Gather – Boutique/Coffee/Tea/Co-working in downtown Cary, NC

While this post isn’t strictly about food, I’ve just got to tell about this place. Gather is a co-working/boutique/coffe&tea bar in downtown Cary that’s run by my wife. If you didn’t know Cary had a downtown, shame on you! And if you’ve never been down there, it’s a charming sleepy little spot in the middle of the bustling Triangle, with it’s own train station, a handful of good eats, and, of course, this space.

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Here you can shop for the best of the best in locally made goods, from jewelry to apparel to wallets to artwork to food products, and you can enjoy a coffee or tea while you browse. When the shop is closed, you can rent space as a co-worker or attend one of the awesome classes held there regularly (see the schedule on the website). There’s also an amazing outdoor garden patio out back.

The pictures (by our friend Amanda at Wit & Whistle) capture some of the wonderful vibe of the space, but I encourage you to come check it for yourself – I’m sure you’ll love it.

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Pizzeria Toro (Durham, NC)

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Recently I wrote about Durham’s Mateo and how it made that city feel ever more cosmopolitan.  While Mateo brings Spanish flair to the Bull City, just down the block Pizzeria Toro bolsters the European vibe with Italian charm and elegance.  It’s not an upscale restaurant, per se, but Toro offers a beautifully simple style, and, more importantly, excellent food.  I’d say it rivals Bella Mia as the best pizza in the Triangle, in a much more attractive setting (for me).  It fits perfectly in Durham, whose restaurant scene continues to evolve with more and more high quality, big-city caliber joints.

Toro occupies a small space that is dominated by a circular wood-fired oven towards the rear of the restaurant.  Actually, the restaurant is shaped like an “L”, with entrances on two adjoining streets: one door to the narrow bar, another (main) door to the dining room.  The space achieves an effortless chic with minimalist decor, but they have clearly put plenty of thought into details like the lighting (spotlights on the wood logs that fuel the oven), flatware, and “hand-towel” napkins.  There’s a communal table in the middle, and high tables along the sides, along with a few window counter seats.  Although the high tables and stools are not really ideal for small kids, the restaurant appears to be adaptable: witness the very small child I saw recently suspended in a basket-like contraption clamped to the side of the table – I’d never seen anything like it.   This place gets crowded, so come early.

The menu is limited in the best way.  A few apps, a few salads, a selection of fine hams (similar to Mateo) and more than enough pizzas to choose from.  The problem is choosing one.  Divided into “red” and “white” categories, they all sound fabulous, many with exotic toppings like spicy lamb meatballs, brussel sprouts, or clams.  Note that the menu changes frequently to feature local seasonal ingredients.  My wife assured me that one pie was enough for both of us, so we chose the onion/taleggio/pistachio (white) pie ($13).  It arrived looking great, with a slightly charred, lightly oiled crust sprinkled with sea salt, hunks of melty tallegio, and plenty of onions.  Indeed, this pie was loaded with raw red and white onions, which was fine by me.  The crust was mildly sweet, and not really as ethereal as that at Bella Mia, but almost as good in its own way.  The toppings were more substantial than I’ve had at Bella Mia.  Overall, the pie tasted great, with perfect seasoning, but I’d be eager to try out a different one next time.  Really minor quibbles would be uneven distribution of toppings and fairly un-crunchy pistachios.  My wife, as usual, was right – the one pie was plenty to fill us both up.

As Durham’s restaurant scene continues to expand in exciting ways, Mateo and Pizzeria Toro are helping to fill some of the Triangle’s bigger culinary voids (excellent tapas and gourmet pizza, respectively).  Judging by the meals I’ve had at each and their initial popularity, here’s hoping these restaurants are mainstays for years to come.  And though I probably won’t mistake myself for being in Barcelona or Florence, I’m thankful that the comparison is even possible.

Review: Panciuto (Hillsborough, NC)

Hillsborough is a charming little town, a place my wife and I frequently imagine ourselves living in.  It’s small and quaint, but hip enough to boast its own LocoPops and WholeFoods outposts.  A bit more stately than similarly funky Pittsboro, Hillsborough is home to some good restaurants, including at least one outstanding one: Panciuto.

Situated right on the town’s main street, the restaurant is distinguished modestly by a small black awning above the entrance.  Inside, it’s very warm and cozy.  The dining area is rather small, and, together with the diminutive bar (just a few stools) and a long-abandoned fireplace, as well as plenty of white Christmas lights, it makes for an intimate experience.  This is an upscale restaurant, and the space feels elegant, but simple wooden tables and a few light-hearted prints along an exposed brick wall keep the place from seeming too fancy or stuffy.  Even though the tables against the wall are arranged quite closely together, this is a great restaurant for a date or special occasion.  Tiny fluted glasses of prosecco brought to the table shortly after seating reinforce this celebratory sentiment.

The menu generally represents a sort of hybrid of Italian and Southern American cooking.  The restaurant is completely devoted to local ingredients; a box on one side of the menu shows you where just about every component of your meal comes from and the distance it has traveled.  Impressively, these range from about walking distance (herbs) to no more than a couple hundred miles (NC seafood).

Panciuto is only open for dinner, Wednesday – Saturday, from 5:30pm – 8:30pm.  On Wednesdays and Thursdays, small plates are the order of the evening.  Our waiter informed us that, in general, these were appetizer sized portions, and suggested ordering two selections per person.  Noticing the large plates around us, we were skeptical and went with the following 3 items:

  •     Ricotta gnocchi en crema with baby beet greens, sunny duck egg, vincotto, and asparagus ($12)
  •     Pappardelle with grilled pulled pork, shiitake mushrooms, arugula, mustard butter, and parmesan ($17)
  •     Grilled pork chop with buttered polenta, fried green tomatoes, and green-garlic tomato gravy ($16)

While we waited, a small bread selection arrived at the table.  It featured a very slender slice of focaccia (fine) and a super-buttery soft and flaky parker house roll (better).  But these were both trumped by a wedge of something whose composition most closely approximated that of a muffin, although it was sliced as though from a thin tea cake.  The flavor was lemon poppy seed with just the right amount of rosemary.  It was soft, delicate, and heavenly.

Thoughtfully, the waiter offered to bring us the first dish as an “appetizer” followed by the other dishes.  This worked out perfectly.  The gnocchi dish was beautifully presented, with tiny thimble-sized soft pillows of ricotta arranged around the egg, adorned with the cute microgreens.  This was indeed a small dish – there weren’t more than two or three asparagus tips on the whole plate, but the balance of flavors was lovely.  The vincotto brought a complex and subtle sweetness, and the egg contributed a luxurious richness.  We were off to a great start.

The next two dishes were much more substantial, with the pasta in particular being enough to fill a hungry diner.  The pork chop (an ossabaw heritage breed) represented the apotheosis of grilling.  It was maybe a little overdone, but the flavor was exemplary.  It sat on a small bed of gnocchi-shaped polenta balls and was topped by a few thin slices of excellent fried green tomato.  A small amount of fresh tasting tomato sauce tied it all together beautifully.  Almost as good was the pasta dish.  As with the pork chop, the pulled pork in this dish had a terrific smokiness, but in this case the meat could have been just a little more tender.  There was certainly plenty of it, and plenty of rich cheese as well – combined with the excellent homemade noodles, it made for wonderful comfort food on a cool night.  I felt that the shiitake mushrooms, which were barely cooked, didn’t contribute much to the dish.  I did like that the mustard butter and arugula lent a subtle lemony edge, but it wasn’t quite enough to balance out the cheesy creaminess of the dish.  Still, it was delicious, even if the overall flavor profile wasn’t as sophisticated as that of the pork chop entrée.

For dessert, we opted for the “crema di cogne with sugar dusted cornmeal zeppole and soft whipped cream” ($6).  This was basically two doughnuts with sort of a soft chocolate pudding/mousse accompaniment – another great value as it was perfect for two people.  For me, the zeppole were rather average – light and airy, yes, but just fried dough.  The cornmeal wasn’t lost in the dish, but didn’t really elevate it, either.  The crema di cogne was rich and silky, and I really enjoyed the chocolate flavor with what seemed to be just a hint of liquor.

Overall, our dinner at Panciuto was one of the best meals we’ve had in the Triangle, and it’s easy to see why chef Aaron Vandemark was a James Beard award finalist for best chef in the Southeast.  His restaurant delivers superb flavor in a lovely setting (and outstanding value for certain dishes).  So while Hillsborough itself is worth a drive to check out, Panciuto makes the town all the more special.

Review: Chuck’s (Raleigh, NC)

Last week I wrote about Beasley’s, Ashley Christensen’s new fried chicken place in downtown Raleigh. Christensen’s ambitious plans for the corner of Wilmington and Martin Streets have now come to fruition with the additional openings of Chuck’s and Fox Liquor Bar, both of which are directly adjacent to Beasley’s.

Like Beasley’s, Chuck’s is devoted to just one classic American meal. In the case of Chuck’s, it’s the hamburger and fries. And just like at Beasley’s and Poole’s Diner, Christensen elevates this simple cuisine through distinctive ambience, quality ingredients, and, most rewardingly, excellent cooking.

The interior of Chuck’s is bare bones but chic, with a simple palette of white, black, and bright red. To emphasize the restaurant’s main culinary attraction, a large image of a cow adorns the front window (complete with hash marks highlighting the shoulder – source of the ground chuck) and several imposing black bull heads are mounted along one interior wall. Despite the huge communal table at Beasley’s, Chuck’s is the more casual spot, thanks in part to the brighter lighting and lack of table service. But whereas Bull City Burger & Brewery in Durham exudes conviviality and a certain charm, Chuck’s hews closer to the no-frills ambience of a Five Guys. It’s more refined (by a huge margin), but it’s a little cold.

This is not a restaurant for vegetarians: your only options are about a half-dozen specialty burgers ($9 each) and a 1/2 lb of Belgian fries (cooked in duck fat, $4). As far as I know, you can’t create your own burger, as you can at BCBB (or most any other burger joint for that matter), but the choices are all quite tempting. My wife opted for the “The Big House” (cheddar, sorghum-dijon, thyme-caramelized shallots) and I went for the “Spirit Animal” (cream cheese, grilled tomato, roasted poblanos, tortilla dust). With your fries, which are meant to be shared by two people, you get your choice of about 7 different dipping sauces, ranging from green-peppercorn Dijon to the mysterious “comeback sauce”. We went with the roasted garlic aioli, and they’ll give you a side of ketchup as well, if you like. The burgers came out quickly, each wrapped in paper. The fries are cutely presented in Chinese take-out style box. When my burger turned out to be the same as my wife’s (not what I ordered), the staff was exceedingly gracious, and offered me a free milkshake to compensate for their error.

The burgers were amazing. While I prefer the heartier bun at BCBB, the patty at Chuck’s was irreproachable: thick with slight charring on the outside, pink and very juicy on the inside. It simultaneously combined the best attributes of burgers from Only Burger and BCBB. It just doesn’t get much better. The fries were also very good, if not the best in the area. Maybe I’m just not a fan of thick-cut fries, but I prefer the shoestring duck fat frites with rosemary at BCBB. Even the regular ones there, or at Only Burger, or – dare I say-  at Five Guys, are about as satisfying as the fries at Chuck’s. The burgers at Chuck’s are big, but not excessively so, and, while 1/2 lb of fries sounds like an awful lot, it’s about right for two people.

Chuck’s also offers a tempting array of dessert-like milkshakes. I’ve tried both their salted peanut butter/roasted banana and pumpkin latte varities ($5 each). Both were excellent, if a bit more vanilla-y than I expected; I’m not sure I would order another.

Chuck’s fits in right at the top of area burger establishments, along with BCBB and Only Burger, and, like Beasley’s, provides a huge lift to Raleigh’s restaurant scene. But perhaps even more so than with Beasley’s, I have to wonder whether Chuck’s strikes the right note for Raleigh. The ambience is not especially inviting. The menu is extremely limited, and the gourmet burgers sound rather exotic, so a lack of customizability may drive away some customers. When I was there on a recent Saturday evening, it was not particularly crowded, and a group of two or three large guys wandered in, perused the menu, and left. The prices at Chuck’s are a little higher than those at BCBB, but I’d say they’re reasonable for one of the best burger experiences in the entire Triangle. I look forward to going back for more.

 Update (10/28/11): You can now get any burger as a 5oz “little chuck” for $6.75, and a side of fries for $2.50.  I believe they are now offering veggie burgers as well.

Review: Beasley’s Chicken & Honey (Raleigh, NC)

image courtesy of raleighcitizen.com

Although I’ve lived in Raleigh for years and enjoy it, I used to consider it’s downtown restaurant scene to be the least appealing of the Triangle’s three cities.    Chapel Hill has a vibrancy, courtesy of the university, that Raleigh lacks, and downtown Durham is both more architecturally interesting and more gastronomically exciting than the capitol city.  But things are starting to change a bit in Raleigh, thanks in no small part to the efforts of one woman, Ashley Christensen.

Poole’s Diner, her flagship restaurant, has for quite some time been one of the top restaurants in the entire Triangle, and now Christensen has opened two new restaurants (and a liquor bar) on Wilmington St. in downtown Raleigh.  Beasley’s Chicken & Honey and Chuck’s share a clean, modern look, a kitchen, and a commitment to the most straightforward of menus: fried chicken at Beasley’s, burgers and fries at Chuck’s.  Their recent openings generated a lot of buzz and instantly boosted Raleigh’s culinary cachet, and I have been eager to try both.

We almost flipped a coin to pick which one to try first, but ended up going with Beasley’s based on the warmer, more inviting lighting on a recent Friday evening.  The space is clean and modern, with one very long communal table running down the middle of the room as well as numerous smaller tables.  You’re seated on a sturdy metal stool.  The aesthetic is rigorous and austere, with a consistent palette of reds, silvers, and blacks, but the quality of the appointments lends a sophisticated urban feel.  At night, small votive candles on each table give a touch of elegance to the space; I imagine that during the day the space is flooded with sunlight from the huge plate glass windows.  Either way, Beasley’s seems better suited to a casual lunch than to a romantic dinner.

As is the case at Poole’s (and Chuck’s), the menu is displayed on a large chalkboard above the bar.  If it seems as though you’re struggling to read it, they’ll bring you a small card describing your choices.  As mentioned, there aren’t many – the menu is extraordinarily simple: you choose between fried chicken or a chicken biscuit (chicken & waffles being a third option, available only for brunch or late at night).  When we were there, the waitress also offered one special, a spicy chicken salad biscuit.  My wife and I each chose the º chicken, dark meat ($7.50).  There are about seven or so side items to choose from, and they all sound fabulous, but it’s probably best to go with just one, as it’s likely to fill you up, and they are priced individually ($3.50).  I went with the “Kennedy biscuits with honey” and my wife chose the “big bad bacon yukon gold potato salad”.

Our food arrived alarmingly quickly.  In keeping with the overall feel of the place, presentation is starkly simple, with the chicken placed upon a bare bones industrial metal plate.  The skin was thin, dark, and very crispy, and the meat was beautifully moist.  For me, the slight drizzle of honey added almost nothing to the chicken; in fact I’d probably rather have chicken without honey.  Although it’s a reasonable portion – a drumstick and a thigh – my wife and I both picked the bones clean and wanted just a little bit more.  It was certainly delicious, if not incredibly flavorful or terribly exciting.  The side items, on the other hand, were brilliant.  The potato salad was heavy with smoky bacon-ness.  It really packed a punch without being overwhelming.  The biscuits, which were served as three very thick triangular wedges, were my favorite part of the meal.  Being partially soaked through with a liberal amount of honey, they were sweet, dense, moist, and addictive.  The honey did much more for the biscuits than it did for the chicken.  Both side dishes were ample portions, with the biscuits in particular being a lot for one person to finish.  It might be nice if Beasley’s offered just one biscuit, a la carte, to go with your chicken and another side dish.  Otherwise, I think the pricing is just right – $11 for high-quality chicken and a side seems like a good deal to me.

Beasley’s is a spot I would absolutely return to for a casual meal.  The restaurant’s take on traditional Southern fare is comforting enough to keep you coming back, but tweaked enough to make it modern and interesting.  With it’s refined aesthetic and prices to match, Beasley’s is  perhaps a curious fit for Raleigh, but one that certainly enhances the appeal of the city.  After all, this is one of the aspects that’s wonderful about Durham, for instance: ambitious restaurateurs serving great food in neat spaces.  In the case of Beasley’s, the communal seating, friendly service, and a lack of pretentiousness soften the edges enough to capture some of the warmth of a classic Southern joint; if people take to it like I hope they will, over time I could see Beasley’s becoming an institution.  Christensen appears to have another winner with Beasley’s, so here’s hoping that her empire, and indeed Raleigh as a whole, continues to flourish.

Review: Rue Cler (Durham, NC)

photo courtesy of flickr

Durham has celebrated restaurants, to be sure, some of which get more attention than others.  You hear about places like Magnolia Grill and Watts Grocery, and, lately, Scratch Bakery and Bull City Burger & Brewery.  And, though it is certainly not hidden, Rue Cler in downtown Durham is absolutely a gem, and indeed deserves more attention as one of the top few restaurants in the entire Triangle.

Occupying an unassuming corner in downtown, Rue Cler is a fancy restaurant without a hint of pretentiousness.  The charming space features some closely packed small tables (in the European style) and a blonde slat-wood wall adorned with beautifully printed maps of the wine regions of France.  It’s a lively spot that feels as though it could thrive in the most cosmopolitan of cities.  Without even mentioning the food, the overall vibe and ambience are so nice that you’ll want return.

Rue Cler does a wonderful brunch (featuring excellent crepes and beignets), and an even better dinner.  To top it off, a small bakery/café is attached next door where you can pick up a pastry, a loaf of bread, or a light lunch.  They’ll also sell you some excellent pizza dough if you ask.  The bakery is one of the best in the Triangle, in my opinion, and is worth seeking out on its own.

For dinner, Rue Cler offers a prix fixe menu (3-course, $30) along with a small selection of a la carte entrees and sides.  It’s a French restaurant, so the usual suspects are there – steak frites, coq au vin, pommes dauphinois – but the prix fixe menu, which changes frequently, is hard to bypass on account of its array of tempting options.  On a recent Saturday evening, my wife and I both started with the frisee salad.  Featuring candied pecans, dried cherries, and a honey vinaigrette, it was delicious and rather sweet, an effect that was not quite offset by some crumbled mild bleu cheese.  Still, it was a light and refreshing start to the meal.  For seconds, my wife opted for the shrimp crepe (spinach, leek, sauce mornay), and I went with the beef/pork/gruyere dumplings with browned butter.  Both were very good, but the crepe was augmented a little too much of the creamy, thick sauce.  My dumplings were essentially pierogies, blackened on one side, and filled with a meat mixture that approximated breakfast sausage in the best possible way.  The sage browned butter only added to the decadence and richness, but the dish was perfectly portioned, and so good that I was reluctant to share.  Lastly, for our third course, my wife chose the grilled leg of lamb with sauce Robert, herbed spaetzle, and caramelized onions, and I selected the B-line snapper with eggplant/zucchini/field pea ragout and lemon-herb crema.  The lamb was nicely cooked and carved, and boasted a very strong wine-mustard flavor.  This made the subtle herbed spaetzle, which was served as a substantial amount, a necessary complement.  My fish dish was just exquisite.  It went beautifully and delicately with the vegetables and thin sauce, and didn’t really need the crema (which, to my surprise, resembled a small dollop of lightly whipped cream that broke down immediately on contact).  Although both entrees were good, the fish dish, being more well-rounded, was the more exceptional of the two.  I savored each and every bite.

To sum it up, the three courses together made up one of the best meals I’ve eaten in the Triangle.  Everything was expertly cooked, seasoned, and portioned.  The plating was simple but elegant enough.  I don’t usually care about service either way, but I must say that in our case it too was perfect.  The pacing of the meal was just right, and the waitress was unobtrusive, efficient, and gracious.  It’s rare that a restaurant hits all of the right points and leaves you thrilled, but our dinner at Rue Cler was almost flawless.  I’m eager to return.

Capital Club 16 (Raleigh, NC)

image courtesy of flickr

When my wife and I lived downtown, more than 5 years ago, there wasn’t much going on. Walking around the city at night, we wouldn’t see too many people; it was rather bleak.  This was before Fayetteville St. was transformed from a desolate concrete stretch to an open boulevard and before places like the Raleigh Times existed to draw people away from the entertainment hub of Glenwood South.  A lot has changed since then, but one of the most notable and welcome developments is the opening of some good restaurants downtown.  I’m thinking of places like, among others, Poole’s Diner, The Pit, Dos Taquitos Centro, Sitti, the Busy Bee Cafe,  and, very recently, Beasley’s Chicken & Honey.  Another place that figures squarely in downtown Raleigh’s renaissance is Capital Club 16, a restaurant that, even if it’s culinary star doesn’t shine quite as bright as some of the other places mentioned above, has nevertheless become a hip urban nightlife destination.

The restaurant is housed in a lovely, grand space on the corner of Martin and Salisbury Streets.  It’s inviting and feels sophisticated, even a little luxurious, while retaining it’s pitch-perfect of-the-moment coolness.  Part of what makes it work is the gorgeous furniture – all beautiful rustic dark wood and marble tables along with stately but sleek vintage chairs.  The dark browns and black contrast nicely with the white walls.  It’s as nice of a place to take a date as it is to conduct a lunch time business meeting.

The menu is small and has a bit of a German bent to it, with schnitzel sandwiches and various sausages on offer.  I ordered one of the night’s specials, a “Chicago-style beef” sub with fries ($10), and my wife ordered the burger with pimiento cheese ($9).  Despite arriving au jus, mine was closer to a Philly cheesesteak than to a French dip.  Regardless, it was one of the better renditions of either I’ve had in a while, with a bit of a salty and wine-tinged bite.  The extra jus was completely unnecessary.  Unfortunately, the hoagie roll was a bit weak for the job, and became rather mushy during the course of the meal.  The fries were decent, pleasantly airy and crispy, but nothing memorable.  My entree also came with a very small cup of vegetables in vinegar.  I didn’t care for it, but it wasn’t much to discard: one little crinkle-cut carrot coin, a tomato fragment, a celery sliver.  I also thought the plating could use a little improvement, as my pickle spear was buried under a mountain of fries, along with a few other mysterious pieces of cooked celery.  Service was attentive and professional.  It was a solid meal, but nothing to get too excited about.

Although I’d go back to Capital Club 16, I don’t feel inclined to hurry back, and it wouldn’t be at the top of my list of downtown eateries.  There are too many other good choices now, with even more on the horizon.  Still, thanks in part to places like this, things are looking up for downtown Raleigh,

Spize Cafe (Raleigh, NC)

image from Spize Cafe website

Spize Café had been near the top of my list of places to try for quite a long time.  Their eclectic Asian menu appealed to me, and I’d heard lots of good things about their baguette (banh mi) sandwiches.  Having finally tried it, I can’t wait to go back.

It’s not the most exciting place to eat; though the décor is sleekly modern and minimalist, and large plate glass windows line one side of the space, the restaurant’s location on Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh marks it as more of a take-out lunch spot for the masses of office workers and state employees.  Indeed, on a recent Friday evening, the place was virtually deserted save for a couple of extremely friendly staffers.

I ordered a lemongrass pork baguette ($7.95) and my wife opted for the shrimp version (also $7.95).  They were cheerfully brought to us after a brief wait.  The sandwiches were gorgeous and overflowing.  Mine was stuffed with thin slabs of grilled meat, lettuce, cucumber, carrots, mayo, jalapenos, and cilantro, and served on a delightfully crunchy, crusty baguette.  It was excellent.  Even with a few jalapeno slices, and despite the restaurant’s name, the sandwich was not particularly spicy.  The one knock I would give Spize Café is a paucity of side items.  The sandwiches aren’t small, but it’s nice to have something to go with them.  Mine came with one sweet-spicy pickle, which was delicious, but it was about the size of my thumb.  I’d much rather have a small bowl of those than resort to a little bag of potato chips.  Regardless, I hope to come back again and again for some of the best sandwiches in Raleigh.

Review: Bull City Burger & Brewery (Durham, NC)

Perhaps no other area restaurant in recent memory has been as eagerly anticipated as Durham’s Bull City Burger & Brewery (BCBB henceforth).  Since well before their late March opening, people have been talking this place up as the next great thing.  With such lofty expectations, perhaps the restaurant was bound to disappoint some.  Indeed, reports of a shaky start cropped up immediately after the place finally opened its doors.  Waits were too long, portions were too small, prices too high.  After reading all of the pre and post-opening comments, I finally got the chance to try it myself yesterday.

BCBB is situated in a rather vast space right in the heart of downtown Durham.  It’s in an old building with high ceilings, but the feel of the place is modern, casual, and welcoming.  There’s an attractive bar, an Enomatic wine dispenser, and a small kid’s play area tucked away in one corner.  Rows and rows of communal seating fills the majority of the floor space, but there are some smaller, more private tables available as well, in addition to a handful of outdoor picnic tables.  Just place your order and pick your seat, and the friendly staff will bring your food right to you.

Much of the hype surrounding BCBB stems from their farm-to-table approach and their dedication to crafting everything in-house, from the buns down to the condiments.  This homey approach is slightly skewered by the “Five Guys” style industrial size boxes of flour and frying oil sitting right beside the order counter.  The menu is straightforward – burgers, dogs, and fries – but offers quite a bit of choice for personalization.  I ordered a “Green Monster” (gruyere, roasted poblanos, shaved raw red onion, $8) and my wife opted for a custom burger with cheddar, mushrooms, and “BCBB sauce”, which turned out to be a tarragon mayonnaise.  With cheese and mushrooms at $1 each, her burger also totaled $8.  Fries are separate, and BCBB offers either “Dirty Fries” (hand-cut, skin-on, peanut oil, $2) or “Duck Frites” (shoestring, finished with duck fat, fresh rosemary, and fleur de sel, $3).  The former were very good, but he latter are the way to go.  The lovely fresh rosemary and perfect seasoning made for some amazing fries.  As for the burgers, both were perfectly pink and very juicy.  The tarragon mayo on my wife’s burger was incredible.  Although mine was also very good, I thought it could have benefited from a little salt and the roasted peppers contributed surprisingly little flavor.  The substantial homemade buns were perhaps a little dense but complemented the juicy patties nicely.  The whole experience was completely satisfying – the best burger and fries we’ve had in the Triangle.

I didn’t try any of the home brews, but BCBB does offer a Boylan soda fountain instead of the usual Coke-Pepsi HFCS-containing selections.  Beverages are served in hefty glass mason jars.  Score two more points for BCBB.

To address some comments I’ve seen: our orders came out promptly, and the portions were huge – I left completely stuffed.  I regard $10 or $11 as a great price for a fantastic burger and fry experience, and I will be gladly coming back as soon as possible.  Next time, I look forward to trying the pretzel-crusted fried pickles and the bacon “bull” peanuts.

 

Trip to Washington, D.C.

photo courtesy of flickr

This past weekend involved a quick trip up to our nation’s capital. While we didn’t have much time for exploring the food scene up there, we did have a couple of noteworthy culinary experiences.

For the ride up, seeking to avoid a boring fast food meal, I had conducted extensive research into alternative places to eat along the way. I confined my search to places not far off the interstates (I-85 and I-95) that were also cheap and quick. Luckily, we were approaching Richmond around dinner time, so we decided to head downtown the place of the top of my list, Buz & Ned’s BBQ. Getting there in rush hour turned out to be a slow haul, but it was worth the detour. It’s a small space but service is quick: just place your order at the counter and they’ll call your name within a few minutes. I got a pork bbq sandwich that was oh so good. The meat was magnificently tender and smoky, doused in a tangy sauce, and served on soft bun. Unfortunately the side items, including hush puppies and some cinnamon bourbon apples, were just average at best. But I would definitely go back for the bbq – it was fabulous.

The next day, for my friend’s bachelor party dinner, we headed to downtown DC for an all out meat-fest at Fogo de Chao, the upscale Brazilian steakhouse located just blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Ave. The place is huge but it was packed with everybody from families to dressed-up couples. Fogo de Chao features scores of different meats, of course, sliced for you tableside, but they also have a tremendous “salad” bar. The latter contains many tempting items such as prosciutto, good salami, a giant wheel of parmiggiano-reggiano, other fine cheeses, and side items from roasted potatoes to an assortment of green vegetables. There are also huge slices of crusty bread, but you’re better off going with the small cheesy-poofy rolls that come straight to the table. These are quickly followed by the meats – ribeye, bottom round, filet mignon, bacon-wrapped chicken, pork tenderloin, lamb chops, sausages, and on and on. As if that weren’t enough, they also bring out mashed potatoes, rice & beans, fried bananas, and crispy polenta. It just keeps on coming until you flip your card (pictured above) from green to red: STOP! My favorites were the tender filet mignon, the succulent chicken, and the delectable lamb chops. Everyone else loved the rib eye steak. I found the cuts of meat, with the exception of the filet mignon, to be inconsistently cooked. I got some really overcooked pork loin and steak pieces. The little sausages were quite average as well. And all of the side items, save perhaps the crispy polenta, were lackluster. But, we certainly got our fill. At $50 a head (not including drinks), I doubt I’d ever go back, but it was a neat experience with a group of great friends.