Pembroke’s sits in an oft-used space on Military Cutoff Road. The room has seen so many restaurants come and go (Salty’s Grand Union Pub, The Kitchen) that I wondered if I just sat there for a week could I see it change before my eyes. But Pembroke’s may hang on a while.
Little has changed inside the establishment. Fans of the former Grand Union can still see the outline where the dearly departed sports bar once stood. But the dark wood interior hasn’t changed a bit in at least three installments. The room still buzzes with the conversations of nearby tables, but gone is the dull roar which once filled the room. The open kitchen reamins from its last tenant, The Kitchen, and allows visibility of the chefs hard at work through a large window, as smells of various wood cooking hunks of meat permeate the room. In many respects the room remains comfortably familiar.
Modeled after sister restaurant Rx at the corner of Castle and 5th downtown, Pembroke’s serves an upscale variant of country cuisine. The focus is on local sources of meat and produce to create a fine-dining homage to down-home cooking. The results are generally quite good.
Dubbed simply “Snacks,” the first portion of the menu offers small-appetizer plates meant for sharing. My party selected three: baby back ribs with red cabbage chow chow, the artisan cheeses with Castle Hayne honey, house granola and Virginia apples, and boiled-peanut hummus with benne crackers and pickles.
The ribs were a smashing success—dry-rubbed with juicy flesh and just the right touch of char on the skin. Ribs often get overcooked to the point one forgets that pork is a white meat, but not these. They aren’t spicy enough to cater to those who want to challenge their tongues on the Scoble scale. Still, the fatty flavor of the pork tasted rich and satisfying.
The cheeses can vary, so I won’t linger on the ones we were served, but the gouda alone was worth the trip. I wasn’t familiar with Castle Hayne honey before this dish, but I expect to get acquainted now. The mild sweetness, coupled with the delicious crunch of the granola, made for a new favorite treat.
I found the apples to be an interesting choice. Apples are known for their acidity, and they can be terrible with most wines for that reason. That’s why we rarely see sliced apples served with most cheese plates. However, I drank whiskey during my trek, so the apples tasted great.
Boiled peanut hummus got points for originality but not much else. The finer texture of the peanuts lacked the mealy, gritty feel of garbanzo beans. And the hint of garlic just didn’t meld the way I wished it would. I admire the innovation, but this isn’t a dish I’ll be reordering.
I was the only one bold enough to add an appetizer from the second section of the menu. I didn’t exactly want to, but I did it for the sake of my readers. I’m magnanimous that way. I went with quail breast, served with steel-cut oats and a blueberry gastrique. Quail is an old favorite, which I don’t see enough on menus. There’s a lot of gamey flavor in that little bird, and I know gastriques have fallen out of favor with foodies, if only because of the natural ebb and flow of fads and trends. Yet, I love them. Sweetness, coupled with acidity, coupled with game bird … the whole thing made me want a larger meal. Perhaps pheasant.
We went with a variety in our entrée selections. I kept to my “game bird” theme and ordered the duck with sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. The duck was seasoned brilliantly, but the fat and skin could have used another minute on the grill. I confess I’m a bit of a snob about crispy duck skin, and I left more than one piece of it on my plate.
The black bass, caught locally and not always available, was an elegant lemony favorite. Also served with sweet potatoes, the kitchen staff added blue hominy and spinach. Likewise, the fish was seared nicely before being finished off. The flaky texture captured the essence of the white meat as delicate yet flavorful. I’d call ahead for this one.
Finally, we tried the Heritage pork chop, a classic dish in true North Carolina form. Served with smoked cheddar grits and bacon collards (are there any collards served without pork?) and pickled peanuts, this plate couldn’t be any more NC if Andy Griffith served it to you at a Durham Bulls game.
I shouldn’t have done it, but I pushed onward to dessert. Chocolate crème brulee is nothing new, but the thin layer of peanut butter at the bottom of the dish made this one special. I swear I didn’t mean to finish it, but I sure did.
Pembroke’s offers a fun mix of fine dining and down-home cooking. It has a clever niche, which I think will serve it well. Give it a look, if for no better reason than to discover how innovation can recharge your old favorite dishes.
1125-A Military Cutoff Rd.
Tues.-Sun., 5 p.m. – 11 p.m.
Live music Fri. and Sat. nights