Donuts and more!


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.

Neal’s Deli (Carrboro, NC)

images courtesy of This Paper Ship

Neal’s Deli in Carrboro is the perfect little lunch counter, and one of the best places for a sandwich in the Triangle.  While particularly well regarded for their classic deli sandwiches that incorporate their house made pastrami and corned beef, Neal’s also offers a range of other lunch and breakfast options, including biscuits that I’ve heard are delicious.

It’s a tiny place, better suited for take-out than a sit-down meal, although there are a handful of tables and bar stools at the window.  A small deli case showcases seasonal side dishes, like a roasted beet salad, but the main attraction here is the sandwiches.

I went with the smoked turkey ($7.50) and my wife chose the reuben ($8.50).  My sandwich featured some wonderfully citrusy crushed avocado and nice crispy bacon.  It was a winning combination despite some unremarkable, unsmoky sliced turkey meat.  The reuben was the better choice.  It was hot, juicy, and sweet, and piled high with excellent corned beef.

Neal’s offers simple sandwiches done right.  You wouldn’t think that would be such a hard thing to find, would you?  Durham, of course, has Toast, with its great panini, but Raleigh could really use a great little sandwich shop like these.  One can always hope.

Review: Beasley’s Chicken & Honey (Raleigh, NC)

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Although I’ve lived in Raleigh for years and enjoy it, I used to consider it’s downtown restaurant scene to be the least appealing of the Triangle’s three cities.    Chapel Hill has a vibrancy, courtesy of the university, that Raleigh lacks, and downtown Durham is both more architecturally interesting and more gastronomically exciting than the capitol city.  But things are starting to change a bit in Raleigh, thanks in no small part to the efforts of one woman, Ashley Christensen.

Poole’s Diner, her flagship restaurant, has for quite some time been one of the top restaurants in the entire Triangle, and now Christensen has opened two new restaurants (and a liquor bar) on Wilmington St. in downtown Raleigh.  Beasley’s Chicken & Honey and Chuck’s share a clean, modern look, a kitchen, and a commitment to the most straightforward of menus: fried chicken at Beasley’s, burgers and fries at Chuck’s.  Their recent openings generated a lot of buzz and instantly boosted Raleigh’s culinary cachet, and I have been eager to try both.

We almost flipped a coin to pick which one to try first, but ended up going with Beasley’s based on the warmer, more inviting lighting on a recent Friday evening.  The space is clean and modern, with one very long communal table running down the middle of the room as well as numerous smaller tables.  You’re seated on a sturdy metal stool.  The aesthetic is rigorous and austere, with a consistent palette of reds, silvers, and blacks, but the quality of the appointments lends a sophisticated urban feel.  At night, small votive candles on each table give a touch of elegance to the space; I imagine that during the day the space is flooded with sunlight from the huge plate glass windows.  Either way, Beasley’s seems better suited to a casual lunch than to a romantic dinner.

As is the case at Poole’s (and Chuck’s), the menu is displayed on a large chalkboard above the bar.  If it seems as though you’re struggling to read it, they’ll bring you a small card describing your choices.  As mentioned, there aren’t many – the menu is extraordinarily simple: you choose between fried chicken or a chicken biscuit (chicken & waffles being a third option, available only for brunch or late at night).  When we were there, the waitress also offered one special, a spicy chicken salad biscuit.  My wife and I each chose the º chicken, dark meat ($7.50).  There are about seven or so side items to choose from, and they all sound fabulous, but it’s probably best to go with just one, as it’s likely to fill you up, and they are priced individually ($3.50).  I went with the “Kennedy biscuits with honey” and my wife chose the “big bad bacon yukon gold potato salad”.

Our food arrived alarmingly quickly.  In keeping with the overall feel of the place, presentation is starkly simple, with the chicken placed upon a bare bones industrial metal plate.  The skin was thin, dark, and very crispy, and the meat was beautifully moist.  For me, the slight drizzle of honey added almost nothing to the chicken; in fact I’d probably rather have chicken without honey.  Although it’s a reasonable portion – a drumstick and a thigh – my wife and I both picked the bones clean and wanted just a little bit more.  It was certainly delicious, if not incredibly flavorful or terribly exciting.  The side items, on the other hand, were brilliant.  The potato salad was heavy with smoky bacon-ness.  It really packed a punch without being overwhelming.  The biscuits, which were served as three very thick triangular wedges, were my favorite part of the meal.  Being partially soaked through with a liberal amount of honey, they were sweet, dense, moist, and addictive.  The honey did much more for the biscuits than it did for the chicken.  Both side dishes were ample portions, with the biscuits in particular being a lot for one person to finish.  It might be nice if Beasley’s offered just one biscuit, a la carte, to go with your chicken and another side dish.  Otherwise, I think the pricing is just right – $11 for high-quality chicken and a side seems like a good deal to me.

Beasley’s is a spot I would absolutely return to for a casual meal.  The restaurant’s take on traditional Southern fare is comforting enough to keep you coming back, but tweaked enough to make it modern and interesting.  With it’s refined aesthetic and prices to match, Beasley’s is  perhaps a curious fit for Raleigh, but one that certainly enhances the appeal of the city.  After all, this is one of the aspects that’s wonderful about Durham, for instance: ambitious restaurateurs serving great food in neat spaces.  In the case of Beasley’s, the communal seating, friendly service, and a lack of pretentiousness soften the edges enough to capture some of the warmth of a classic Southern joint; if people take to it like I hope they will, over time I could see Beasley’s becoming an institution.  Christensen appears to have another winner with Beasley’s, so here’s hoping that her empire, and indeed Raleigh as a whole, continues to flourish.

Buttermilk Biscuits

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When I was growing up, every weekend my dad would make breakfast.  The repertoire was limited but satisfying: pancakes, waffles, French toast (occasionally), or biscuits.  I recall liking all of them (as I still do) and a cooked breakfast always feels like a decadent affair after a week’s worth of cheerios-and-milk, granola and yogurt, or toast with cream cheese and honey.  So, with a bottle of creamy buttermilk in the refrigerator, I decided it was time to work on my biscuit craft.  This weekend, to start with, I pulled out “The Joy of Cooking”, because the recipe was guaranteed not just to be there, but to be simple as well.  And it was certainly easy.  I decided to make monstrous, restaurant-size versions, and within thirty minutes I had these piping hot fluffy biscuits (pictured above) on the table.  To go along with them, I whipped up a simple sausage gravy (cook meat, add flour to create a roux, add milk or cream, cook until thick, season).  They were delicious with the gravy or with some honey, but I have to admit, a hot biscuit with butter and a little jam can be deeply satisfying.  In fact, that was the best of all – just like dad used to make.

The recipe follows:

2 cups flour

1 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

5 tbsp butter

2/3 – 3/4 cup buttermilk

Mix dry ingredients.  Cut in butter.  Add buttermilk and stir until dough just holds together.  Transfer to a floured surface, gather dough, and flatten to desired thickness.  Cut out circles (I used a glass).  Bake at 450°F for 10-12 minutes.  Cool on wire rack.

Note: Keep the fatty ingredients cold and don’t work the dough too much.  You can brush the tops with milk, cream, or melted butter prior to baking for a nice finish.  I’m looking forward to experimenting with these in the future, playing with the recipe to adjust the sugar or salt or to incorporate lard, for example.

Weekend Recipes

It was a weekend of good food at my house:

Blackberry-mascarpone puff pastry treats

Pear-taleggio-local honey panini on Yellow Dog Bread rustic multigrain with farmer’s market sweet white corn on the cob

Buttermilk biscuits with local organic maple sausage gravy

Homemade pizzas including taleggio-mushroom-caramelized onion-rosemary (one of the greatest pizza topping combinations ever) and spinach-garden tomato-feta-basil

Cantaloupe sorbet (courtesy of Matt & Tanya Andrews)