Notes from Cary, NC

• Baker’s Dozen Donut shop (at South Hills mall) – This place has no website or facebook page, and the sign out front simply reads “Donuts”.  They had a pretty big selection, and prices were cheap if I recall correctly – only 8 or 9 bucks for a dozen, and huge apple fritters for a lot less than $2.  Donuts are pretty run-of the mill from my very limited sampling.  Very sweet, no surprises.    It looks like they stay open until 7 or 8 some evenings.
• La Casa De Las Enchiladas – Kind of a house-like ambience.  Very good salsa to start off with, along with freshly fried chips.  The quesadilla huitlacoche (corn fungus – apparently a Mexican delicacy but a rarity around here) was good enough, but I probably wouldn’t order it again.  The mole poblano was fine, other enchiladas were good and decidedly more spicy than most places (a plus for me).  The torta cubana was massive and contains seemingly every single meat/ingredient they have.  It’s a huge round sandwich that overflows with fillings.  It’s good, and could easily feed two.  There’s also a nice salsa/condiments bar.  I’d definitely go back.
• Lucky 32– We went back again but I have to say I’m consistently underwhelmed.  The menu always sounds great though.  I Finally tried the voodoo pig bread – pulled pork, red onion, chevre, cilantro, voodoo sauce on ciabatta (+ some melted mozzarellla I think).  It was fine but not worth going out of your way for.  The service at this place has always been excellent though.
•  Bella Mia – We finally went back after a long hiatus (and after their change in ownership a while back).  We went with the calzone with ricotta and sausage, which had so wowed us previously.  It was very similar, but somehow not quite as amazingly delicious.  Still really good.  The roasted chicken wings to start were the exact same – very nice!

Donuts and more!

monut

image courtesy of flickr

For a long time, finding good donuts in the Triangle was always something I puzzled over – up until quite recently there just weren’t many options.  But now we can have a legitimate debate: whose donuts are the best? I’m going to leave that up to you to decide!  Here are a few places where you can score some donuts and/or other delicious eats:

Rise (Durham, Southpoint area):
I’d had their donuts before, as well as a day old biscuit, but I’d never been to the storefront.  It’s extremely small  inside, with very limited seating, but there are some tables out front.  Be sure to grab a numbered ticket when you enter; the ordering queue gets a little jumbled as 1/2 the people don’t realize they are supposed to do this (I was guilty the first time through the line).  There are biscuits with any number of toppings, and then there are the specialty ones featuring all sorts of gourmet arrangements.  I went with a simple fried chicken biscuit ($3).  The biscuit itself was super, the fried chicken – a little thin (too must crust/meat).  But do try the ham biscuit – you get a nice fat hunk of roasted ham (not a traditional country ham like you might expect).  The biscuits are big, but not quite big enough for an entire lunch for me.  Thankfully, they have donuts too!  Though I love sweets, I think the donuts here are second fiddle to the biscuits.  Jelly-filled and chocolate glazed with sprinkles were average; the coconut cake, better.  Many of the donuts are gourmet-creative-exotic, but I will say that some plain glazed mini ones we got recently were feathery light and just perfect. 

Monuts (Durham, downtown):
Like others in Durham, Monuts has graduated to a genuine store front, in their case beginning as a simple stand at the farmer’s market.  The store is super cute, and they also serve home made bagels.  And, somewhat perplexingly, wine and beer.  But get a donut – you won’t regret it.  I’ve tried a chocolate chai (cake) that was really good, an earl grey cake (great flavor, mediocre texture) and an apple cinnamon cake (crumbly and sugary in the best way).  I need to get back and try some yeast donuts. 

I’ve also tried donuts from Sandra’s Bakery in Sanford and these were quite good, but I wouldn’t go way out of the way for them.  I’ve had an excellent buttermilk donut from the Cup 22 coffee shop in Saxapahaw, though donuts at the general store next door have been less than thrilling.  I’ve yet to try Daylight Donuts, but people seem to really like them (they are a nation wide chain).  And, speaking of chains, last but not least, there’s good ol’ Krispy Kreme, whose “hot now” glazed donuts are pretty hard to beat.

Trip to Chicago

Last week I was in Chicago for some training for work.  My wife was able to come along for a few days, and we were really lucky to have nice warm weather and the chance to eat some great food:

Sunday brunch:
Nellcote – The dining room is heavily stylized in a borderline gaudy French/New Orleans/flamboyant kind of way.  Think plenty of chandeliers, elaborate wallpapers, and French bistro chairs, mixed with glossy white/orange bar stools, pop artwork, and maybe a sofa or two.  You wouldn’t expect them to have a mill in the basement that’s used to grind their own flour, but they do.  A plate of tiny accoutrements came out first (included with the prix fixe deal).  It included some breads (ok), cheeses (fine), poached figs (good), prosciutto (good, obviously).  House-made apple jam and butter were fine, but the lemon curd dip was excellent.  I ordered the pain perdu and my wife got the quiche lorraine.  Again, the plates were highly stylized.  My dish was three parallel rectangular blocks of fried bread, each with a hefty dollop of creme chantilly on top, plus a bunch of diced apples and some maple syrup.  There wasn’t enough syrup and the whole thing was actually rather bland.  I used the remnants of the lemon curd to liven up the dish.  My wife’s quiche was a super-thick individual pie, but it too was nothing to get excited about.  Overall: neat space, mediocre food.

Sunday dinner:
Giordano’s – “Chicago Classic” stuffed pizza, with pepperoni, green peppers, onions, and mushrooms.  Ridiculously thick and cheesy, decadent and delicious.

Monday breakfast:
Vanille Patisserie (French Market) – Two stuffed croissants: spinach/ricotta and sweet cream.  The latter was the clear winner here, but both were good thanks to the excellent flaky pastry.

Monday lunch:
Wishbone – Our training course instructor took us to this Southern soul food joint.  The cornbread to start off with had good flavor, but was a bit dense.  The beef brisket in my sandwich was superbly tender, but I kept having to add more and more of their dark red bbq sauce.  I didn’t care much for the vinegary coleslaw.

Monday dinner:
Avec – A small precious wooden cube of a restaurant.  Yes, the stools were uncomfortable and it was crowded and loud, but the food was top-notch.  Of course I had to get their signature dish – chorizo-stuffed bacon-wrapped dates with roasted piquillo pepper-tomato sauce.  These were incredible, with an impeccable balance of flavors.  The sausage stuffing was amazing.   We also got the “deluxe” focaccia, another of their standard items.  This was a large flatbread, kind of smoky and charred, filled with a soft creamy mixture of cheeses (taleggio, ricotta), plus truffle oil and herbs.  It was excellent.  Next, marinated chicken thighs, with rice, squash, and apples.  Again, very good, if not quite as exciting, but by this point we were getting a little full.  And finally, warm burrata with grilled eggplant, smoked salt, and lobster mushrooms.  This was not the way we would have chosen to end the meal, and we were really too full to eat much of it.  It was very good, but I wouldn’t order it again.  Still, overall it was an excellent dinner.

Tuesday dinner:
Frontera Grill – This topped Avec.  It was really stellar.  The chips and guacamole were simply exquisite.  My wife and I both thought that the chips were the best we’d had, and the two small accompanying salsas were also nice.  This appetizer is expensive at almost $10, but it was a lot of food for just the two of us.  The menu at Frontera is large and it was very very difficult for me to make a selection.  I went with the “street food trio”, which included potosinas, tlacoyos, and sopes.  The dish came out as three very artfully plated appetizer-sized portions.  I can’t recall all of the details, but they were all delicious.  My wife ordered the pork tacos al carbon.  This came with some outstanding tortillas.  The meat was bathed in a rich sauce that kept me coming back for more.  We also shared a side order of the stewed mushrooms, which come served in a tiny cast iron skillet.  These were creamy, spicy, and delicious.  Wow! – a great meal.

Wednesday dinner:
Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba – not my choice, but it was good.  I went with a large group from my training course, so we ordered a lot (!) of tapas.  Some of them were very good, like the steak with bleu cheese and homemade potato chips, the bacon-wrapped dates (again!!) with apples, the empanadas, the grilled octopus with roasted tomatoes, the tomato sauce/goat cheese dip (served with good crusty bread).  Others were not amazing but competently prepared: a potato/onion omelette/quiche-like thing, fried calamari, shrimp with lemon and garlic, short ribs and mashed potatoes.  The croquetas were too cheesy; they reminded me of a fried mozzarella stick.

Thursday breakfast:
Glazed and Infused – some of the best donuts I’ve ever had.  The maple-bacon long john (seemingly a new standard in the world of gourmet donuts) was great.  It was rivalled by a perfect old-fashioned pumpkin spice donut.  Finally, the salted caramel was also very good, but was covered in an overwhelming amount of chopped peanuts.

Thursday dinner:
Au Cheval – Another small, crowded restaurant, but with a very different feel than Avec.  This place was super dark and richly appointed – sort of a decadent swanky diner that features an unapologetically hedonistic menu.  It almost felt like a bar first, restaurant second, but the quality of the meal left little doubt that this place takes food preparation seriously.  I went with the fried bologna sandwich (pictured above, and which I had seen gloriously depicted on a magazine cover as the “best sandwich in Chicago”).  Did I want a fried egg piled on there too?  I demurred.  Nonetheless, the sandwich was huge – of course – and awesome.  Salty, fatty, cheesy, messy.  It was a very memorable sandwich, and one I’d like to eat often if it could be made about 1000 times healthier.  I also got to try the fried chicken, which incorporated honey to achieve a sesame-chicken kind of effect, and some grilled tomatoes, which had a nice sprinkling of coarse salt on top.

Friday lunch:
Grange Hall Burger Bar – Whereas Au Cheval captured the current fad for rich heavy food, Grange Hall aimed squarely for the bearded hipster vibe.  This place was all about vintage finds, rustic wooden tables, heavily tarnished silverware, flannel plaid shirts, cool music, and “down home, old fashioned” food and friendliness.  I mean, they’ve got hay bales out front to cordon off the small outdoor dining area.  Both restaurants had a studied and deliberate aesthetic, to be sure, but, thankfully, in both cases the food really worked.  I ordered a burger with white cheddar and caramelized onions.  Oddly, it came piled high with plenty of raw red onion as well (easily removed).  While not over-the-top great, it was spot on – juicy and very satisfying.  The fries were awesome – super extra crispy thin wedges of russet potatoes.  I also tried the onion rings, which were astonishingly light and feathery.  The desserts were certainly tempting (homemade pies and ice cream), but not so good.  The pie crusts were way too thick.  My slice of pumpkin pie was slightly chunky – clearly not made from canned pumpkin.  That’s a nice touch, but it didn’t make for a better pie.

I feel so fortunate to have experienced an awesome week of eating like a king in Chicago, both with my wife and with the nice folks I met in my training course.  I did a lot of research on the culinary scene of the city before I went, and my high hopes were fully realized.  Whatever pounds I packed on during the week were definitely worth it!