Considered to be a Chapel Hill institution, particularly on days before the Tar Heels take the court, it was around 8:30am that we located parking in front of Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe and entering to find a ‘thirty minute or so…’ line snaked along the left wall it was with high expectations that we stood, the smiles of several co-eds and alumni portending good things…or at least so it seemed.
Unabashedly crowded, the sort of place that would seem busy even if it were only half-full due to the shotgun narrow space set alongside the kitchen, waffle irons, griddle, dish washers and it was unfortunately the later that assaulted our nostrils as we approached the front of the line, and frankly becoming nauseated from the smell of Cascade and chlorine as we waited it almost enough to make me leave – any seat juxtaposing the area absolutely unacceptable, though we would thankfully soon be sat in the back-room where a questionably competent young server attempted to man far more tables than should have been allotted to one person.
Thankfully expedited in prep, the line cooks clearly well attuned to the need for turning tables, it was less than ten minutes after ordering that plates were delivered and having already given up on luke-warm, acrid coffee that rivals the worst found anywhere our attention turned to the food, the biscuits seemingly cut out of a tube from Pillsbury, while two batters fared only slightly superior, the ‘whipped spread’ and Log Cabin doing little to raise the stakes.
Truly a disappointment, one part the effect of hype and the other a simple lack of quality product, suffice it to say that the Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe’s eponymous item was a ‘best available’ sort of experience though opting for the pecan upcharge was insulting at best, the pieces supposedly within the batter but entirely imperceptible while the candy in the pancakes was par for the course – a touch color and cocoa added to the doughy, bland base.
Beginning our last day in Raleigh-Durham with a long outdoor run on freshly thawed streets it was after a quick shower followed by packing that we pointed the GPS towards Chapel Hill, a noon date at The Dean Dome to be preceded by a three-part breakfast beginning at the drive-thru and walk-up only stand considered by some to offer the best buttermilk biscuits in the land.
Titled Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen and every bit the sort of mom n’ pop operation that needs to be seen in order to be fully understood, it was just a few minutes after 7 o’clock that we turned right off East Franklin Street and queuing up behind a few cars it would not be long before the line snaked out into the street, most wise locals opting to park and take the walk-up route only discovered by tourists like ourselves after procuring a bag of hot biscuits and looking for somewhere to stop and nosh.
Undoubtedly a space happy to ‘do one thing, and do it well’ it was with little hesitation that our four part order was crafted and beginning with a simple buttered biscuit topped with a sidecar of honey the rumors of greatness were immediately confirmed, the light salinity of a golden top giving way to the fluffy interior of an unthinkably light buttermilk round.
Opting next to indulge in two sandwiches, the sliced biscuits themselves standing up admirably to toppings despite the loosely-packed crumb, suffice it to say that although the chicken was good it was the briny seared ham that really impressed…though not quite as much as the frosting topped biscuit dough snailed around butter and cinnamon that is thus far the best $1.25 I’ve spent all year.
Owned and operated by Sean Fowler, a Raleigh native whose pedigree includes stints at New York’s Le Bernadin and Fearrington House, where we had enjoyed dinner the night before, it was minutes early for a 7:00pm reservation that we arrived at Mandolin and dropping my mother off at the door before allocating parking behind the restaurant she was already seated at a plush four-top when I walked-in, the dining room surprisingly sparse for a Friday night but soon to fill to perhaps 75% capacity with a crowd of locals enjoying relief from a week of ice and snow.
Lowly lit and decorated in blonde wood with black and white photos, jars of pickles, and the restaurant’s eponymous instrument filling space on walls and shelves it was with light music playing overhead and light gleaming from the kitchen that our server approached and describing the restaurant’s “refined Southern” style with focus on local protein and produce selected daily by the Chefs it was with two shared specialties described that we were left to decide, a hand mixed herbal cocktail of bright citrus and spice soon delivered over a whole lot of crushed ice.
Sensing our ‘first time visitor’ status and offering recommendations based on classics as well as dishes he felt to show the seasonal menu best it was eventually a three-course meal that was ordered, the first arriving alongside bread service that featured the city’s best cornbread and house-churned honey butter that immediately necessitated a second round, the soft dinner roll held over and later used to sop up bacon-imbued sauce.
Featuring a surprisingly large amount of duck, no less than four plates featuring the farm-raised fowl sourced from a farm ‘just up the road,’ round one of the menu featured two sizable portions of protein and with the saporous sausage finding plenty of balance in aromatic, chunky marmalade alongside toasty blackened bread the salad was even more impressive, a large and crisp leg of confit duck served over greens, several varieties of beets, winter citrus, and blue cheese all melded by a light splash of acidic vinaigrette.
Admittedly surprised by the portions considering the relatively low prices for such a ‘fine-dining’ space it was after a somewhat lengthy delay that mains would arrive and targeting two more plates of bird one would be hard pressed to levy a single complaint against either, the lightly seared duck rich and fatty atop the liver infused grains while the Chef’s signature chicken was well brined and impeccably crisp with naturally truffled honey adding just a touch of sweetness to the otherwise strongly savory accoutrements.
Unable and unwilling to pass on dessert, particularly with a menu featuring two personal favorites, it was again after a bit of respite that a trio arrived and paired with a much needed double-espresso over ice it was only the overworked carrot cake which was far too potent with ginger that failed to shine, the mason jar of banana pudding as light as a feather with crisp cookies juxtaposing Chantilly while the Caramel Cake and tangy ice cream more than lived up to its description as “divine.”
Chopped Pork, Fried Chicken, Mac & Cheese, Coleslaw
Taking a ‘cue break to visit a few museums and stores in downtown Raleigh it was back to the plan that we leapt, and finally finding Ole Time Barbecue open after several down days due to the weather it was just after 5:15 that we stood outside the window watching the lone chef chop, chop, and chop some more pork before heading inside where an overhead stereo played an eclectic blend of classic rock and expected country while service offered Southern-charm at its best.
Every bit as rustic as the exterior would have one guess, yet at the same time virtually spotless without a speck of dirt to be seen amidst the various knick-knacks dotting the décor, it was mere moments after taking a seat that the restaurant’s lone waitress dropped off menus and with water glasses soon filled it was before an order was even placed that a big basket of golden hushpuppies arrived, each oblong nugget pillowy soft and delicious on its own, but even better with some fiery Ole Time Hot Sauce.
At this point having already dined on chopped swine alongside fried chicken twice that day, and still with one more meal to go, it was a foregone conclusion that a shared combination plate would constitute the bulk of our order and offered the option of eating ‘right away’ or waiting for the next batch to be fresh chopped the answer was obvious, a bowl of dumplings in rich gravy entitled ‘chicken pasty’ enjoyed as we waited, along with the rest of the fried dough.
At this point enjoying the interplay between waitress and no less than a dozen regulars who stopped in to procure ‘cue to-go on their way home it was perhaps twenty minutes before our entrée arrived and with the pork absolutely steaming with light notes of acidity juxtaposing briny bits of skin it can only be said the chicken was even better, a robust crunch overlying each juicy bite while sides of macaroni and sweet slaw were no less impressive, the former particularly impressive with al dente noodles far more impressive than those at competing houses of Carolina-style ‘cue.
Unquestionably impressed by savories it was to a limited selection of sweets that the meal would conclude, and told that the Banana Pudding was “nothing fancy, just real good’ a small Styrofoam bowl was delivered straight from refrigerator mere minutes later; the composition of homemade pudding, overripe bananas, and soggy ‘Nilla wafers without any unnecessary whipped cream instantly proving our server’s words to be true.
Seasonal Skillet Cornbread – served with home-made butter
BBQ Soul Rolls- chopped pork BBQ, cabbage collards and candied carrots served with Oak Island sauce and pepper jelly
Carolina Classic Combo – pork chopped BBQ and fried chicken, Brunswick Stew, Mac & Cheese, Biscuit, Hush Puppies
Banana Pudding – Creamy vanilla pudding layered with bananas, wafers, marshmallow fluff and meringue
Carrot Cake – With candied pecans and molasses cream cheese frosting
Without a doubt the most upscale – or dare I say ‘commercial’ – barbeque spot investigated during the trip to The Triangle, it was in the peak of lunch hour that we entered The Pit and finding only a few two-tops available we luckily nabbed one, the decision to valet leading to a long wait for the car after the meal but preventing standing around the hostess podium like so many others arriving mere moments after we entered the surprisingly sizable space.
Unfortunately the sort of place where servers pronounce everything as “good,” “awesome,” or “great choice” with the sort of fervor that makes you wonder if a caffeinated pep-rally is part of the pre-shift routine, suffice it to say that the scene within The Pit is of the energetic variety and with loud music, close seating, plus cold beer bringing voices up at least a few more decibels one only wishes that the owners had put as much thought into providing a comfortable dining environment as they did into the décor.
Eventually navigating the outsized menu, some very traditional plates alongside odds n’ ends that seemed willing to take chances without entirely ‘jumping the shark,’ it was in two appetizers along with a shared Combo that we invested, our drinks refilled frequently as sat unintentionally eavesdropping on the conversations around us with servers buzzing around the room.
Waiting just fifteen minutes, the kitchen sending out items at a breakneck pace, it was to a sizeable duo of apps that the meal began and although the signature ‘soul rolls’ proved surprisingly well balanced with meat and sweet juxtaposing bitter greens it was the scorching hot skillet of cornbread that silently stole the show, a sizeable chunk sopping with butter that just as easily could have served as dessert, though considering what would follow it was just as well served right where it was as it would have been a shame to skimp on actual sweets at the end.
Amused by the definition of “Carolina Classic Combo” as the plate was served with chopped pork, fried chicken, and two Southern sides it was just as the soul rolls were finished that our sizeable shared plate arrived and served with unlimited biscuits, hushpuppies, honey and jam the $10.59 plate is perhaps the best deal in the land, the crispy chicken and supple pork both amongst the best in the area while all but the runny Brunswick stew was also quite delicious, the aforementioned cornbread the only thing holding me back from ordering a third round of biscuits and fried nuggets of bread.
Unwilling to eschew dessert, or more appropriately barely able to resist ordering all four, it was undoubtedly a shock when two more enormous plates arrived just ten minutes later and priced at just six bucks each one would be hard to decide which was better, the all-natural banana pudding soft and sweet beneath a mountain of ethereal meringue while the dense, moist carrot cake’s spice profile received a significant upgrade from toasty roast nuts and molasses-kissed cream cheese.
Taking a break after breakfast to visit a few local museums it was just after 10:30am that a three-part barbecue tour began, and making up for time lost due to weather earlier in the week the first stop was at Clyde Cooper’s BBQ, the Raleigh landmark garnering mixed reviews since relocating to a larger downtown venue, though if what we experienced was somehow less impressive than that which was offered in the past I can only imagine the ‘old’ Cooper’s was truly something to behold.
Really only moved around the corner from its original location, the former spot serving up slow cooked pork shoulders for over 75 years, our sleepy-eyed waiter explained to us that much of the interior had been relocated to the new two-story space and with old photographs, wood booths, and plenty of southern charm to be found while service moved at a deliberate but leisurely pace one would be hard pressed to find anything for lack throughout our forty-five minute stay, even the folk and country soundtrack playing at a volume just right.
Every bit the bargain of many other North Carolina ‘cue houses, the menu well-culled but not limited in the least, it was on a complimentary basket of thick pork-rinds and light hushpuppies that we noshed as we waited and with the face slowly filling with business-lunchers it was just as the place was getting lively that our shared plate of Carolina Classics arrived, the chopped pork tender with texture added by glistening skin while the chicken trended just a bit oily for white meat, though certainly not unexpectedly so for a bird so well brined and crisply double-fried.
Equally impressed by the snappy sweet slaw and Brunswick stew chock-a-block full of legumes and okra amidst the savory tomato base, there was little doubt that dessert would be ordered as soon as I saw the options and although the carrot cake proved a bit too dry to be enjoyed despite rich cream cheese icing the banana pudding was everything I’d come to expect from such a rustic operation, the ‘nilla wafers soft and spongy, the flavors just a bit too sugary, and the bananas a touch over-ripe – in other words ‘textbook,’ just like the chicken, stew, and ‘cue.
Recently opened in downtown Raleigh, and well praised by locals for its whimsical take on Southern cuisine reinterpreted through French Pastry, there was almost no doubt that lucettegrace was a place prone to impress and arriving early on Friday morning to find the brightly lit space almost empty while two young ladies behind the counter sang the praises of nearly everything offered it was eventually on seven items that our order settled, the $40 tariff after tax and tip admittedly steep but entirely justified by the goods.
Industrial-chic in design, with Edison bulbs and stools around high-tops plus a few heavy wood tables with actual seats, it was with items plated per our requests that dishes were carried to one of the later and able to watch the bakers work through a glass window as we indulged it seemed as though the large display up front was only a fraction of the team’s plan for the day – brass canele molds, items appearing to be sheet cakes, and several other semi-constructed desserts being created before our eyes.
Beginning first with savories, incidentally 2/3 of the items served warm, it can only be said that those interested in South’s culinary traditions are likely to be shocked while at the same time amused; the BBQ Breakfast Cake a dense cornmeal muffin packed with everything good about Carolina ‘cue and pimento cheese while the Dixie Cannonball harkened the technique of the egg centered chive biscuit at Craftsman + Wolves with warm sausage gravy turning the buttermilk shell into more delicious mess with each and every bite.
Largely underwhelmed by a Kouign Amann that was oversalted and flaccid it was with a second cup of Larry’s excellent coffee clearing the palate that the program got back on track and with a double baked shell that liberated boozy pureed pie filling upon shattering to the tooth I instantly wished we’d have visited lucettegrace earlier in the week – a thought furthered by the perfect puff of choux surrounding coconut cream and milk chocolate, as well as by the sweet meets salty nut tart and aromatic cylinder of cake amidst pudding that made me wonder why I’d not previously associated the spices of chai with carrot cake, nor why others had not tried cranberry where raisins have for so long stood.
Maple Glazed Seared Foie Gras with Salt Roasted Apple & Sherry Panna Cotta, Ginger, Muscat, Pecan, Celery
Guinea Hen with Housecured Bacon and Red Wine & Thyme, Onion, King Oyster Mushrooms, Mustard, Savoy Cabbage
Venison with Braised Endive & Horn Of Plenty Mushrooms, Juniper, Smoked Bacon, Chestnuts, Celery Root
“Hot Toddy” – Rum Gelee, Spice Cake
Pumpkin Spiced Cake with Crème Fraiche Sorbet & Oatmeal Crumble, Orange, Brown Sugar, Meringue, Poppy Seed
Valrhona Cœur de Guanaja Chocolate Soufflé, Hot Chocolate Sauce, Whipped Cream
Salted Butter Caramel, Honey Nougat, Mint Milk Chocolate Ganache, Vanilla Poached Strawberry Jam
The only Relais & Chateaux property in the area, and considered by some to be North Carolina’s best formal fine dining experience, our arrival at Fearrington House Restaurant in the quaint little area of Fearrington Village sparked immediate memories of several similar properties from The Inn At Little Washington to Langdon Hall in Cambridge Ontario and arriving to find the small town’s shops closed by 6 o’clock with the illuminated restaurant seated at the end of a long, snowy path a slow pace was taken with a roaring fire and near-empty dining room greeting us after what felt like one hundred careful steps.
Every bit the rarified space, all white tablecloths and decorations harkening an auberge in the French Countryside, it was admittedly a bit strange when we entered the expansive old home to find no hostess at the podium but soon greeted by the maitre d’ it was to our choice of tables we were offered, a large two-top easily large enough to seat four in the flower-adorned room up front dividing us from the restaurant’s lone large party who appeared to be having a whole lot of fun in some far off room.
Presented with menus and an expansive wine list that seemed extremely modest in price compared to bottles back home it was after a somewhat prolonged delay that the young lady who would eventually be our server arrived tableside but aside from the excessive formalities of “my pleasure” and “perfect” everything the service was admittedly top tier, each plate delivered with perfect timing so that guests never felt rushed while descriptions of ingredients, techniques, and sourcing were all presented as though recited by the chef himself.
Toqued by Colin Bedford, a 36 year old Grand Chef who has maintained Fearrington House’s Forbes’ Five Diamond Award since taking over at the age of just thirty, the Restaurant’s theme is described best as “Sophisticated Southern” and featuring items both locally sourced as well as exotic the young British Chef’s skills are obvious from the moment food starts arriving, the opening volley of lamb terrine, shrimp sausage, and a defiantly earthy mushroom crisp all proving exquisite while house baked bread and creamy butter from Vermont were the sort of thing that tested our restraint, though the toothsome cornbread muffins were unapologetically used to wipe clean many plates.
Onward to proper courses, four plates selected by us each, it was diverting from tradition that I selected a salad to begin but with whipped Brie and yogurt proving a beautiful backdrop to locally grown romanesco and cauliflower the flavors and textures were outstanding while my mother’s veloute with a crispy ball of molten mushrooms tinged in maple was even more memorable as aromatic notes of black truffle tickled the palate in an ever so mild way.
Progressing to second courses, a bargain glass of Tokaji joining along the way, it was with little hesitation that the duck liver was selected by myself and with a caramelized sear overlying the supple center it was only something as unexpectedly delicious as the sweet-meets-savory panna cotta that could steal the show, each bite not only memorable but amongst the best of a nine day trip, my mother’s roasted pork beneath creamy grits also quite tasty but the unfortunate victim of being the table’s ‘other’ dish.
Left to make tough choices for entrees, a lot of seasonal game with locally sourced fish to be considered as well, it was eventually in the former that we entrusted the kitchen and standing up to wander the house a viewing window to the kitchen was discovered, the large pane allowing us to watch the team prepare Guinea Hen and Wild Venison only marred by a piece of braised endive that was far too bitter and easily cast aside while both proteins were expertly prepared allowing their robust flavors to shine while reining them in with pungent and earthy aromatics.
Widely celebrated for their soufflé, it was after a deconstructed Hot Toddy that proved both boozy and buttery that the ethereal chocolate tower arrived, and bursting forth over top of the large ramekin the restaurant’s signature dish was every bit worthy its high praise, each soft bite complimented by light cream and dark chocolate sauce while the alternative of pumpkin cake proved far more subtle, the flavor somewhat akin to really moist zucchini bread with no lack of contrasting texture to be found.
Rounding out the evening with a brief tour of the house followed by a trio of treats and a jar of strawberry Jam I’ve yet to use, but have planned for some really good bread, it was to coats warmed by the hearth that we were met at The Fearrington House door, and again making the slow walk up a snowy path with only the sounds of crunching ice and snow to be heard there was little doubt in either of our minds that this was an experience worth the expense.
HOPPIN’ JOHN – a bed of rice & black-eye peas flavored w/ bacon, topped w/ tomato, scallions & cheddar cheese
SHRIMP & GRITS – shrimp sautéed w/ bacon, mushrooms & scallions & served over cheese grits
Black Pepper Cornbread
GOOD BANANA PUDDING w/ meringue
Unable to resist a visit to a Beard Award recognized America’s Classic, no matter how aggressive the days dining plan, it was mere minutes after opening that we crossed the cusp of Crook’s Corner and greeted by a pleasant older man who would later turn out to be our waiter it was at a cozy two top in the retro-style cafe that we soon found ourselves sat, the days specials quickly highlighted though there was little doubt that the order would be focused on the iconic space’s classic plates.
Long heralded for its influence on Southern Comfort Food, and said by some to have conjured up the very idea of pairing shrimp with grits under the toque of Bill Neal, the small café at the corner of Merritt Mill and Franklin is now helmed by native North Carolinian Bill Smith and sourcing everything from the ingredients to the art on the walls locally it would be difficult to say there is a more ‘quintessential’ restaurant in all of Chapel Hill.
Full of Southern Hospitality, both waiters and bussers all “Sir, Ma’am, P’s and Q’s,” it was not long after seating that water was filled and drinks were offered but short on time due to a later dinner reservation the later was declined, an order of two appetizers, an entrée, as well as a side soon ordered and requested to be delivered all at once.
Every bit the lively space, nearly every table talking loudly with broad smiles as light music played overhead, it was just as the dining room reached 75% capacity that our meal arrived and with portions quite modest considering the size of the celebrated entrée while appetizers proved a much better value it can only be said that both the dry-as-dust cornbread and small shrimp and watery grits were a major letdown, the golden fitters and hoppin’ john far more appealing with the later offering a complex balance of nutty black eyed peas juxtaposing briny pork while crisp vegetables added levity to slowly melting cheese.
Still a bit miffed about both the price and quality of the shrimp and grits, but willing to give the sweets a chance to shine, it was with a few puppies as well as the rest of the chickpeas and rice boxed to go that Banana Pudding was ordered and with ripe bananas amidst a sweet custard base the bowl was indeed “good,” the cloud of meringue and lack of soggy wafers actually bordering on great.
Light Brown Leghorns – Four chicken legs, a Classic waffle drizzled w/ Caramel & Cashews, Chocolate Hazelnut Shmear
A Quilted Buttercup – A Chicken cutlet “sandwiched” b/w two petite Sweet Potato Waffles w/ Maple-Pecan Shmear
Triple Cheese & Macaroni
Smooth Southern Grits
Schlepping back to the snowy streets of downtown Durham, the suburbs surprisingly more well maintained than those of the city, it was nearing the end of the lunch hour rush that we entered Dame’s and with Red Velvet Cupcakes as well as the daily special waffle already sold out it was it was in the chilly front foyer that we sat and began to color, some funky triangular crayons with names like “duck yellow” amusing the inner child while our towering, bald waiter milled about serving large platters of food to tables ranging from 2-tops to those containing eight.
Recently renovating the menu, with images of jazz legends and icons like Ali and Gandhi decorating the space, it was after a brief delay that water and lemonade were delivered, a two plate order with included sides expedited as the dining room began to clear out with the din subsiding to reveal an overhead soundtrack of everything from old school rap to Delta Blues.
Celebrated for their combinations of chicken and waffles, as well as housemade trimmings and sides, it was almost without hesitation that both my mother and I spotted our desired dishes and although the days dining was already substantial with two more meals to go the plates at Dane’s each proved well crafted if not particularly ‘wowing,’ both dark and white meat juicy beneath crisp batter while waffles were soft and supple, the buttery grits and luke-warm mac’ each plenty savory to offset the decidedly sweet ‘shmears.’
Half Pork / Half Turkey – Sweet Yams, Mac ‘n Cheese, Hush Puppies
Taking a break from breakfast to tour Cameron Indoor just a day after Duke’s dramatic win over UNC it was onward to the first of two lunches that the dining adventure progressed and arriving just after 1:00pm to a space where the writing is literally ‘on the walls’ it was clear that the folks of Durham had missed their ‘cue during the previous weather related two-day closure, nearly every seat in Backyard BBQ Pit filled with a small line just barely ending inside the doors.
Undoubtedly a place where the food is more motivating that the décor, a discolored ceiling and tube lighting overseeing Formica tables that proved tightly spaced and rickety at best, it was with my mother waiting out a table that she had to clean off herself that I entered the quickly moving queue and soon standing at the counter it was with $13.99 paid that a “2 Meat and 2 Sides” tray was assembled, the pork an obvious choice while the turkey was promoted by the man beyond the counter as ‘out of sight.’
Featuring plating and utensils as upscale as one would expect from the steamy, sharpie-stained space it was no less than a few minutes after settling the tab that first bites were taken and although the pork at first seemed a bit too heavily vinegared subsequent bites revealed themselves as more balanced with even a bit of smoke peaking through at times, though certainly not as much as was the case with the surprisingly moist turkey that easily stole the show as neither sides nor the cornbread nuggets were particularly memorable save for the fact that the yams were essentially inedible amidst all the sweet glaze.
Located directly across the street from Loaf, and actually the space where we indulged in many of the wood-fired bakeries goods, it was onward to Scratch that the three-stop breakfast progressed and not exactly a direct competitor to the spot across the street it was again to a vast number of goods I was tempted – the sugar pie unfortunately proving unset when the young clerk cut into it, but the other half-dozen selections showing a deft hand from the team working in the kitchen at back.
Admittedly a bit chilly, the weather outside just above 40F and the large glass windows doing little against the whipping wind outside the panes, it was perhaps a miscalculation on the part of the staff not to have turned on the heaters when they arrived but with both servers and patrons all bundled up against the elements it was still in a half-full café that selections were made, each item plated and delivered to the table up front where my mother and I sat.
Undoubtedly a place for pie, no less than nine varieties offered amidst a variety of cases both chilled and room temperature, it should come as no surprise that half of our order was comprised of these signatures but beginning first with a trio of items hot from the kitchen one would be hard pressed to call any of them less than excellent, the butter-brushed biscuit flaky and light while both ‘donut muffins’ were virtually oilless, a delicate crumb beneath the sugary topcoat with both the buttermilk and cocoa notes surprisingly restrained.
Onward to pie, at least in a way, suffice it to say that the rustic hand-pie trended far richer than did the aforementioned muffin and with a the center falling halfway between ganache and brownie each bite disappeared fast – the theme of richness assuredly carrying over to an all-natural banana cream pie using housemade yellow-cake crumble as a makeshift crust while the peanut butter imbued chess slice featured a hearty all-butter shell more than capable of standing up to pudding-moist filling that again scaled back the sweetness with just enough cornmeal to make the top crumbly and soft.
Featured as part two of a three bakery morning in Durham it was just after 8:30am that we entered the cozy confines of Loaf and with the smell of yeast, cinnamon, and vanilla mixing in a wave of smoking wood it was fortunate for the third stop that the Parrish Street bakery offers no indoor seating, for if they had we very well may have just stayed…or asked to move in.
At one time a Farmer’s Market staple, but now turned brick and mortar under the direction of a former neurobiology student whose love of baking led him to trade in brain studies for starch science, it was to a short line of locals that I was met on entry and taking this time to peruse the pastries I knew almost immediately that a large order would follow – a situation only worsened when I asked the woman behind the counter what was warm and fresh with the response entailing no less than a half-dozen items, all but one ordered along with some other interesting options to a total tally of nine.
Relocating elsewhere, if only due to the cold street outside, it was just moments after seating that the bag was unpacked and setting aside cooler items to focus on those most fresh it was unquestionably in the Almond Croissant that the tasting began, a thick shattering shell giving way to laminated layers and dense almond filling that wowed amidst all the butter, a Pain au Chocolate with an additional core of Peanut Butter showing equally well, though rich enough that sharing and coffee were a must.
Turning savory with a slightly deflated gougere, rich with cheese and sage amidst the soft core, it was back to sweets that attention turned and although the Kouign Amann proved just a touch too heavily salted atop the caramelized crown and substantially buttery core the still-warm scone and baton shaped torade were absolutely exemplary – the former more moist than most while the later was rich with dark chocolate chips still slightly molten on the tongue.
Finishing up with three cookies, each tasted later in the day when capacity was refound, suffice it to say that those fancying crispy cookies would be well advised to investigate the goods at Loaf because although I tend to prefer my baked goods more soft-set at the center it would be hard to say the Gingersnap, Chocolate Chip, or Oatmeal raisin were anything less than the best of their kind that I have ever found, each surprisingly less sweet than average with even the molasses imbued wafer finding its foil in the substantial use of spice, the smell of the bakery itself brought forth in each bite.
Again waking early, with lots of ground to cover, it was back to Durham that we traveled and as the expected storm from the night prior had fizzled with businesses now back in full swing the first stop of the day was at recently relocated Monuts, a hip donut and bagel spot located on 9th Street already hopping as college students and kids off for a ‘snowday’ gathered around the bar of the sparsely decorated space.
Previously confined to a much smaller location in downtown Durham, but apparently gathering steam with recent national acclaim bestowed on the work of owners Robert Gillespie and Lindsay Moriarty by a number of online ‘lists,’ it was just after 8am that we traversed the hardwood floor en route to the counter and far larger than it appears from the outside it was after a short wait in line that tough choices were made, a sizable order totaling five donuts and a cookie while biscuits were baked fresh by the kitchen in back.
Priced at $1-$2, with the menu unveiled each morning by social media as nothing but the “Plain Glazed” is offered every day, it was in both yeasted as well cake options that the donut tasting was comprised and although the first taste of an Cider donut coated in cinnamon sugar proved dry and nearly devoid of apple flavor the quality of subsequent bites improved dramatically, the yeasted Lemon Pistachio and Coconut Dream Cake competing for top billing as neither was excessively sweet – the focus more on natural flavors with the latter tasting much like buttermilk strewn chess pie featured at Allen & Son, and all the better for it.
Largely underwhelmed by the cookie, as chocolate chips proved far too sweet amidst already sugary dough, it was with a smooth Americano in hand that the biscuit finally arrived and although not quite as fluffy as those found at Rise, Sunrise, or Beasley’s the golden brown squares still proved admirable – the addition of strawberry preserves and locally churned butter gilding the proverbial lily and well worth the fifty-cent charge.
Forced to move our reservation from 7:30pm to 6 o’clock due to inclement weather (or perhaps the staff’s desire to get home and watch the Tar Heels vs. Blue Devils game) it was just moments after our newly assigned time that my mother and I arrived at the sizable plaza housing One Restaurant and making our way into the restaurant as only the second diners seated it was to our choice of table that we were offered, a seat directly next to the open kitchen an obvious choice that provided great vantage and entertainment throughout the evening.
Considered by some to be The Triangle’s best restaurant, with Chefs Floresca and Ryan both well trained and heavily lauded by press both local and throughout the United States for their use of local produce alongside modernist technique to create flavors spanning the globe, it was with the friendly yet formal sort of service seen at Michelin Rated spaces in much larger cities that menus were presented and after brief discussion of prix-fixe with supplements versus the spontaneous tasting menu it was in the former we invested, a mis-served plate along with two four-course options plus supplements, amuses, and mignadises totaling a substantial amount of exquisite cuisine for less than $180 out-the-door.
No doubt a chef-centric space, the kitchen on gleaming full display with a team of at least fifteen hard at work, it was with three savory canapés followed by top notch pretzel bread and ash-infused butter that the meal began and although one of our trio of starters was originally delivered mistakenly the result was a tasting of all four, the chilled unset sous-vide egg with cured venison heart and velvet cauliflower soup with sweet and savory notes beneath a veil of truffles impressive while the gnocchi was a roller coaster of textures and flavor, the dumplings tender and smoky alongside simply boiled rutabaga plus crisp apples topped by a sauce of well balanced spicy notes melding everything together into a intensely flavored mélange.
Opting for two items from the second course, as well as two entrée-sized options from section three, it would be hard to name a best plate amongst the quartet and with each protein prepared perfectly amidst divergent accoutrements the use of ‘umami’ was a consistent theme across the board – onions and ash balancing out the creamy funk of sweetbreads with capers and leeks doing the same to for smoked quail, the mains trending slightly more briny thanks to the tableside addition of rich sauces with the pork lightly sweetened by cranberries and the flaky fish imbued with an unexpected fattiness from schmaltz but well balanced by bitters and earth.
Told that desserts should not be missed by more than one person I know and trust, it was in a trio that the meal would end, and although both the popped sorghum and banana dish as well as the elegant sugar-topped rod of black currant and cream atop buttery cake were indeed delicious it was the signature Rocky Road that stole the show, each spoonful and rearrangement revealing new flavors and textures with juicy peaches playing hide-and-seek beneath flavors at various times rich, mild, bitter, and sweet.
Chopped Pork Plate with Sweet Slaw and Hush Puppies
Quarter Smoked Chicken
Coconut Chess Pie
Pecan Pie with Housemade Vanilla Ice Cream
Cream Cheese Pound Cake
Located alongside a rural road on the outskirts of Chapel Hill, with unequivocal praise received from those in the know about Eastern Carolina ‘cue, it was at the off-hour of 3:00pm that we stopped in to Allen & Son Bar-B-Que and finding only three other patrons present amidst the cozy confines all it took was one sniff to tell that the space was legit, the scent of burning wood and roasting pork detectable even before we crossed the threshold of the door.
Divided into two rooms, each speckled with old-time trinkets, taxidermy and pigcentric décor as the small kitchen and prep-station sit alongside the back corner of the space, it was mere moments after entering that a middle-aged woman suggested a table and leaving menus while gathering drinks a few specials were recited from memory, our shared selection eschewing both while opting for the restaurants signature items plus a few sweets to follow.
Waiting just a few minutes for our order, the time spent listening to overhead speakers piping in folksy tunes, it was unsurprisingly a large amount of food that arrived on two plates and at a mere $9.25 for the Pork Tray with $6.10 for the added half chicken one would be hard-pressed to name a better value for just over fifteen bucks, the pulled pig lightly tinged in vinegar with plenty of crisp skin adding texture while the juicy bird was slathered in tangy sauce, both proving a delightful pairing to sweetly dressed cabbage as well as crispy cornbread balls.
Still with desserts from Rose’s Meat Market and Sweet Shop in the car, but unable to resist a large list of house-baked cakes and pies offered at $3-$4 each, it was with tough decisions omitting bread pudding and sweet potato pie that a trio was eventually selected, the pecan pie toasty and warm next to a ball of mildly flavored housechurned ice cream while both the signature pound cake, teaming with cream cheese, and exceptionally smooth coconut chess pie were the sort of desserts I’d hoped for throughout North Carolina, though in reality anything close to such quality proved hard to find.
Exiting the Nasher Museum, where an unexpected Miro exhibit had just left me as enthralled as ever by the surrealists work, it was onward to Rose’s that our tour of Durham progressed and although the Restaurant within a Meat Market was unfortunately sold out of their clever shirts while sausages, charcuterie, and afternoon ramen were not particularly what I desired the “Sweet Shop” portion was very well stocked, a duo of young ladies preparing even more pastries while hipster butchers chopped meats, scooped noodles, and called out orders over the din of diners and the stereo above.
Small in size, limited in parking, and mostly stripped down in décor with a few seats located along racks lined with dry goods for purchase it was immediately on entry that a young man greeted me and taking a few minutes to peruse the goods before chatting with the pastry team about what was best it was a few minutes more before a small order was crafted, each item boxed individually and taken outside for enjoyment later – the bourbon pecan macaron with a crackling shell sublimating to light boozy notes a lone exception in that it never even made it to the car.
Waiting until later that afternoon, a post-lunch/pre-dinner snack, it was with coffee at a local shop that the rest of the goods from Rose’s were unboxed and beginning with a galette whose quality far outperformed the tart at Guglhupf in filling, texture, and flaky golden crust the tasting quickly progressed to the ‘chewy’ Double Chocolate Cookie which seemed almost entirely flourless yet surprisingly ‘light,’ a sentiment not at all appropriate for the sea salt speckled tart whose every bite packed a smooth wallop of cocoa just barely held in check by the buttery crust containing a dish that is definitely best shared…with beverage of choice in hand.
Certainly not getting any less intense with progressive bites it was after a small respite, as snow again began to fall, that the heavily recommended cupcake was unwrapped and with texture something like a just-set pudding rife with buttermilk beneath a substantial layer of chocolate ganache it can only be said that this must-order item is not for the slight of heart, a few bites more than enough to satiate most appetites while even the most steadfast chocoholic would have difficulty finishing a whole one in a single sitting, coffee or milk or not.
Suppli al Telefono – Piedmont Chanterelles, Mozzarella
Ricotta Dumplings – Walnuts, Pittsboro Pumpkin
San Marzano Tomato, Buffalo Mozzarella, Basil
Considered by many to be Durham’s best pizza, and by some as the best Neapolitan Pie in the State of North Carolina, it was after touring the Duke Campus and witnessing K-Ville first hand that we stopped in to Pizzeria Toro and although service seemed to be exceedingly preoccupied with something going on behind closed doors despite several full tables in the restaurant at the beginning of service it would be hard to call the cuisine itself anything less than exemplary.
Owned and operated by locals, but twice plagued by fires that almost led to the restaurant closing its doors, Pizzeria Toro has now been reopened for just six months and with the woodfired oven since retooled it should seem obvious that pizzas are under close surveillance from the pizzaiolos yet with several salads, soups, and antipasti to tempt it was actually the latter that constituted 2/3 of our order – the predisposed service unfortunately ignoring the kitchen’s requests for delivery and thus causing me to stand up and deliver my own order after six minutes of cooling, the move so obvious it drew looks from other customers and an apology from the young woman responsible with both items omitted from our tab when the bill arrived later.
Thankfully unaffected by the delay, at least from what I can gather, it was first in the tender dumplings that we each sunk our teeth and with both the pumpkin and pasta similar in texture with the gourd far more sweet it was the combination of walnuts and pecorino that brought the dish to new heights, each balanced bite showing a deft hand in the kitchen while the arancini was no less impressive, replacing traditional meat filling with aromatic mushrooms in buttery rice fortified by creamy mozzarella.
Overhearing from a nearby table that dessert was ‘unfortunately not available,’ for reasons undisclosed, it was not long before the piece de resistance emerged from the oven and, with far more attention to service at this point, the hot pie was brought tableside no less than 30 seconds later with crust still smoking and milky mozzarella bubbling hot, the overall texture slightly more ‘set’ at the center than a true Neapolitan but the flavors no less impressive as charred crust with just enough spring proved substantial enough to support bright San Marzanos without a bit of added sweetness and just enough salt and basil to make the flavors pop.
Baguette French Toast with 100% Virginia Maple Syrup and Roasted Apples
Continuing onward into Durham the second stop on a long day of eating saw us arrive at the icy driveway of Guglhupf and although the scene outdoors was besmirched in snow the cozy confines of the two-story restaurant and attached bakery couldn’t have been more welcoming, the pleasant servers in each nothing but smiles and recommendations that made one want to order almost everything available – a half-dozen items rounding out our selections still proving to be far too much.
Rustic in décor and decidedly European in feel it was just after 8:30 that we entered the divine smelling space, and with my mother grabbing a table while I gathered provisions it would not be long before the lone kitchen item arrived, a custard-rich quartet of thick cut baguette slices draped in apple softened in cinnamon and butter with a sidecar of pure maple syrup sweetening the deal for a mere $7, each bite offering a bit of crunch over a milky center at a price that left me frustrated with every restaurant that takes the low road with inferior bread and Aunt Jemima.
Largely underwhelmed by an almond croissant that was far too sweet from the use of confectioner’s sugar and far too much frangipane it was onward to the rustic apple tart that our tasting progressed and with an all-butter crust at the base of cinnamon apples and almonds each bite was a study in contrasts, the creamy center and crisp crust on one hand with toasty notes and natural fructose on the other.
Unfortunately finding a duo of cookies to be a bit too crisp for my own personal tastes, while the sugar to butter ratio trended a touch to sweet for my mother, it was with the restaurant’s eponymous item that our breakfast concluded and opting for a ‘small’ loaf that was first sliced at the table and then picked at throughout the day it should only be said that the sizable Austrian bundt is every bit worthy its ‘signature’ status, each yeasty bite featuring subtle citrus tones beneath the crunchy caster sugar exterior while raisins, nuts, and other dried fruits punctuated the experience with explosive bits of flavor amidst all the wispy eggs, flour, and butter.
Making up for lost time, and moreso lost meals, thanks to the previous day’s snow it was after an early alarm followed by a long run that we left for Durham and arriving at the small stripmall housing Rise just after 7am we were greeted with smiling faces, lovely smells, and even a small crowd of folks gathered around the restaurant’s small bar already indulging in items both savory and sweet.
Cited by some resources as the best biscuits in town, and by others as The Triangle’s best spot for donuts, it was to a full assortment of both that we arrived and more than happy to give into temptation five donuts were selected with freely refillable house-blend coffee serving to warm us up while waiting for hot biscuits fresh from the small kitchen in back.
Decorated with pictures, shirts, and items from landmark doughnutteries around the United States, with a kids play area close to the restroom it back, it was just five minutes before biscuits were delivered and paying an extra 50-cents for honey it would be hard to argue with any of the exaltations as both fluffy buttermilk rounds were absolute masterworks while both the crispy chicken and smoky ham were sizable in portion and well matched to the fluffy base.
Moving next to pastry, and beginning light before moving to heavier tastes, it was in the glistening-topped crème brûlée that the tasting began and with creamy insides substantial in portion the same would be found in the cream-pie harkening snowball, an extremely subtle take on the Hostess favorite that was all the better for showing such restraint.
Onward to the Mardi Gras themed option, a toothsome cake donut topped with colorful frosting that tasted of sweetened cream cheese, it was next in the ‘cronie’ croissant-donut that we partook and with my dining buddy having never experienced the hybrid dish before her amusement was warranted, the pomegranate and cream version well laminated and light while the large, sugar-slathered apple fritter was anything but – the stewed apples amidst a soft crumb entirely greaseless, though unfortunately lacking in the pastry’s expected exterior crunch.