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.

Farm to Fork 2011

After a couple years of missing out, I was lucky enough to finally attend this year’s Farm to Fork Festival this past Sunday.  Featuring virtually all of the areas top restaurants, chefs, and farmers, it was an incredible event for food lovers.  This being my first time in attendance, I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I came prepared (read: hungry) and left completely stuffed after having tried samples from maybe 20 out of the 30 or so tents.  Most, if not all, of the offerings showcased the region’s freshest produce at its peak: tomatoes, squash, eggplant, blueberries, and so on.  These were augmented by the best of the best in local meats and cheeses in the preparation of some amazing and creative concoctions.  While not everything was a smash hit, here are a few of the highlights:

1)      Arancini from Toast: eggplant, Carolina gold rice, and smoked mozzeralla, fried to a delicious crisp huge ball and served with a bit of tomato passata sauce

2)      Orecchiette pasta from Il Palio: almost gnocchi-like noodles with pesto, sage, peppers, zucchini, pesto, asiago, and plenty of olive oil.  So, so good.

3)      Quark panna cotta with blackberry and cornmeal shortbread from Magnolia Grill: decadent cool custard with ripe fruit and a cookie – executed perfectly

4)      Tomato summer “pudding” from Magnolia Grill: this was like a hybrid bread pudding/sandwich with mozzarella, tomato and basil.  Simple and elegant.

5)      Herbed squash fritter with tomato chutney from Market Restaurant: a little mushy but it had great flavor

6)      Tomato popsicle from Watts Grocery: they were out of the other flavors by the time I made it over there, but this was good and my daughter loved it

7)      Sausages from Farmhand Foods: they had three different kinds (the names of which I can’t recall), but the spicy one was fatty and succulent

8)      Bread samples from Chicken Bridge Bakery: plain with fresh butter, duck egg-cornmeal with blueberry compote topping, and potato-garlic-rosemary

9)      Blue and black berry buckle from Scratch: a pretty standard coffee cake like thing, done well

10)   Chicken strudel from Saxapahaw General store: a rich and wintery pot-pie kind of affair, but delicious nonetheless

11)   Curried chicken and potato with pickled red onions from Panzanella

12)   Thin crust pizza slices from Stone’s Throw Pizza

And there were many others, and some that I didn’t even get around to trying.  Already looking forward to next year!

Weekend report – 2/21/11

Dinner Friday night was at the Player’s Retreat in Raleigh, a divey bar joint with a nice stretch of outdoor seating at the corner of Oberlin and Hillsborough Streets.  Their beef is ground fresh in-house daily, so I was excited to try their burger.  I ordered the “Bernie”: 6 oz with provolone, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo.  Unfortunately, it was nothing special.  The bottom bun was soaked through to a minimal thickness, and the remainder of the components were similarly lackluster: tough chewy bacon, flavorless tomato, you get the idea.  Worse, my wife’s burger was ordered medium well, compared to my medium, but her patty was pinker than mine.  It was not a burger I would go back for.  The homemade chips were better than the french fries, but that’s not saying much.  A disappointing meal.

Sunday lunch was over at Market Restaurant in Raleigh.  I was excited to try their appetizing brunch menu, and we had a $30 LivingSocial coupon to burn.  The place was humming, with the Raleigh City Garden folks milling about, the garage bay door slung open to bask in the beautiful weather, and an acoustic guitarist crooning at the back of the small space.  I ordered a chai french toast, and my wife ordered an awesome sounding eggs benedict dish – sweet potato biscuits topped with pulled pork bbq and poached eggs, served with cheddar grits.  My entrée was fine, but, with only two pieces of bread, a bit small.  While the chai flavor was good (how could it be bad?), I’d take a more traditional french toast any day.  It came with two pieces of sweet glazed bacon.  Some nice salty bacon to counter all that chai syrupy sweetness would have been good.  The eggs benedict were better in concept than execution.  The bbq was not especially tender or flavorful, and the sweet potato biscuits in particular were completely lost in the dish.  On the plus side, the accompanying cheddar grits were delicious.  Our order of “french quarter style beignets drizzled with local honey” did not arrive until the end of our meal.  I don’t how they do beignets in New Orleans, but these were not good.  They tasted about like an overcooked funnel cake from the state fair.  To sum it up, the vibe of the restaurant is really great – nice enough to bring me back – even if the food is not always fantastic.  (To see my previous full review of Market, click here.)

Rock & Shop Market

photo by Geoff Wood

The 11th Rock & Shop Market is coming up next Saturday December 4th from 12 – 6 pm. This year’s event will be in Durham and promises bigger and better than ever!  In addition to over 50 talented designers selling handmade goods, there will be two bands performing at the Motorco Music Hall (the Ox Magnolia and Onward Soldiers), a handful of food trucks (Only Burger, DaisyCakes, Klausie’s Pizza, and more) peddling their wares, and libations available across the street at the super-cool Fullsteam Brewery.  But’s that not all!  There will also be a fashion show and a DJ for entertainment.  Admittance to the event is $5.  Come out and bring all of your friends.  For more information, visit http://www.rockandshopmarket.com or on Facebook here.

Weekend in Charlottesville

Boasting gorgeous mountain scenery, a beautiful college campus, distinguished history, and a wonderful small-town feel, Charlottesville (VA) is a great vacation destination.  The home to the University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is situated near the blue-ridge parkway, and is a short 3-4 hour drive from the Triangle.  It makes for a fabulous weekend getaway, especially at this time of year.  The ride up is lovely, passing through Danville and Lynchburg and by countless weathered barns and a handful of road-side antique shops where you can spend hours combing through mountains of junk, or gems, depending on your disposition and luck.

My wife and I recently went for a short weekend jaunt, with one of our goals being to explore the city’s great foodie/locavore culture.  Our first meal was lunch at Feast!, a gourmet grocery in the city’s awesome Main St. Market.  Home to an organic butcher, a florist, a seafood vendor, an excellent bakery, a cooking supply store, and a restaurant or two (in addition to the gourmet grocery), the market is a true foodie mecca, the likes of which would be a perfect addition to the Triangle culinary scene (Raleigh in particular).  Sure, we have a Southern Season, but the neighborhood feel of Charlottesville’s Market, combined with the florist, butcher, and bakery, set it apart as someplace you’d want to go all the time.  Feast! is like a tiny, fancier Whole Foods, with prices to match.  A small 3oz (?) tub of local pumpkin chevre (incredible, by the way) set us back over $7.  It’s little café serves up fantastic sandwiches and sides: my wife tried a turkey, cheddar, and fig chutney on ciabatta, and I had the local prosciutto, tomato, mozzarella, and basil on a beautiful baguette.  A small cup of butternut squash-lentil soup was equally as satisfying.

Later that afternoon, we headed to the Vintage Virginia apple festival, about 15 miles outside of town.  Here I tried Winesap, Gold Rush, Pippin, Rome, and many other varieties of the delicious fruit, and came away with a few pounds worth for home.  The highlight of this adventure, though, was the apple cider donut from the Carpe Donut truck.  Warm, fluffy, and not overly sweet, it was certainly one of the best donuts I’ve ever had.

Dinner that night was terrific as well.  The Local, as the name implies, serves up a delightful modern menu of pastas and mains prepared with regional ingredients (witness the “60 mile salad”, in which all components are sourced from within that radius).  Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, it’s a small restaurant with lots of charm.  To begin with, we were served perfect crusty baguette slices with herb butter.  My wife and I both opted for the chicken dish – stuffed with goat cheese and VA country ham, and served with some sort of brandy-apple-cream sauce over a roasted potato medley.  Although the chicken was a bit overcooked and the potatoes were truly miniscule, the creamy sauce was sensational and the price ($15) was great considering the quality of ingredients used.  I thought asparagus was an odd choice for a seasonal vegetable accompaniment, but I didn’t ask about it.

The next day, we met friends for a late brunch at L’Etoile.  This restaurant is located on two floors of a small, cute downtown building.  The effect is residential, French, and seductive.  For lack of a better description, it is ridiculously charming.  Despite the Frenchiness, the brunch menu features the staples of upscale Southern American brunches: biscuits, shrimp and grits, eggs, and so on.  I opted for the “3 star breakfast” which included a biscuit with sausage gravy (very nice), scrambled eggs (good), bacon (poor), and hash browns (worse).  My wife had a hollandaise-english muffin kind of thing, which featured some very runny eggs.  The shrimp and grits looked nice but the portion size was tiny.  And a chicken salad sandwich looked very average.  We all loved the space, but the meal was a bit disappointing.  On top of that, the service, including the hostess, was best described as bewildered.  I’d try somewhere else next time.

Before heading out of town, we picked up dinner (for the road) at the Greenwood Grocery and Gourmet Market, about 10 miles west of town.  The place was like a country store/Feast! hybrid, with all manner of local groceries and a little counter serving prepared foods.  Unfortunately, being Sunday evening, the sandwiches were not available, though they sounded oh-so tempting (think house made local beef meatballs with homemade marinara and provolone on ciabatta).  We ended up with some curry chicken salad (good but underseasoned), a loaf of local sourdough (excellent), and some regional potato chips and root beers (respectable).  As we ate in the car on the way home, passing right by McDonalds and Wendy’s, we thought: when are we coming back?

Review: Market Restaurant (Raleigh, NC)

We were excited this weekend to try out the newest addition to Raleigh’s dining scene, Market Restaurant, tucked away on N. Blount St. in the Mordecai neighborhood (and next to the fabulous Escazu chocolates).  It’s a small, cozy space with an open kitchen and a gigantic garage door which can be opened onto the similarly small patio.  Out front, all manner of herbs are cultivated in small planters, giving the first indication of the restaurant’s mission to provide fresh, local food.  In fact, the menu claims to be “West Coast inspired”, which, one imagines, entails fresh produce, fish, and maybe some offbeat selections.

To begin with, water is served with a refreshing slice of cucumber – perfect for the fast-approaching summer heat.  Each table gets a handsome glass carafe for refills, which our waitress employed repeatedly.  Although attentive service is nice, and she was very friendly, I would have preferred to refill our own glasses – it feels more convivial, or something.  For lunch, I chose the pressed cilantro chicken sandwich ($9), and my wife opted for the fish tacos (also $9).  The waitress let on that the sandwich was one of their most popular items – it seemed to be the safest choice on the menu – and as we waited I began to feel a little sorry for the chef.  It seemed that the sandwiches were the only thing he was making.  Other items on the menu were more unconvential, if no less tempting – turkey/spinach burger, pina-colada chicken salad, kale chips, tempeh meatballs on the kids’ menu.

We also ordered “crack fries”, so named for their presumed addictiveness.  The menu described them as hand cut potatoes with truffle oil, parmesan, and fresh herbs.  In fact, they were roasted, not fried, and though well seasoned, were a little limp.  I wouldn’t say they were addictive.  And although the serving size was ample, at $7 I’d probably skip them next time around.  The homemade ketchup was a nice touch.  It made me wonder why you don’t see that more often.  Why is it that the industrial bottled variety is ketchup?

The chicken sandwich was surprisingly large, but that was mostly on account of the bread, which may have been the thickest sliced bread I’ve ever seen.  It was almost an inch thick on each side!  I thought the sandwich was tasty, but I would have liked a bit more of the smoked tomato salsa and cotija cheese.  The proportions were just a little off.  The accompanying roasted corn and black bean salad was just right.  The fish tacos were the better lunch – pan fried tilapia with salsa and cabbage slaw.  They were terrific served on crispy flour tortillas.  These came with an orange & fennel salad, which might have benefited from a little more orange.

Overall, the food at Market tasted like something you’d make at home.  Real food, good ingredients, well prepared, healthy and satisfying.  And that’s a great thing.

Rating:  * * * 1/2