Foster’s Market (Durham, NC)

image courtesy of mapandmenu.com

If Bull Street Gourmet is the promising young rookie of market/cafes, Foster’s Market is certainly the steady old veteran.  Established in 1990, Foster’s remains a fixture in the Triangle’s dining scene.  The Durham location is fairly sprawling and expansive, with loads of outdoor seating on the shaded porches and picnic tables.  Inside, it has the feel of a giant coffee shop.  I wouldn’t say it’s cozy, but it’s very casual, and it’s the kind of place where you could easily linger with a group of friends for a few hours.  Indeed, it almost seems deliberately designed as the ideal meeting spot for a university study group.

Navigating your experience at Foster’s can be a little bewildering the first time.  Entering the space, you pass by the cash registers to find shelves and racks of pantry items, gourmet groceries, and such.  Turn around, and you are confronted by their enormous menus overhead as well as display cases of prepared foods and baked goods (of which there are many).  Menu additions and daily specials are posted in various spots; it’s hard to know where to look.  The staff is friendly but not especially helpful in figuring out the ordering process.  You won’t be able to see everything from where you stand (there are just so many options), so it’s probably best to browse around a bit first.  Anyway, once you figure what you want, they’ll record it on a little notepad, and you can go find a seat.  They’ll bring your food out to you, and you bring your receipt (along with any groceries) up to the register to pay when you’re finished.

The menu is extensive and covers all manner of breakfast and lunch options (soups, salads, wraps, sandwiches, entrees, and even pizzas at the Chapel Hill location).  It’s hard to conceive of how they can reliably keep that many ingredients on hand, but, amazingly, everything generally tastes fresh.  I ordered a BBQ turkey sandwich (pulled turkey breast with Foster’s West Tennessee BBQ Sauce, Carolina cole slaw, house-made bread & butter pickles on a brioche bun,  $7.95).  I enjoyed it well enough, but there was no contrast in the dish.  The cole slaw did not offset the meat (they were sauced similarly, a la Lexington style BBQ), and together with the lackluster bread (which resembled a supermarket potato bun), the whole thing tasted of a plain generic one-ness.  My wife ordered “The Cubano” (pulled mojo pork, ham, Swiss, pickles, lettuce, mayo and yellow mustard on grilled soft baguette, $8.95).  Again, I was unimpressed with the bread, but this was the better sandwich.  The pork had good flavor and was well seasoned, and there was just the right amount of the bright mustard.  For side dishes, we had a a summer succotash (corn, lima beans, cherry tomatoes, priced by the pound) that was lovely with a delicate vinaigrette.  A side of lime-marinated raw veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, squash, red onion, grated carrot) was fine if uninspiring.  Resisting the baked goods is nearly impossible, as there is such a variety, and they all look delicious.  I took home a large piece of what I thought was coconut cake ($4.50 if I recall correctly), which turned out to be a key lime cake.  It wasn’t bad, but it was too sweet, and I definitely could not eat all of the frosting.

To sum it up, Foster’s Market is a good place for a relaxing meal with friends or to pick up a quick baked goodie.   They also offer pre-made dinners to go and catering services.  It might not dazzle you, but it’s unlikely to really disappoint you either.  So I’m sure Foster’s will be around for years to come, regardless of whatever newcomers join the scene.

Bull Street Gourmet & Market (Durham, NC)

Hope Valley Square was once was a no-mans land shopping center south of Durham but is now home to some great tenants: Only Burger, Pop’s Backdoor South, Tonali, and Bull Street Gourmet & Market to name a few. The latter is the most recent to open, and is an offshoot of the venture’s original location in Charleston, SC.  It features a small but well-stocked grocery section and a casual eatery.  In the grocery you can find all manner of local and hyper-local staples (peanut butters, jams, relishes, cheeses, plus a few meats and some tempting ice cream sandwiches), as well as, somewhat incongruously, a decent selection of mass market candies. Otherwise, you can get breakfast here, or a pastry, or even a quick pre-made dinner-to-go, but the main culinary focus seems to be soups, salads, and sandwiches. These feature gourmet ingredients in classic pairings, and are priced accordingly.  The atmosphere is completely casual; just place your order at the counter and take a seat at one of the mix-and-match tables, or at one of the stools that run along the counter.

I chose a club sandwich (ham, smoked turkey, bacon, cucumber, lettuce, $8.99) and my wife opted for the “Chappy” salad (romaine/green apple/shaved red onion/walnuts/feta, $7.99). Our orders were brought out promptly by the very friendly staff.  Although the sandwich didn’t come with any sides, it was definitely big enough to be a full meal.  It was served in a small basket, and cut in half, but it was nearly impossible to eat thanks to some insubstantial focaccia and a massive amount of dressing. On the menu description, this was a dijon mayonnaise, but in the sandwich I got it was a horseradish mayo – pretty disappointing for a person who doesn’t love horseradish. The bread itself was very good (tomato-parmesan focaccia from Guglhupf) but, being very soft and thinly cut, it simply could not hold the sandwich together.  I almost resorted to a fork and knife, which probably would have been a wiser choice than amassing a pile of about 20 napkins.  I thought the ham was outstanding, the bacon and white cheddar unremarkable.  Overall, it was a decent sandwich, but I would probably order something different next time.  My wife’s salad was excellent, and very refreshing with a light lemon poppy seed dressing, but it probably could have used some more walnuts, and I felt like it should have been a dollar or two cheaper.  It came with a sweet roll that tasted just fine but seemed doughy and undercooked.

I’ve said this many times before, but I wish there were more places like this throughout the Triangle, and in Raleigh in particular.  But for now, Hope Valley Square is shaping up as a pretty decent foodie destination, so you can bet I’ll be back for more.