see any sign/hint that Fins was there. Maybe I had the wrong building? Could you give us something more specific about the location. Thanks.

CBHall

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Actually, it is important to clarify that it is in the NEW Progress Energy building. Directly across the street from Cooper's BBQ and next door to my personal favorite lunch place, Sosta Cafe.

We love the new Fins too and not just because I have a thing for their Passionfruit martinis. The place is beatiful and the food is great. Too bad that they brought downtown with them the "front of house" problems they had at the old space....uninformed wait staff and a grumpy owner. I still just don't get that part.

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I've heard complaints about Lisa's attitude, but I've never experienced them. That might be because she knows I might write something about the restaurant, but frankly, in this era of the blog, every customer has the potential to write. That's an issue I'll have to ask her about next time I'm there. Of course, it's always hard to fire your spouse!

I've also always received very good, well-informed service. I do know that the restaurant struggles to find good front of the house staff, particularly when so much of William's food is not in the normal continental style.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Actually, it is important to clarify that it is in the NEW Progress Energy building. Directly across the street from Cooper's BBQ and next door to my personal favorite lunch place, Sosta Cafe.

We love the new Fins too and not just because I have a thing for their Passionfruit martinis.  The place is beatiful and the food is great.  Too bad that they brought downtown with them the "front of house" problems they had at the old space....uninformed wait staff and a grumpy owner.  I still just don't get that part.

I wish I'd seen this post before we went to Fins last night. I thought there was just one Progress Energy building, the one on Fayetteville Street, and could not figure out how Fins could be on the corner of anything when that building isn't on the corner. But we finally found it. Yes, the new place is beautiful and so spacious compared to the location in North Raleigh. I think my meal last night was the best one I've ever had at Fins. Started with house salad....OK, not too imaginative, but I've gotta have my greens! Hub had conch seviche, a little of which he shared with me; I preferred my salad. As my entree, I had fresh day-boat seared scallops with pork, carrots, Jerusalem artichoke veloute and topped with William's shredded fried onions.....a wonderful dish! I would never have thought of combining pork and scallops, but it worked beautifully. I'm not able to wax poetically about food the way some eG'ers do, but this dish was soooo good. Everything in it was cooked to perfection. Hub had the Alaskan salmon......again, I preferred my choice. Gluttons that we are, we both had the signature tiramisu "en vace" with espresso sauce for dessert---hey, you gotta indulge sometimes! I don't imbibe so I can't comment on that aspect; hub had a couple glasses of wine which he liked.

My "Lisa story" is that the very first time we went to Fins, we were about 15 min. late (my fault of course) and she chided us a little. I don't recall what she said, but hey, I figured we deserved it---and since then, I'm always careful to call a restaurant if we're running late. Anyhow, since then, she's been nothing but hospitable and gracious to us, always calling us by name and chatting with us. No problems with service last night; I do recall a server at the former place who was sub-par, but I didn't see him last night.

Edited by foodiehall (log)

CBHall

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Oh, I am so happy to hear that Fins still exists - my folks live nearby and although we haven't eaten there in a while - we do intend on getting back!

Live and learn. Die and get food. That's the Southern way.

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