Daisy Cakes (Durham, NC)

If you love eating, as I do, you’ve got to love Durham!  There’s so much good food to be had in the Bull City, from Mexican to burgers to fine dining, and, more recently, to excellent baked goods.  First there was Scratch, which opened last year, and operated without peer in the Triangle until the recent opening of  Daisy Cakes, just a few short blocks away!  While not entirely new to the scene – Daisy Cakes operated out of a sleek airstream trailer over the past few years – their new cafe has allowed the business to really blossom.

Situated on Foster St. near the farmer’s market, the place was slam packed on a recent Saturday morning.  The interior of the restaurant is quite narrow, with very limited seating.  Lines form quickly, and finding a table is tricky, although there are a few scattered just outside the front door.  The space features whitewashed brick walls and is equally as charming as Scratch: where the latter  is subtly sleek, Daisy Cakes is undeniably cute.

Like at Scratch, it’s really hard to decide what to order at Daisy Cakes.  They have a bountiful array of pastry and sweet choices, sure, but also a tempting menu of savory sandwiches and light entrees.  The menu is ambitious, but perhaps not quite as creative as Scratch’s.  I went with the carnitas hash ($8.95) plus a strawberry “pop’t art” ($1.95).  My wife chose the day’s omelette (roasted tomato, spinach, cheese, $7.50, served with toast and fruit) and a housemade chai tea ($3.25).

My carnitas hash was a substantial dish, served with two unexpected slices of toast.  It was a bit underseasoned, and I would have liked some more onion in with the potatoes, but it came with two nice fried eggs on top and was plenty tasty overall.  The “pop’t art” was outstanding: a circular slightly sweet crust filled with just the right amount of bright strawberry jam.  My wife’s omelette was also good, if not great.  But the chai tea she ordered was incredible – served in a very funky mug with a sprinkling of cocoa powder on top, it was spicy, creamy, and just perfect.  I also got to try some of their well-regarded almond cream brioche.  It was served as a massive thick slice with a little fruit on the side.  It was very good, moist and decadent, but I probably wouldn’t order it myself.

If you’re heading to Durham and can’t decide between Scratch or Daisy Cakes, you could just flip a coin.  For me, until I try more of the Daisy Cakes menu, including their renowned cupcakes, I’d give the slight edge to Scratch.  But at either place, you’re sure to get lovingly crafted food in a super charming setting.  As for me, I’m eager to go back for more of both.  As much as we love Durham, it’s sure to be sooner rather than later!

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!

Scratch Bakery Revisited

When I first wrote about Scratch Bakery in Durham shortly after its opening, I mentioned the great food, but I didn’t love everything I tried (see previous post).  After going back this weekend, I have changed my mind.  The place is awesome, the food is fantastic, and we are lucky to have this place so close.  If I could, I would go there every day.  It was bustling this weekend – there wasn’t a seat to be found – and Phoebe and co. had seemingly unplugged all the stoppers: there was a dazzling array of goodies to choose from.  Buttermilk sausage biscuits, Spanish potato-onion quesadilla, walnut coffee cake muffins, ricotta-date-candied orange crostadas, ricotta-lemon-honey mousse tarts, and on and on.  These, of course, in addition to some of the usual favorites: doughnut muffins, chocolate sea-salt tarts, and a huge selection of cakes and pies.

Restraint when ordering was exceedingly difficult.  The sausage biscuit ($3) was excellent, and my wife’s  “SOS” (a giant piece of toasted rustic bread covered with creamy collards, bacon, and a poached egg, $7.50) was even better.  A hot chocolate was creamy, foamy, and exquisite.  I took home a couple of half-priced day-old goodies: a sweet-potato/bacon crostada (which was surprisingly bland) and a nice walnut coffee cake muffin.  And we couldn’t resist a chocolate sea-salt tart to go either.  One bite took me back to a small craft fair in Raleigh probably five years ago, when Scratch was selling out of coolers under a small tent.  I had the same treat then, and experienced the same reaction: near perfect, and I just want more!

Scratch Bakery (Durham, NC)

Phoebe Lawless is the baker behind Scratch, a Durham start-up that is garnering widespread attention (see recent mention and recipe in Bon Appetit magazine).  And deservedly so, as she creates some amazing pies, pastries, and treats.  Last week, Lawless opened her highly anticipated retail location on a quiet, leafy side street in downtown Durham.  It’s an immensely charming space, with a clean, modern feel.  The glass store-front, high ceilings, and exposed brick walls give an airy, casual ambience. The tables are heavily lacquered turquoise wood, the floor is a nice smooth tile, and the remaining walls are brightly colored without being overbearing.  A smattering of outdoor tables lends a nice European café feel and makes you want to linger.

Back inside, a glass-fronted counter showcases all manner of tempting creations, with little chalkboard signs describing the offerings and their prices.  A recent visit confounded with choices like local lamb & rice empanada, pesto & farmers cheese stromboli, zucchini crostata, some kind of bruschetta involving a giant wedge of cheese, and, of course, donut muffins – dense, cake-like muffins rolled in immense quantities of sugar.  But that was not all.  As we sat eating, more goodies arrived, notably slices of pizza, with topping like guanciale/garlic scape/asiago or new potato/broccoli/ricotta.  Further down the counter, a glass case featured more of the sweeter creations, such as a crumb cake, a blueberry pie, and some cheesecake squares, among others.  Still further down the counter, another glass case featured some vegetable side dishes and cold salad items, such that you could really put together a nice lunch.  Without exception, everything looked beautifully crafted and delicious.

Where Scratch really excels, I think, is with the execution of its crusts and crostatas.  But it’s not just the extraordinary crusts, it’s the fillings too.  The zucchini/sautéed onion/cheese crostata we tried was fabulous.  In the past, I’ve had a butternut squash/chorizo empanada and a dark chocolate/sea salt pie that were among the best pastries I’ve ever eaten.  By constrast, the pesto stromboli was definitely yummy, but I found the dough to be too soft and fluffy-pillow like, and I felt there was not enough of the filling.  A simple sticky bun was nicely nuanced but a touch dry.  And the lemon shaker pie I tried, while beautifully executed, was difficult to eat.  I felt it needed a bit more sugar to counter the dominating taste of the lemon slices.

In the end, Scratch is a terrific addition to the Triangle dining scene.  It’s the kind of place you’d expect to find in a much bigger city.  The bakery fosters a wonderful link to the area’s farmers by featuring local organic ingredients almost exclusively.  To be sure, the top-notch ingredients and excellent craftsmanship are reflected in the bakery’s prices – at $4 for slice of pizza, $5 for a small crostata or slice of pie, or $6 for a (fairly large) empanada, you can run up a big bill quickly.  But the quality of the food is well worth it.  When we were there the place was packed, and I hope it stays that way.

P.S. Scratch also sells at the Durham farmer’s market on Saturdays and, for the truly converted, (all it takes is one bite), through her pie-a-week subscription plan.  Check out their website (under construction) at:

http://www.piefantasy.com