Quick Bites: Durham and Hillsborough

Another little “European” charm place (see also Mateo, Toro, …) for Durham.  Irresistibly cute shop with fantastic ice creams.  The also offer indulgent sundae combinations.  I got the malted milk chocolate and it was smooth, rich, creamy – superb!

Return visits to Mateo and Pizzeria Toro:
Intial impressions of greatness confirmed!  Mateo has got to be one of the top restaurants in the Triangle.  And, after visiting Curate in Asheville, I’d say this place is just as good, or even better.  We tried a whole host of different things.  Standouts were the tortilla espanola, a think quiche-like concoction with tender thick-cut potato slices, some very nice meatballs in a tomato sauce, and a chicken/sherry/shallots/lemon/thyme/grits affair that I will be trying in vain to re-create at home.  As for Toro, the mushroom pizza is another winner.  Just the right amount of oil and coarse sea salt on a blistery crust, some fine cheese, flavorful local shrooms, and herbs.  Perfecto!

Hillsborough BBQ Company:
Well they can’t all be winners.  I had been excited to try this place, which cooks over wood.  But the BBQ was pretty lifeless and kind of dry.  The corn pudding on the side was undersalted.  It’s nice that they have three kinds of coleslaw (regular, western, and mustard), but the “regular” was nothing to write home about.  The ribs were better, although I didn’t love the ketchupy sauce.  The best thing was the hushpuppies, little balls of fried goodness.

Asheville, NC

Sunset adds a warm glow to the mountains surrounding Asheville, North Carolina

Boy, did we feast in Asheville recently.  Here’s how it went:

The Admiral:
A dive bar with high fallutin’ food.  We sat at the bar because they are seemingly booked solid every night, even at 5pm on a Thursday.  It’s very dark in this place, and there’s not much atmosphere to speak of.  We started with some bread with butter, which was fine.  Then we moved on to:
Carbonara: fettuccine/basil/pancetta/egg foam/local ramps/duck confit – It was certainly good, but not mind-blowing.  Creamy comfort food.  I didn’t get much basil flavor.  The egg foam was a little unimpressive but added plenty of richness.
Angus Flat Iron Steak: fingerlings/pickled red onions/spinach/lemon mustard vinaigrette/sriracha maple – The steak was perfectly cooked.  The spinach was great too.  The roasted potatoes were unusual with the sweet-spicy glaze, but the dish really worked.
House smoked duck breast: mole/orange-fennel salad/sesame seed brittle/salty peanuts – Wow, this was sensational!  The duck was cooked beautifully and sliced thinly, stacked high and topped with a little fennel.  I loved the mole, and the fact that it was just a smear on the plate.  The tiny piece of brittle and the few peanuts were just right too.  This was an artfully composed plate whose components really came together wonderfully.  This dish also came with a few roasted fingerling potatoes as well, which I thought were unnecessary.
Overall, a bit pricey but undeniably delicious.

White Duck Taco Shop:
In the gritty River Arts district, serving up very non-traditional tacos.  We tried the bangkok shrimp, the gyro taco, the carnitas, and the chicken BLT taco, as well as some chips and salsas.  The tacos were, without exception, excellent.  The shrimp were fried popcorn style with a mustardy-sweet glaze and cucumbers.  Pretty addictive.  The gyro was just like you’d expect, but done very well.  The carnitas taco was also good, with a unique bbq sauce.  I felt it was a little much with pinto beans mixed in to the substantial filling.  The BLT taco was really good too – fried chicken tenders, some mayo, and shredded lettuce, plenty of bacon shards, and tomato.  The chips came with a trio of salsas – green, sour cream/red hybrid, and red.  It was way too much salsa, but each was good.  I would definitely make it a point to return here next time I’m in Asheville.  This place fulfills the true potential of a place like Cary’s Taqueria Del Sol, and adds on to it with a funky vibe and charming atmosphere.

Very nice traditional Spanish tapas bar.  Refined setting with an open kitchen.  We went for brunch on Saturday and ordered the following:
Bocadillo serrano: the pinnacle of ham & cheese sandwiches:  crusty baguette, jamon serrano, sliced manchego, a little crushed tomato, and olive oil.  So so good.
Gambas al ajillo : a little overpriced at $11 for a handful of shrimp.  They were cooked very nicely, but the white wine broth at the bottom of the bowl was too salty to even consider dipping bread into.
Tortilla Espanola de Chorizo: totally different than a similar dish at Durham’s Mateo.  This was was a small “skillet cake” of a hashbrown, with caramelized onions, cheese, bits of sausage.  Good but not amazing.
Eggplant: Delicately battered slices of eggplant, fried and topped with rosemary and honey.  Really delicious; one I’ll be attempting to re-create at home.

French Broad Chocolate Tour:
Dan, one of the founders, told their crazy story and led us around the place.  It was fascinating to see the operation.  They are doing great things from a sustainability standpoint, and it was really impressive how homegrown the operation is.  You get to try plenty of chocolate samples at the end of the tour; my favorite was the smoked black tea/sea salt variety.

Gourmet Chip Co:
Only in Asheville?  An entire shop dedicated to homemade potato chips.  They have all kinds of crazy flavors.  We went with a cone of “the Parisian” – herbs/feta/truffle oil.  I have to say I was a bit unimpressed.

Tupelo Honey Cafe:
Asheville’s famous little cafe which is now a chain, and it looks and feels like one too.  I went primarily for their famous sweet potato pancake, and it did not disappoint.  It was huge and really nicely spiced, topped with some peach butter and pecans.  I preferred it without syrup.  The other food we had, including the three enormous biscuits they bring out with each meal, were pretty average.

Chai Pani:
We went after the chocolate tour and chip adventure, so we weren’t all that hungry.  This is a cute little cafe with a line waiting for the place to open.  They serve Indian street food.  We tried some very good samosas, and some naan with daal and raita.  And a mango lassi too.  Everything was delicious in our limited sampling.

Asheville is a great city for eating (and other things too!).  There were tons of places on my list which we didn’t get to, but we spent plenty of money and probably put on a few pounds, so those will have to wait until next time!

Pizzeria Toro (Durham, NC)


Recently I wrote about Durham’s Mateo and how it made that city feel ever more cosmopolitan.  While Mateo brings Spanish flair to the Bull City, just down the block Pizzeria Toro bolsters the European vibe with Italian charm and elegance.  It’s not an upscale restaurant, per se, but Toro offers a beautifully simple style, and, more importantly, excellent food.  I’d say it rivals Bella Mia as the best pizza in the Triangle, in a much more attractive setting (for me).  It fits perfectly in Durham, whose restaurant scene continues to evolve with more and more high quality, big-city caliber joints.

Toro occupies a small space that is dominated by a circular wood-fired oven towards the rear of the restaurant.  Actually, the restaurant is shaped like an “L”, with entrances on two adjoining streets: one door to the narrow bar, another (main) door to the dining room.  The space achieves an effortless chic with minimalist decor, but they have clearly put plenty of thought into details like the lighting (spotlights on the wood logs that fuel the oven), flatware, and “hand-towel” napkins.  There’s a communal table in the middle, and high tables along the sides, along with a few window counter seats.  Although the high tables and stools are not really ideal for small kids, the restaurant appears to be adaptable: witness the very small child I saw recently suspended in a basket-like contraption clamped to the side of the table – I’d never seen anything like it.   This place gets crowded, so come early.

The menu is limited in the best way.  A few apps, a few salads, a selection of fine hams (similar to Mateo) and more than enough pizzas to choose from.  The problem is choosing one.  Divided into “red” and “white” categories, they all sound fabulous, many with exotic toppings like spicy lamb meatballs, brussel sprouts, or clams.  Note that the menu changes frequently to feature local seasonal ingredients.  My wife assured me that one pie was enough for both of us, so we chose the onion/taleggio/pistachio (white) pie ($13).  It arrived looking great, with a slightly charred, lightly oiled crust sprinkled with sea salt, hunks of melty tallegio, and plenty of onions.  Indeed, this pie was loaded with raw red and white onions, which was fine by me.  The crust was mildly sweet, and not really as ethereal as that at Bella Mia, but almost as good in its own way.  The toppings were more substantial than I’ve had at Bella Mia.  Overall, the pie tasted great, with perfect seasoning, but I’d be eager to try out a different one next time.  Really minor quibbles would be uneven distribution of toppings and fairly un-crunchy pistachios.  My wife, as usual, was right – the one pie was plenty to fill us both up.

As Durham’s restaurant scene continues to expand in exciting ways, Mateo and Pizzeria Toro are helping to fill some of the Triangle’s bigger culinary voids (excellent tapas and gourmet pizza, respectively).  Judging by the meals I’ve had at each and their initial popularity, here’s hoping these restaurants are mainstays for years to come.  And though I probably won’t mistake myself for being in Barcelona or Florence, I’m thankful that the comparison is even possible.

Mateo (Durham, NC)


It seems there are plenty of tapas places these days, but a lot of them take the small plates concept and apply it to whatever cuisine they want.  While that’s fine, it’s nice to have a new place in Durham that aims to come a little closer to what you might find in Spain (not that I’ve been).  And while Mateo is not strictly Spanish food, it offers some unique options  – and it’s damn good.

Apart from the basic glass store-front facade, which doesn’t really match the decor, stepping in to Mateo makes you feel like you’re in a big city.  It’s very dim, with elegant pendant lighting.  Huge tarnished mirrors line one wall above a maroon leather banquet.  A nice wooden bar runs along the opposite wall.  It’s all about dark rich materials, industrial metal stools, and exposed wood.  You might say the look is becoming a little cliche, with hefty rustic wooden clipboards that hold the wine lists and exposed decaying brickwork in the bathroom, but, overall, it feels nice and luxurious.  An elegant staircase toward the back of the space and a semi-open kitchen gives you the impression of being in a grand old house, in the same way as at chef Matt Kelly’s other restaurant, Vin Rouge.  Mateo, though (chef Kelly’s first solo venture), subtracts some of Vin Rouge’s formality in favor of a more laid back atmosphere, complete with rock music on the radio.   Unfortunately, although they spent several minutes “preparing our table”, some crumbs on the seats and a stained, sticky, and fraying menu detracted a little bit from the upscale experience.  Still, this is a great date spot.  Keep in mind that it’s a cavernous space, and I’d bet it gets pretty loud when completely filled out.

The menu is pretty extensive, and it’s hard to narrow your selection because everything sounds good.  The restaurant’s own website describes the food as “Spanish with a Southern inflection”.  Here’s what we tried (note that these items/descriptions/prices are slightly different than the online menu):

• Croqueta (nightly special) – chicken and mahon cheese with sweet potato aioli ($4).  Three mini golf balls of fried goodness.  The sweet potato aioli was an unappealing pukey-brown color, and wasn’t really necessary, but these were tasty.  They had a bit of smoky chipotle flavor.
• Huevo Diablo – “Spanish” deviled egg wrapped in chorizo ($4).  You get two halves (1 egg), each egg half resting improbably in a little sausage “boat”.  I liked them fine but my wife loved them, saying they somehow evoked the flavor of a loaded baked potato.
• Bocadillo – bbq pork, piquillo pepper, cheese, pickled cabbage ($4).  Two mini-sliders on nice buns sprinkled with coarse salt.  Think gourmet/exotic Carolina bbq sandwich.  The pork was not super tender, and I didn’t really notice the cheese, but the overall effect was quite good.
• Pan con tomate – Bread with tomatoes ($3, small order).  So simple but oh so good.  Two slabs of warm crusty bread loaded with garlic, olive oil, and crushed tomatoes.  They’ll bring you regular bread upon request, but you won’t want it after eating this.
• Ensalada de Manzana e Manchego – bibb or butter lettuce, honeycrisp apple, almonds, shaved manchego, orange, sherry-membrillo vinaigrette ($7.50).  This was probably the least exciting thing we ate.  It just was not memorable, being mostly lettuce with sparse accoutrements.
• Chicharrones – chicken fried chicken skin, piquillo chow chow ($6).  Super crispy crusty bits of fried crunchiness.  Great by themselves, but very very good with the chow chow and creamy dressing on the plate, greek virgin olive oil is a quality oil to cook with and use for dressing.
• Costillas Cortas – braised short rib, sofrito, Carolina rice grits, rioja ($14 I believe).  Extremely tender meat in a delicate smoky tomato-y broth, with creamy grits.  This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.
• Churros – Three long cinnamon fried-dough “donuts” ($6).  These were really light and airy, and came out piping hot.  They are served with a little cup of some thick hot chocolate for dipping.  Excelente!

All of the food was good, but I was most impressed by the balance and marriage of flavors.  The components on each plate were nicely proportioned and, with just a couple exceptions, all contributed something valuable to the dish.  I thought it showed a great attention to detail, even if I would have welcomed a bit more spiciness in certain plates (especially the deviled egg and bbq pork).

So, regardless of authenticity, I’d venture to say Mateo has got to be one of the best tapas places in the Triangle.  I’m looking forward to my next visit!