RALEIGH – Just outside the entrance to Vidrio, a curtain of water spills into a blue and white ceramic tile fountain. Reminiscent of a Mediterranean market square, the fountain sets a fitting mood for the restaurant’s menu, an ambitious contemporary take on the cuisines of the region. But it can’t prepare you for the stunning decor that awaits inside.
The first thing that catches your eye is a boldly colorful display of nearly 400 pieces of handblown glass spanning an entire wall of the cavernous two-story main dining room. The fanciful pieces, a tangible expression of the restaurant’s name (vidrio is Spanish for glass), are arranged by color, gradually transitioning from warm reds and yellows to sparkling blues and greens in a pattern that suggests a sunset over the Mediterranean.
And that’s just one of the many dramatic design elements in a place that feels as much like a modern art gallery as a restaurant. Everywhere you turn, there’s an echo of the Mediterranean motif: massive rope chandeliers that with a little imagination could be ship’s rigging; a framework sculpture of interlocking wooden cubes that call to mind stacked produce crates, hanging from the ceiling in one of the smaller mezzanine level dining rooms; framed panels of woven wood – fisherman’s baskets? – suspended above the bar; and in the corners of the lounge, crated earthenware casks that you’re guessing may once have contained olive oil or wine.
If the setting sets the imagination soaring, it also inevitably leads to correspondingly high expectations of the food. The kitchen rises to those expectations, by and large, rarely falling short while delivering an ambitious offering that draws on cuisines from one end of the Mediterranean to the other for its inspiration.
Moroccan beef skewers, served with a harissa-spiced Greek yogurt, are a deservedly popular small plate offering. It’s also well worth your while, though, to set sail for the opposite end of the Mediterranean, where you’ll find a Turkish-inspired green chickpea hummus with house-made lavash.
While you’re underway, plan on pulling into port in Nice for France’s thin-crusted answer to pizza: pissaladière, in this case topped with caramelized olives, white anchovies and russet petals of serrano ham. (And yes, serrano is a Spanish ham. The Vidrio kitchen freely crosses borders, often combining compatible components of different cuisines in a single dish.)
Plan on a stop in Greece, too, for some of the tenderest octopus you’ve ever had, charred over an open flame and served over fat, meaty corona beans in a chorizo-punctuated vinaigrette.
You could easily plan your entire itinerary around cruising the small plates islands. There are 18 of them, including a Merguez sausage tartine that was eighty-sixed the night I tried to order it; that will be my first stop next time.
You’ll need some willpower, though, to resist the siren call of a large plates offering that runs the gamut from black rice risotto (an earthy vegetarian presentation with confit mushrooms, kale and pecorino romano) to a wood-fired hanger steak with spring onion and black garlic oil.
My first port of call would be grilled market fish – sometimes snapper, but when I ordered it a whole branzino. Its flesh sweet and moist beneath an expertly charred skin, the fish was paired with a light citrus-dressed salad and attractively garnished with a charred lemon half, a sprig of thyme and a fresh bay leaf.
House-made linguine all’amatriciana – with a good firm bite, tossed with guanciale in a light tomato sauce punctuated with crushed red pepper – is another worthy destination. So is chicken vadouvan, with the caveat that the dish’s namesake French curry spice is so subtle as to be all but undetectable. The chicken itself, though, is a lusciously juicy half bird with a well-browned skin.
And I certainly wouldn’t object to a return visit to the rotisserie-roasted pork shoulder I landed on one night, its succulent flesh complimented by a classic romesco sauce. The cut of pork changes from time to time – recently, it was a pork rack – but like any seasoned traveler, I’m prepared to be flexible.
I’m not inclined to be forgiving, however, of a surprisingly dry chickpea and escarole salad (one of the half dozen or so listings in the market-driven “From the Garden” section of the menu). Or of a small plates offering of wood-fired prawns that’s even slightly overcooked. At $15 for three shrimp (whose size is admittedly worthy of the “prawns” designation), nothing short of perfection will satisfy.
I’m also hesitant to recommend the pear crostata for dessert. The filling is on point but the texture of the crust comes across more like a cross between pound cake and shortbread than the traditional pastry. Take your server’s advice instead and go for the chocolate bread pudding with kumquat caramel and some of the silkiest ice cream you’ve smacked your lips around.
Navigating the menu is smooth sailing for the most part, though, and recent turnover in the kitchen may well account for any choppy waters. William D’Auvray, formerly chef/owner of Fins and bu.ku, has taken the helm in a consulting role, with an eye to sharpening the menu’s focus and making it more broadly appealing. The first signs of change are already appearing in the form of reduced prices of some dishes, larger portions of others.
The changes should bring the Vidrio experience more in line with the original goal of owner Lou Moshakos. A veteran restaurateur with holdings across much of the Southeast (including Taverna Agora and Carolina Ale House locally), Moshakos has said he wants Vidrio to evoke the relaxed, soul-nurturing experience of meals in his native Greece. The food is a key element in creating that vibe, along with a bar with some 50 wines on tap and a dining room that offers a wide variety of seating options, from communal tables to leather banquettes to floral upholstered sofas.
The phrase “A moment for the time being,” written in large cursive script across the bottom of the wall of blown glass art, expresses the mood that Moshakos and his team are going for. In the grand scheme of themes, the duration of a meal may indeed be just a moment. But at Vidrio, the aim is clearly to make it a moment you won’t soon forget.