Raleigh native, Sean Fowler fondly remembers riding his bike as a young boy to the old Johnson’s Pharmacy lunch counter. Biking always worked up his appetite, which was satisfied by a warm grilled cheese sandwich paired with an ice cold limeade. Little did Sean know, but 25 years later he would open Mandolin at 2519 Fairview Rd. with his charming wife, Lizzy.
Let's just say, Mandolin's existence is quite the love story. Perfect in time for Valentine's Day, right? Lizzy and Sean met when they were both working at Fearrington Village. Sean worked at the restaurant and brought Lizzy, who worked at a nearby shop, a cup of potato leek soup. Lizzy and Sean's mutual friend attempted to set them up, however, the plan failed when Sean was a no-show to a birthday party. On his own terms, Sean came into Lizzy's store and asked her out. Apparently, that was some delicious potato leek soup because Lizzy said yes! Within a year, Lizzy and Sean were married, bought a house in Raleigh and opened Mandolin.
Photography from Lizzy and Sean Fowler
Mandolin opened the day before Thanksgiving in 2011. Lizzy and Sean believe that the surrounding neighborhood has embraced Mandolin, located in the Hayes Barton Historic District. Neighbors frequent the restaurant and the Fowler's have spent time getting to know each of their customers. Sean loves fresh Southern foods and only uses the best ingredients at Mandolin. For instance, a local Boy Scout and neighbor began raising quail as a scout project, which he now sells directly to the restaurant.
Mandolin isn't just a place you come to dine, it's about the community and supporting each other. The Fowler's have been so dedicated to sourcing and using local, fresh ingredients that they have been inspired to start their own garden. The garden will be located near Falls Lake in North Raleigh and will provide produce for Mandolin. Employees and neighbors are excited about the garden and have already signed up to bring their tools! With an abundance of fresh ingredients delivered to Mandolin by local farmers and neighbors, Sean believes a freezer is unnecessary. The only freezer you'll find in Mandolin's kitchen is small and used for items like homemade sorbets. The menu changes every day, which you'll notice on the large chalkboard as soon as you enter the restaurant. Everything is as fresh as can be, never frozen or processed.
My childhood best friend, Madeline and I dined together one evening at Mandolin. The bread is baked in house, about an hour before service. A bowl of house-made honey butter is served with the warm bread. I remember Madeline stating at one point during dinner, "I'm just going to put bread on my butter." Yes, the butter is that good. I could have eaten my weight in bread and butter, but I knew I needed to save room.
While we were waiting for the first course to arrive, we met Charles Kirkwood. Charles worked with Sean in N.Y. and then relocated his family to N.C. from Houston, Tx. to develop Mandolin's wine list. Charles has crafted an incredible wine list with country wines made by lesser known producers. Mandolin's wine list focuses on the stories, which Charles believes is the brilliant part about wine. According to Charles, "Wine by itself is great but it has no meaning without stories. Sense of place and meaning are what makes wine exciting to me. I often find wine lists to be sterile and intimidating. When I wrote Mandolin's list, I wanted to bring the passion that goes into making great wine to the fore front."
Charles introduced us to Radikon's orange wine. Orange wine is the original way to produce wine, and is essentially white wine made like a red wine. The producer allows the skins of the grape to be mazerated over an extended period of time.
After discussing wine, Madeline and I definitely worked up an appetite. Our first dining experience at Mandolin began with three first courses. The seared scallops with celeriac, black truffles and local pink lady apples had an amazing sweet and savory flavor. The scallops were tender and extremely fresh.
We also tried the Nooherooka beef tartare, which is locally sourced from Snow Hill, N.C. This first course included wasabi devilled quail eggs, potato chips, parmigiano-reggiano and cornichons as accompaniments.
Oysters Mandolin, perhaps one of the spotlights of the evening, were phenomenal. Crispy pork belly was topped with pecan parmesan dusted fried oysters, parsnip puree and braised greens. The pork belly was cooked to perfection and its rich flavor along with the crispy and juicy textures complimented the fried oysters.
As we laughed about our days building makeshift rafts and playing in our treehouse, Madeline and I tried two of Mandolin's second courses. The Oak Island triggerfish dish represented our great state but with a twist. The dish included many local, Southern ingredients. The mild and sweet triggerfish was served with local spinach, salsify, black eyed peas, country ham and pomegranates. The dish caused me to reminiscence about my childhood, reminding me of a New Year's Day dinner at Grandma's, but with a sophisticated spin.
We devoured the 48-hour braised beef short ribs with potato gratin, brussels sprouts, baby turnips and carrots. The short ribs were so tender and just melted in my mouth. The vegetables had an excellent roasted flavor.
After a variety of delicious food and wines, we couldn't pass up dessert. Sean and his team were capable of making some of the most exquisite dishes, what could he possibly have up his sleeve for dessert? Madeline and I tried two rieslings, which paired perfectly with our desserts. The first dessert was a blood orange panna cotta with pistachio baklava, pomegranate and basil. The dish was colorful and overwhelmed my tastebuds with delightful and unique flavor combinations.
The second dessert was hot valrhona chocolate soufflé with chantilly cream. I'm a chocolate lover so this dessert struck a few heart strings. Gooey chocolate filled the center of the warm soufflé. I never wanted this dessert to end!
Sean Fowler simply stated, "I make food that I like to eat." I would have to agree! Mandolin infuses classic French, Southern comfort and international world influences into the cuisine. Sean uses local ingredients because they are always fresh and have a brilliant taste. I believe Mandolin embodies what all Raleigh has to offer. The city and restaurant are Southern at the core but have embraced contemporary and worldly ideals. For a rustic and sophisticated atmosphere along with delicious food without the pretension, Mandolin is my recommendation. I'm sure you'll fall in love with Mandolin, I know I did.