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.