How wonderful to have friends who place top bids in online charity auctions and then ask you to share their winnings.
Our friends, Carole and Keith, did just that when she was the recipient of a four-person food and art package in Raleigh from the website Bidding for Good. Carole’s bounty included a four-course dinner with wine pairings at Poole’s Downtown Diner, and a private, guided tour of the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA).
Bill and I were the grateful invitees who accompanied them on a 24-hour getaway to sample the capital city’s culinary and visual arts.
Our overnight adventure began when we checked into the stellar The Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, a suburb of Raleigh. Among the hotel’s many awards and accolades is the Condé Nast Traveler Gold List, and both the hotel and its signature restaurant, Herons, boast the AAA Five Diamond Award and the Forbes Travel Guide Five Star Award.
Tasteful and elegant in understated earth tones, the hotel features a striking 95-piece collection of original art specifically curated to reflect the hotel’s dual design muses of art and nature. A top-lit Dale Chihuly glass sculpture, titled Ardea Figura, is the focal point of the lobby. This piece fosters the illusion of a sinuous plant emerging from the moss-covered ground – almost as if it had been transplanted from the surrounding lush landscape.
Like the Umstead, Poole’s was beyond our expectations. Located in Raleigh’s center city, this unprepossessing shotgun-style building gives little hint to the retro vibe and the pulsating scene inside. The menu deftly tweaks homey comfort foods with seasonal, locally sourced ingredients.
We thought we’d be selecting our dinner from the list of daily fare written on the massively long chalkboard overhead, but the kitchen took the lead. In an especially generous display of hospitality, we were treated to multiple offerings within each course.
We kicked off with champagne and starters of pimento cheese, steak tartare, and chicken liver paté. Two salads followed – local lettuces with herb yogurt vinaigrette, and roasted beets with frisee and blood orange marmalade vinaigrette. Main courses were butter-poached shrimp over butternut squash and Carolina gold rice grits, braised lamb neck, pan roasted pork loin, and golden tile fish. We virtually inhaled Poole’s signature macaroni au gratin, the decadence factor ramped up thanks to heavy cream and three cheeses. Closing out the meal were dark chocolate pot de crème, caramel jam tart with nuts, and cornmeal madeleine cake.
The oohs and aahs continued the next morning at NCMA, which houses the collection of the state of North Carolina. Back in 1947, the N.C. General Assembly appropriated $1 million to purchase art, making North Carolina the first state to use public funds for this purpose.
The collection spans more than 5,000 years, from ancient Egypt to the Greek and Roman empires, from the European Renaissance to the Impressionists, from 18th and 19th century America to today. There also are galleries devoted to African, Ancient American, and Jewish art.
Given the museum is owned by the state, that makes it, in essence, the peoples’ museum, so there is no admission fee, except for some special exhibitions and programs.
Our tour was in the West Building. Opened in 2010, a major design precept was environmental sensitivity. The exterior, constructed of anodized aluminum panels and glass, is striking.
Inside, it’s the lightest and whitest museum we’ve ever seen, projecting an almost ethereal quality. Systems were installed to both visually enhance the art while simultaneously protecting it from heat and light exposure. White curtains and walls reflect the light from skylights and the glass. Ceiling vaults and coffers are shaded with louvers. Photocells on the roof monitor sky conditions and control the shades and track lighting accordingly.
Nancy, our docent, led us to some of the major pieces in the contemporary collection and shared fascinating details: Lines That Link Humanity, fashioned from discarded liquor bottles by El Anatsui; Bride by Beth Lipman, five tiers of 500 pieces of blown glass, cascading from orderly perfection to broken chaos; Mickalene Thomas’ powerful Three Graces; and the vibrant Laughing Clouds by Angel Otero.
We pondered an untitled sculpture of four rectangular blocks depicting someone or something either soaring or collapsing, according to the viewer’s mindset.
In an eerie and unknowing foreshadowing of his own death in the Twin Towers on 9/11, sculptor Michael Richards depicted the martyred Saint Sebastian, the patron of archers, athletes and soldiers, pierced with airplanes instead of arrows.
The last part of our tour was especially moving – the 29 sculptures by Auguste Rodin situated in the sun-dappled court and adjacent garden courtyard. It’s the largest repository of Rodin’s works in the American South.
We left Raleigh with our senses filled, thanks to our brief, but indelible, connection with friends, food, and culture.