Ask anyone who keeps tabs on the food scene in North Carolina where to eat in the Raleigh-Durham area and nine out of 10 will say Vin. They may rhyme it with bin (I heard that a lot), but they're referring to Enoteca Vin, a small but influential wine bar in Raleigh's Glenwood South district. Fans love its 32-tap Cruvinet (which preserves opened bottles of wine to serve by the glass), its cool industrial-bistro look and the friendly-chic feel of it, but what they're really mad for is chef Ashley Christensen's food: an ever-changing array of simple, non-snob, downright exhilarating dishes that riff on American, French and Mediterranean traditionsand match brilliantly with sommelier and co-owner Chrish Peel's eclectic wine list.
Though she's only 28, Christensen has the vision and confidence of a far more seasoned chef. "I like the words 'pristine,' 'artisan,' 'quality,'" she says. "Not 'luxury': That's easy to obtain. You can buy it. Quality you have to seek out." To that end, she spends hours each week sourcing the best artisanal produce, naturally raised meats and cave-kept cheeses from Italy to Washington State to the Raleigh farmers' market, then uses the ingredients to create dishes that customers talk about for months, such as a potpie she made recently by filling a buttery cornmeal crust with homemade duck confit, sweet potatoes, currants, cipollini onions and kale.
Christensen, a self-taught chef, fell in love with food growing up near Greensboro, North Carolina. "My parents were really into all-day cooking," she explains. Her father, who drove trucks when she was small, then made the obvious career move into financial planning, was ahead of his time as a passionate real-food, slow-food geek. He kept bees, made 10-hour sauce from heirloom tomatoes he grew himself, rolled pasta by hand and even put bugs in the blender to produce organic pesticide. Her mother, a real estate agent, learned classic regional recipes from her "real hard-core Southern cook" grandma in Tennessee. Both Christensen's parents read cookbooks voraciously and experimented with recipes constantly. "There were not many people around doing that then," Christensen says. "Kids would come over and try the pasta and say, 'What is this?' But they loved it. Then I'd go to their place and it was: 'Sugar cereal? What is that?'"
Her cooking career really began at age 19 with dinner parties. "I'd start with a small group, and it would end up being 25," she recalls. "But I loved the pressure of all these people about to arrive, all that excitement and energy." She began running a catering business called Notorious Pear (the odd moniker was "one of those 'hang out, think of a name while drinking vodka' things," Christensen explains), then was eventually hired as chef at Humble Pie, an organic restaurant in Raleigh. She then trained with local hero Scott Howell at Nana's before landing a job at her favorite restaurant: Vin. In the wine-bar environment, she found a perfect fit for her effervescent style. An evening at Vin feels almost like one of her dinner parties, with guests dropping in and feasting on whatever dishes Christensen puts on the menu that night: perhaps deviled eggs with smoked paprika and a gratin made from shaved Brussels sprouts, or a hungryman's caramelized-onion-and-Gruyère tart with crispy chicken livers, or scallops served with collard greens and an apple-cider sauce.
"I really love the entertainment end of this business," Christensen says. "Seeing the result instantly in the looks on people's facesnot waiting for a review. And I love walking around the dining room, talking about not just what the food is, but why it is."
In the almost three years she's run the kitchen at Vin, and doubled as the restaurant's manager, Christensen has refined her cooking philosophy and deepened Vin's ties to its suppliers. She raves about the guys at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who overnight her 15 pounds of perfectly kept cheese a week for the rotating five on Vin's menu, and about Fresh & Wild in Washington State, purveyors of terrific mushrooms, and about Niman Ranch, the natural-meat powerhouse, whose owner, Bill Niman, she befriended when he agreed to cohost Vin's Pork-and-Pinot-Noir dinner.
Christensen's passions are shared by Vin's owners: Peel, his wife, Laurie (who acts as operational chief and helps Chrish create the wine list), and the architect Louis Cherry. In 1999, when the three converted the old Pine State Creamery's ice cream freezer into the banquetted, loftlike Enoteca Vin, the place stood out as a beacon on a forlorn industrial strip en route to the airport. The space, with its glass-edged black concrete bar, gray-stained maple floors, exposed brick and visible venting duct, was unusual at the time. It was the first wine bar in the state with an ambitious menu. Vin's food, created by chef Andrea Reusing (now chef-owner of Lantern in Chapel Hill), challenged the area's predominate steak-and-potatoes mind-set with a small-plates approach and a focus on Asian cuisine and seafood. And the wine list offered an unprecedented selection by the glass, including unusual and pricey wines.
The Peels take pride in Vin's unique wine list, with its emphasis on quality and craft. "All great winemakers do the same thing: They grow the best grapes they possibly can, then do as little as possible to screw them up," Chrish explains. One of the Peels' favorite bottles on the list is a hard-to-find 2000 Kellerberg Grüner Veltliner Smaragd from F. X. Pichler, Austria's cult Wachau producer, which they're offering at $12.50 a glass. (Chrish claims he's drunk half their stock himself.) Then there are bargains, like a 2001 Benoit Ente Bourgogne Blanc from a grower in France's Puligny-Montrachet, a Chardonnay with distinctive flavor and minerality, which is $6.50 a glass, or the 2001 Lammershoek, an aromatic, complex South African Shiraz-Carignane blend, at $5.50 a glass. Chrish encourages customers to create their own pairings. "The wines we choose go with a variety of dishes," he says. "Since our food reflects the same traditions and sensibilities as great wine, matches work themselves out."
Vin's wine list always includes one or two wines whose proceeds are dedicated to a charity. In addition, last year, Chrish auctioned off some bottles from his private collection to raise money for Christensen to participate in the Tour de Friends AIDS fund-raiser, a 330-mile bicycle ride from Raleigh to Washington, D.C. Cyclists need to raise $2,500 to enter, but Christensen and the Peels aimed higher. They rallied Vin's regulars, held wine dinners and, mostly relying on small donations, collected $55,000, a record.
Christensen's journey has not been without bumps, however. When she arrived at Vin, her simply written menus, seasonal bias and homage to ingredients weren't altogether understood by some customers. "It's been a bit of a struggle to be different," Christensen admits. "For a while we wondered, 'Why are we doing it like this?' And we'd go, 'Oh, yes. Because we believe in it!'" Then she sums up what makes Enoteca Vin thrive: "I have so much respect for the beginnings of food and wine, and for being humble to what we're serving. My family's passionsthose are good principles for life."
The following wine recommendations are from Chrish Peel of Enoteca Vin.
Enoteca Vin is located at 410 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh; 919-834-3070. Chrish and Laurie Peel are also owners of the Carolina Wine Company, 6601 Hillsborough St., Raleigh; 888-317-4499.