The location: Dean's, a Rocky Top Hospitality restaurant, moved into the space formerly occupied by Rockwell's just off Cary Parkway. Even for those outside of Cary, it's well worth the trip.
The meal: We started with the appetizer sampler: four blue crab dumplings, three Oysters Rockefeller and four BBQ, bacon-wrapped shrimp served in a bowl of cheesy grits. Each taste was more amazing than the last. The dumplings were crispy outside, creamy inside. Oysters were sea fresh and not overwhelmed by the toppings. And the shrimp were large, al dente and smokily delicious.
My partner ordered the cioppino, a fish stew served over pasta in tomato-herb broth. It's a dish I've made at home, but Dean's portion size and fresh ingredients outdid anything I could prepare.
I chose scallops from the fresh fish menu, where the choices change weekly. Choose your fish or shellfish, then add two sides and an "accompaniment" – one of Dean's signature sauces, rubs or toppings. Options start with the standard lemon butter and span the globe from Mexican-inspired salsas to red curry coconut, ponzu and peanut sauce flavors of the India and Asia.
Again, the portion was impressive and the tastes super-fresh and distinct. My side of pan roasted brussel sprouts could serve as a light meal in itself.
The service: We showed up without reservations on a busy Saturday night and took the hostess' suggestion that booths at the bar are first-come, first-served. By the time we had ordered drinks, one freed up and we were seated. Two people actually waited on us, and both seemed a bit rushed. But they were friendly, knowledgeable and prompt.
The bill: A shared appetizer, two entrees and three beers, with tip, totaled just about $80 – more than reasonable although not an amount we'd spend every week.
The verdict: Dean's serves special-occasion level food with a price point and atmosphere that ensure there's no need to wait for a celebration to indulge.