48 hours in Raleigh, a package of Southern charm

Downtown Raleigh N.C.

The Acorn, Raleigh’s city symbol

In 1947 the North Carolina general assembly set aside $1 million which was matched with a gift from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and a famous art museum was created. North Carolina Museum of Art has made a mark on the map with permanent collections which span more than 5,000 years.

Southern charm is everywhere and when I was there, the city is gearing up for the expected hordes of tourists for a magnificent art exhibit, Monet in Normandy. Although my decision to spend a few days in Raleigh, North Carolina was due entirely to hearing about the triumph of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s winning the opportunity to exhibit 50 seldomly seen Claude Monet paintings, I hadn’t expected that I’d run out of time trying to visit other city attractions. There were only 3 cities in North American that had the exclusivity of exhibiting Monet’s masterpieces from the Normandy region of France making this museum, an important artistic centre.

Monet was the master of the then revolutionary movement of impressionist art. Most of the canvases were borrowed from both public and private collectors in England, Scotland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Spain, Japan the US and Canada.

My mental schedule was to ‘do’ the museum in about 1 hour. But while walking around and spotting works by Giotto to Giacometti, Egyptian, Roman, and Greek to African artifacts, there, in a very brightly lit and well signed gallery was a small Judaic Art Gallery founded by Dr. Abram Kanaf, a physician and student of Jewish art. It is one of the two galleries in North America with a collection of Jewish ceremonial art. This space is filled with a rich and enduring legacy of precious metal and embellished ritual artifacts. Neatly exhibited were memorabilia from the 18th century to modern ritual works of art. Alms Box from the 1935, 20th century Mezuzahs from Germany and Poland, an Etrog and Shofar from Germany circa 1750, wine cups, a Purim plate, Hanukkah, candelabra to 18th century spice containers from Galicia and Russia, a stunning and unique bridal belt, wedding ring and marriage contract from the 19th century. Among all these wonderful silver items is a heavily worked silver surface Torah cases (Tik) made by Chinese artisans for the Baghdadi Jewish community in Shanghai in the late 18th century. Finials, Torah Shields (Tas) and Pointers (Yad) some from as far away as China. were a great surprise and a terrific incentive to visit this extraordinary museum.

Lunch at the museum’s Blue Ridge Restaurant, a spacious, modern, airy, restaurant with floor to ceiling windows overlooks the lush gardens and outdoor sculptures. My choice staying with a French theme, was a well presented, tasty and large Salade Nicoise.

Now, with less time then I had anticipated, I raced through Cameron Village, an outdoor mall, where there are no national chain stores but individually operated boutiques which cater to the chic clientele in a tony residential area – certainly a crowd pleaser for both genders with a selection of fine stores from clothing to furniture and luggage. Newly opened is the popular The Grape Wine Bar. Decorated in appropriate purple, and in quick order has become an urbane gathering spot where clients can taste wines before purchasing from the retail section and can also sit and sip casually at the curved bars on silk covered grape purple stools.

Raleigh’s museum

Food has, surprisingly, become a turn-on for visitors and locals in this city with a population of fewer than 1 million. With the Monet exhibit being of great importance, seven restaurateurs have planned menus inspired by the food of Normandy. April & George Art Bar & Wine Gallery has combined every aspect of creativity, showing local artists’ works. Enoteca, located in a former creamery, is a trendy sophisticated eatery with traditional yet updated menu interpreted by Chef Christensen. His culinary creations go from the tastes of Alsace, Normandy, and The Rhone Valley to Beaujolais area including Queso Azul de Valdeon, a raw cow and goat’s milk cheese from Spain, Pecorino di Pienza Rosso, raw sheep’s milk cheese from Tuscany and Bouq Emissaire a goat’s milk cheese made by Chateau Guay in Quebec. Their wine list is very impressive from sparkling wines, whites roses, reds and focus on Red Burgundy e.g.2002 Bourgogne Rouge and 1998 Corton “Le Rognet” Maison Amboise.

Early, and it has to be early, next morning, it’s a must to have breakfast or brunch at a city landmark, Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant which opened in 1989. Dubbed as Hillbilly hip with ‘country cooking at its best’, the regulars include business leaders and politicians who write testimonials about the casual eatery. Queues on the Saturday morning I was there, were long and snaking outdoors after 10 AM. But it’s so ‘southern trendy’ and so delicious; it’s well worth the wait. Home made pancakes are the size of very large dinner plates, the egg selection is huge and of course, the menu offers something to suit anyone’s dietary needs. Actually, all of it, including the venue is big as is the personality of the new owner, Ed Watkins, who purchased the eatery at the beginning of 2006. Old artifacts from friends and garage sales hang from the rafters.

Within a few minutes from Big Ed’s I was walking through Moore Park which has a gigantic acorn sculpture, the city’s symbol to the interactive Exploris Museum. The newest exhibit, The Enemy Within: Terror in America from 1776 to today. (It’s showing until Nov 26) has exhibits showing how September 11 changed the world and the perception of how safe we are, pinpointing nine horrific events. This powerful travelling exhibit was developed and comes from the International Spy Museum in Washington DC. There are always interesting new exhibits along with an IMAX presentation in the auditorium.

Busy Brunch at Big Ed’s

Big Ed’s decorations

Museums are major destinations and from Exploris, I opted for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences not having time for the History Museum. Usually, I’m in and out of this type of museum in a short time. But when I saw the cleverly designed modern interior and my first encounter and impression was a mammoth hanging dinosaur, I just knew there was a lot I must see. Over an hour later, I was still lingering at the bird sanctuary.

Cooking with a professional chef was a much looked forward to activity. Not usually on the schedule at Vivace, their state-of-the-art open kitchen was the perfect venue for the acclaimed chef Jay Beaver who works out of Frazier’s, one of the sister restaurants. With pots, pans and bowls at the ready, Chef Beaver prepared a Normandy French meal which started with a salade frissee topped with a drippy poached egg, as it should be. This mixed well with the salad dressing. It was followed by traditional cassoulet which step by step, Chef Beaver walked us through this very traditional Normandy meal. Most of the chefs with whom I spoke head to Moore Square Farmers Market where the vendors are the original producers of the fruits, veggies, jam and, jellies -another attractions that shouldn’t be missed, if only for the variety of hot sauces..

That old adage’ time flies when you’re having fun’, had a definite meaning when we had to leave for a not-too- hard to take tasting of Normandy desserts at Hereghty Heavenly Delicious.

For more flavours of Normandy, during the Monet exhibit, Bloomsbsury Bistro offers a three course menu with wines from the Barossa Valley to Bordeaux.

Nelson’s with its Sunday Champagne Brunch has become Raleigh’s hottest new restaurant where they have revived and fused classic French recipes with American cuisine. The setting is stunning and the decadent buffet tests everyone’s will power.

Over the next three years, Raleigh will be transforming the city with an infusion of $2 billion. With a new Convention center, a Marriott City Center, even more notable restaurants, public art projects, the expansion of the North Carolina Museum of Art, plus many more innovative projects, Raleigh will become an even better destination. And I know I’ll return again.


North Carolina Museum of Art 2110 Blue Ridge Rd
Exploris Museum 201 Hargett St. tel. 919 834 4040
Moore Square Farmer’s Markets at the intersection of Blount and Martin streets.
Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant 220 Wolfe Street
The Grape of Cameron Village 403 Daniels Street
Hereghty Heavenly Delicious 2603 Glenwood Ave Suite 123
Vivace 4209 Lassiter Mill Rd Suite 115
Bloomsbusry Bistsro 509-101 W. Whitaker Mill Rd
Enoteca 410 Glenwood Ave. Suite 350