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!

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.

Geer St. Garden (Durham, NC)

Geer St. Garden is the kind of place you want to love.  Located in a former gas station in a happening part of Durham, it has plenty of appeal.  It aims for that classic neighborhood joint, and definitely achieves the part in terms of ambience with a small but very charming interior to go along with sprawling outdoor picnic table seating. [In colder weather, plastic sheeting and heaters keep the outdoor section warm and cozy].  The restaurant cultivates a relaxed, easy feel, and it’s a great place to hang out with friends.

The menu is classic American fare, with a few Southern (fried chicken, collards, sweet potato stew) and Latin American dishes (tamales, fish tacos) as well.  Like any good self-respecting Durham restaurant, Geer St. Garden touts the use of local, sustainable ingredients.  I opted for the “pasture-raised” burger ($10) with cheese (additional $1).  My burger arrived next to an enormous mountain of fries.  It featured some nice fresh tomato and crisp lettuce, but the whole thing was just too plain.  The patty was under-seasoned and surprisingly thin.  The fries were similarly very average.  It was a very unexciting meal.  I was pretty hungry, so we chose to have dessert too – a brownie with ice cream and salty peanut caramel sauce.  It was a good concept, but the execution was really disappointing.  The brownie was exceedingly dry and lifeless – one of the worst brownies I’ve ever had.  There wasn’t enough of the sauce, and it wasn’t really salty either, even though the dish was loaded with peanuts.  The one bright spot in the dessert was the  creamy, silky ice cream.

In the end, I would go back to Geer St. Garden to enjoy the nice patio for a casual meal with friends, but I’d try something different and hope for better results.

MoJoe’s Burger Joint (Raleigh, NC)

I’ve been to MoJoe’s a number of times over the course of the past several years.  What stands out for me about the place is not necessarily the supremacy of their burgers, but rather their striking consistency.  I know exactly what I’m getting here, and I’ve never had a bad experience.

To begin with, you must deal with the tiny, tricky parking lot.  The indoor dining room is also especially small, but is complemented by a wonderful, sprawling outdoor patio with varying degrees of cover/privacy.  Just pick your seat and a handful of servers will swing by to address your needs.  The menu is limited, to be sure, but, as the name implies, people come here for the burgers, and I haven’t sampled anything else.  I can’t say that it’s the best burger in Raleigh, but it can be thoroughly enjoyable.

I ordered the “inferno”, with grilled onions, jalapenos, and pepper jack cheese.  The patties are most definitely frozen (note their perfect shape), but they’re well seasoned and cook up surprisingly juicy.  My burger was spicy and quite satisfying, thanks in part to some nicely caramelized onions and an above-average bun.  My wife ordered a mushroom-swiss burger, and was equally pleased.  Fries are crinkle-cut (also frozen) but are remarkably crispy.  They are perhaps a little heavy-handed with the vaguely cajun seasoning.

Overall, MoJoe’s provides a good burger at a good price (about $5-8, plus extra for fries) with great consistency.  Combined with the delightful patio space, it’s enough to bring me back repeatedly.

Lilly’s Pizza (Raleigh, NC)

Lilly’s Pizza is a Raleigh institution, a place where loud rock music, yuppies, hipsters, and great pizza converge in a tiny restaurant in the city’s five points neighborhood.  Everything about the place is loud, from the conversation-limiting rock and roll, to the outlandish décor (including mannequins, wild paint, and backgammon-style table tops), to the waiters forced to yell your name when your pizza is ready, to the full-flavored pies that the scruffy-looking staff turns out.

The place is small and a line builds quickly in the evenings, making tables scarce and maneuvering room even more so.  After placing your order, you grab your own paper plates and utensils, but the place is not without its charms.  In warm weather, the tiny patio out front is a wonderful spot for dining and people watching.  And of course the pizzas themselves are superb.  Lilly’s focuses on natural and local ingredients.  Their thick crusts have a mysterious, subtle sweetness that is not unwelcome, and the range of toppings and specialty pizzas is extensive.  My personal favorite is the “Buddha” – spinach, zucchini, tomatoes, white cheddar, feta, and olives.  Lilly’s also offers a good range of salads, and you can purchase their pizza dough too.