Quick Bites: Durham and Hillsborough

Parlour:
Another little “European” charm place (see also Mateo, Toro, …) for Durham.  Irresistibly cute shop with fantastic ice creams.  The also offer indulgent sundae combinations.  I got the malted milk chocolate and it was smooth, rich, creamy – superb!

Return visits to Mateo and Pizzeria Toro:
Intial impressions of greatness confirmed!  Mateo has got to be one of the top restaurants in the Triangle.  And, after visiting Curate in Asheville, I’d say this place is just as good, or even better.  We tried a whole host of different things.  Standouts were the tortilla espanola, a think quiche-like concoction with tender thick-cut potato slices, some very nice meatballs in a tomato sauce, and a chicken/sherry/shallots/lemon/thyme/grits affair that I will be trying in vain to re-create at home.  As for Toro, the mushroom pizza is another winner.  Just the right amount of oil and coarse sea salt on a blistery crust, some fine cheese, flavorful local shrooms, and herbs.  Perfecto!

Hillsborough BBQ Company:
Well they can’t all be winners.  I had been excited to try this place, which cooks over wood.  But the BBQ was pretty lifeless and kind of dry.  The corn pudding on the side was undersalted.  It’s nice that they have three kinds of coleslaw (regular, western, and mustard), but the “regular” was nothing to write home about.  The ribs were better, although I didn’t love the ketchupy sauce.  The best thing was the hushpuppies, little balls of fried goodness.

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.

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.

Mateo (Durham, NC)

mateo1

It seems there are plenty of tapas places these days, but a lot of them take the small plates concept and apply it to whatever cuisine they want.  While that’s fine, it’s nice to have a new place in Durham that aims to come a little closer to what you might find in Spain (not that I’ve been).  And while Mateo is not strictly Spanish food, it offers some unique options  – and it’s damn good.

Apart from the basic glass store-front facade, which doesn’t really match the decor, stepping in to Mateo makes you feel like you’re in a big city.  It’s very dim, with elegant pendant lighting.  Huge tarnished mirrors line one wall above a maroon leather banquet.  A nice wooden bar runs along the opposite wall.  It’s all about dark rich materials, industrial metal stools, and exposed wood.  You might say the look is becoming a little cliche, with hefty rustic wooden clipboards that hold the wine lists and exposed decaying brickwork in the bathroom, but, overall, it feels nice and luxurious.  An elegant staircase toward the back of the space and a semi-open kitchen gives you the impression of being in a grand old house, in the same way as at chef Matt Kelly’s other restaurant, Vin Rouge.  Mateo, though (chef Kelly’s first solo venture), subtracts some of Vin Rouge’s formality in favor of a more laid back atmosphere, complete with rock music on the radio.   Unfortunately, although they spent several minutes “preparing our table”, some crumbs on the seats and a stained, sticky, and fraying menu detracted a little bit from the upscale experience.  Still, this is a great date spot.  Keep in mind that it’s a cavernous space, and I’d bet it gets pretty loud when completely filled out.

The menu is pretty extensive, and it’s hard to narrow your selection because everything sounds good.  The restaurant’s own website describes the food as “Spanish with a Southern inflection”.  Here’s what we tried (note that these items/descriptions/prices are slightly different than the online menu):

• Croqueta (nightly special) – chicken and mahon cheese with sweet potato aioli ($4).  Three mini golf balls of fried goodness.  The sweet potato aioli was an unappealing pukey-brown color, and wasn’t really necessary, but these were tasty.  They had a bit of smoky chipotle flavor.
• Huevo Diablo – “Spanish” deviled egg wrapped in chorizo ($4).  You get two halves (1 egg), each egg half resting improbably in a little sausage “boat”.  I liked them fine but my wife loved them, saying they somehow evoked the flavor of a loaded baked potato.
• Bocadillo – bbq pork, piquillo pepper, cheese, pickled cabbage ($4).  Two mini-sliders on nice buns sprinkled with coarse salt.  Think gourmet/exotic Carolina bbq sandwich.  The pork was not super tender, and I didn’t really notice the cheese, but the overall effect was quite good.
• Pan con tomate – Bread with tomatoes ($3, small order).  So simple but oh so good.  Two slabs of warm crusty bread loaded with garlic, olive oil, and crushed tomatoes.  They’ll bring you regular bread upon request, but you won’t want it after eating this.
• Ensalada de Manzana e Manchego – bibb or butter lettuce, honeycrisp apple, almonds, shaved manchego, orange, sherry-membrillo vinaigrette ($7.50).  This was probably the least exciting thing we ate.  It just was not memorable, being mostly lettuce with sparse accoutrements.
• Chicharrones – chicken fried chicken skin, piquillo chow chow ($6).  Super crispy crusty bits of fried crunchiness.  Not great by themselves, but very very good with the chow chow and creamy dressing on the plate. 
• Costillas Cortas – braised short rib, sofrito, Carolina rice grits, rioja ($14 I believe).  Extremely tender meat in a delicate smoky tomato-y broth, with creamy grits.  This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.
• Churros – Three long cinnamon fried-dough “donuts” ($6).  These were really light and airy, and came out piping hot.  They are served with a little cup of some thick hot chocolate for dipping.  Excelente!

All of the food was good, but I was most impressed by the balance and marriage of flavors.  The components on each plate were nicely proportioned and, with just a couple exceptions, all contributed something valuable to the dish.  I thought it showed a great attention to detail, even if I would have welcomed a bit more spiciness in certain plates (especially the deviled egg and bbq pork).

So, regardless of authenticity, I’d venture to say Mateo has got to be one of the best tapas places in the Triangle.  I’m looking forward to my next visit!

Vin Rouge (Durham, NC)

Years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a little time in France.  One of the most fond memories I have, as you might guess, is of the excellent food.   If one restaurant in the Triangle comes closest to recreating that overall experience, it has got to be Durham’s Vin Rouge.  An institution in the Triangle, this place has served up consistently good food for many years.  But the appeal of Vin Rouge is not just about the food.  The restaurant is quintessentially French, really capturing the je ne sais quo – charm, let’s say – of a classic European eatery.

The inside is set-up rather like a home, with a sort of rambling layout of large but discreet dining rooms.  Lovely wooden tables (covered in white tablecloths), huge mirrors, and low lighting combine with a semi-open kitchen to establish a sense of unfussy elegance.  With beautiful wood floors, chandeliers, and candles on the tables in the evening, the space is warmly seductive, but it manages to achieve an easy conviviality that keeps it from being overly fancy.  Also boasting one of the most attractive patios in the Triangle, Vin Rouge is a fantastic spot for a romantic date or special occasion.

The food is strictly French, with a narrow, focused menu of bistro classics.  Although there are nightly specials, the menu doesn’t change much.  I’ve yet to try any of the fruits de mer (seafood) at Vin Rouge, but they do claim that as a specialty of the house.  Either way, you’re started off with some crusty bread served in a small metal pail.  The bread is really thinly cut, and can be too crusty.  At brunch time it’s accompanied by butter, while for the dinner service you get a small dish of excellent olive oil/olive paste for dipping.  I’ve been for brunch a number of times over the past few years, and the meals have been solid but not spectacular.  I recently ordered an omelette with mushrooms and gruyere ($9.95).  It was a huge omelette, and it came with an even larger mountain of skinny french fries, but overall it was a bit unexciting.  My wife has always been happy with their eggs Benedictine or eggs Florentine. 

But dinner has been better.  I’ve tried their decadent macaroni and cheese, and it may come closest in the Triangle to rivaling Ashley Christensen’s wonderful rendition at Poole’s.  Most recently, I ordered steak frites (hanger steak, $19.95) and a salad with lardons, blue cheese, apples, and pecans ($7.95).  The salad was tremendous – best split with another person, and very good, with just the right amount of delicate vinaigrette.  The steak was a bit chewy, though it was cooked to a very nice medium.   It was kind of over-run by the accompanying blue cheese butter and dressing from the tiny green salad on the plate.  Once again, the french fries were way too numerous but perfectly adequate.  My wife made the better entree selection – a pork chop with braised cabbage, mashed potatoes, and cider jus ($18.95).  The pork could have been a little more tender, and the sauce was close to too sweet, but really this was just plain delicious.  For dessert, we opted for the chocolate mousse, which is delivered to your table in a large serving dish, out of which the waiter scoops three little dollops into each of your bowls.  The mousse was surprisingly thick, I thought, but supremely rich and not terribly sweet. 

At Vin Rouge you can really feel like you’re in the middle of France, and you’ll get a very good meal in a gorgeous setting.  Still, when comparing Vin Rouge to Rue Cler (downtown Durham’s other upscale French restaurant), I’d have to confess a slight preference for the latter.  Rue Cler’s ambiance is not as warm as that at Vin Rouge – it’s more modern – but it’s very inviting nonetheless.  And while Vin Rouge does bistro classics very well, the food at Rue Cler is a bit more adventurous and can be stellar (see my review here), and, for brunch, at Rue Cler you have the option of some heavenly beignets.  Either way, you may not feel the need to travel all the way to France.  So let me know what you think and bon appetit!

Backyard BBQ Pit (Durham, NC)

I know barbecue joints can be divey – you almost expect that – but it can add to the personality of the place in a positive way.  Not so with Backyard BBQ Pit, a small roadside restaurant in bustling Research Triangle Park.  This place, it must be said, is just kind of dumpy.  Below the food counter, where servers load up your plate from cafeteria style metal trays, the yellowed wall is scrawled all over with marker.  This feature bears an unfortunate resemblance to a gas station bathroom stall.  Combined with the dated decor, it gives an overall impression of neglect that is not very inviting.  In fact, I nearly turned around and walked out upon entering.  But I pressed ahead, in hopes that some good food would distract me from the ambiance.

The menu is straightforward in a classic bbq joint sort of way.  I ordered a chopped pork bbq plate ($6.49), which comes with two sides.  None of the sides looked particularly appealing, so I opted for mac&cheese (for my daughter’s sake) and green beans (to get some veggies in).  I think the mac&cheese has a different price than other side items (as the restaurant’s website claims), or else the coleslaw I also asked for raised the total price a little, but regardless it was definitely an inexpensive way to feed the two of us.

The food was just so-so.  The barbecue was good enough, but pretty unexciting.  It was pretty coarsely chopped, which I like, but it wasn’t terribly smoky, though they reportedly cook over wood.  There are a variety of sauces you can add if you choose.  I was not a fan of the bland, super-finely chopped coleslaw.  The hushpuppies (it came with three) were large and sweet but had likely been under a heat lamp for a while.  The macaroni and cheese was cheesy and and a little greasy.  I let my daughter eat most of that; she certainly had no problem with it.  The green beans actually would have been quite good if they hadn’t been heavily oversalted.

So yeah, I crossed it off my list of local bbq places to try, but I really doubt that I’d go back.  If I did I might try the ribs – a lot of people seemed to be ordering those.  One thing is for sure: I would insist on getting take-out.

The Cookery – Front Room Grand Opening

On September 15th, from 12pm – 3pm, The Cookery will be celebrating the grand opening of it’s new event space called The Front Room.  Having had a chance to check out the building – which is directly attached to the Cookery’s kitchen – a couple of months ago (while under construction), I”m sure it’s going to be a lovely space and an awesome addition to the Triangle food scene.

The idea of the Front Room is to host pop-up restaurants, specialty food events, culinary workshops, and private parties, among other things.  It can accommodate up to 200 people, and includes a mezzanine and outdoor patio, as well as a full bar, audio/visual equipment, and, of course, access to the kitchen facility.  This will allows chefs, caterers, and others to create all manner of fantastic food events.

Members of the Cookery who will be at the opening serving up food will include Chirba Chirba, Monuts Donuts, Pie Pushers, Sympathy for the Deli, Triangle Raw Foods, and The Parlour.  There will also be wine and beer tastings, live music, and more.

Best of all, the grand opening is also serving as a fundraiser for the Durham Crisis Response Center’s Emergency Shelter.  Proceeds from food sales at the event will go towards remodeling the shelter’s kitchen.

I hope to see you there!

Reliable Cheese Class: Cheese 101

I love eating cheese, but I consume it mostly in ignorance; I hardly know anything about it.  As with wine, coffee, or chocolate, jumping in to the world of cheese can be intimidating – there are just so many different kinds.  How does one know what’s good?  Where does one even begin?  A great starting place would be at Reliable Cheese Co., a small cheese shop in downtown Durham.  The area’s only European-style cheese counter, this place features a great selection of products, an uber-knowledgeable and friendly cheesemonger (Patrick Coleff), and, for the novice or the aficionado, cheese classes.  

These are not cheese-making classes, which might entail hours of just standing around waiting, but cheese enjoyment classes, where you can learn about the basics, or about cheeses from certain countries, or about pairing cheese with other ingredients.  You get a healthy dose of in-depth knowledge of the products and yeah, you get to eat a bunch of cheese.   Sounds like a fun time to me!

As neophytes, we recently attended Reliable’s most popular class, Cheese 101.  I didn’t really know what to expect, but it was great.  There was a group of about a dozen of us, seated around some wooden tables at the back of the shop.  The tables were set simply with carafes of water, baskets of sliced fresh crusty bread, and, for each person, a small plate of 6 different cheeses, artfully arranged.  Patrick lectured professorially for a while about the process of cheese-making, including a good deal of scientific detail, and then, as the tasting began, we discussed the various types of cheeses and their qualities.  We tried:

  • Fresh chevre (Vermont) – soft, pillowy, and buttery
  • Crottin (North Carolina) – lighty aged goat cheese with a bit more punch
  • Grayson (Virginia) – a “smelly” soft cheese similar to Taleggio
  • Roncal (Spain) – kind of like manchego or pecorino romano
  • VintageVan Gogh (Wisconsin) – an aged gouda
  • Valdeon (Spain) – delicate, complex blue cheese

I really tried to pace myself with the bread and cheese (as we were planning on going to eat afterwards), and felt a little bad for not finishing all of it, but, if I had gone for it all, it would have almost been enough for a light supper.  

Finally, Patrick talked about storing and serving cheese before concluding and offering us 10% off of anything in the store.  I spotted some good-looking buffalo mozzarella and some gourmet meats that I hope to come back for.  And I’ll have to return, because, after learning a bit about cheese, and trying some of the good stuff, I think I’m ready for Cheese 201!

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.