My column on this year’s All-Star Game roster flubs is up now for Insiders.
Our 72 hours in Durham were very filling, even though I ended up skipping lunch one day while at the ballpark. We stayed downtown, where there’s quite a bit within walking distance (and a relative paucity of crappy chains) and a tremendous amount of variety within a ten-minute drive.
The best meal we had on the trip was probably the first one, dinner at Nanataco just south of downtown towards Chapel Hill. It’s a fairly new gourmet taco place that offers a wide variety of meats, both normal and “dirty” – and, like any good foodie, I went right for the dirty menu, including smoked duck and crispy pork belly. The three taco plate allows you to go with up to three different meats, so I chose those two and then the suggestion of the woman (possibly the owner) who took my order, the fried calamari taco, which unlike the other two came with arugula and a very faintly spicy mayo. The corn tortillas are made fresh in the kitchen and threatened to overshadow the meat, where the duck was excellent (but not smoky, just ducky) while the pork belly was just fair (and not crispy). Learn from my rookie mistake, though, and eat the calamari first if you order that taco, since it started to overcook from its own carryover heat while I ate the other two tacos. The roasted plantain milkshake had a great caramel/savory flavor combo but the slightly fibrous texture imparted by the plantains ended up outweighing everything else.
Dames Chicken and Waffles is pretty clear about its mission, and while they make a big deal about the five waffle options and their various flavored butters called “shmears” (I know, it doesn’t really fit), the selling point here is the fried chicken, some of the best I have ever had. The two drumsticks that came with my classic waffle were absolutely perfect: hot, crispy, correctly seasoned, and moist on the inside. A bucket of those and I would have been quite content. The waffle was solid, a little undercooked like the waffle half of almost every chicken-and-waffle combo I have ever tried (exception: Thomas Keller’s Cafe Bouchon), but with a mild cinnamon flavor and plenty of air within it to keep it relatively light. The meals rather incongruously include a side dish; my daughter liked their mac and cheese, while I actually finished the buttered grits after adding some salt. (I’ve never had grits anywhere that had enough salt in them.) My wife ordered a waffle that came with a chicken cutlet – actually two very large pieces of egg-battered chicken breast, maybe two to three times the meat that my dish came with, if you’re all about quantity. The drumsticks are fried more traditionally and had a thinner, crispier crust.
We had breakfast twice at Rue Cler, a cafe attached to a French restaurant right downtown, probably best known for their beignets – six for $5, a dozen for $8, fried to order, with a thick crispy layer masking light spongy goodness on the inside. They also do an impressive egg sandwich, cooked to order, made on thin slices of fresh sourdough bread with eggs barely over medium and cheese and/or bacon. They offer local coffee roasted by Carborro roasters – I don’t drink a lot of drip coffee, but this was obviously freshly roasted – although their tea selection was sadly diminished the two days we visited. Everything was fantastic; the only negative is that seating in the cafe is quite limited. Really, though, it’s about the beignets.
With Rue Cler’s cafe closed on Sundays, we walked over to Scratch, just down the pedestrian-only Orange Street from Rue Cler. Scratch is primarily a pie bakery, offering smaller crostatas as part of an eclectic (and constantly changing) breakfast menu that may also include shirred eggs, fried duck eggs, and homemade buttermilk biscuits with an optional patty of local pork sausage, which is what I ordered. How anyone could order a crappy fast-food ‘sausage biscuit’ when places like Scratch offer the real thing is beyond me; even though the biscuit was a little dense, the flavor was buttery but not too tangy, and the sausage tasted of actual pork with a hint of black pepper, not the overpowering salt/cheap pepper profile of fast-food (or, for that matter, bad diner) breakfast sausage.
We spent Saturday at Durham’s Museum of Life and Science, and their new on-site restaurant, Cafe Sprout, is more than good enough to thrive even without the captive audience. The menu was designed by the chef behind the BBQ joint the Q Shack (a recommendation I didn’t get to try on this trip) and includes a lot of locally sourced items and real cooking in the back, not the reheating you’ll find at most museum or stadium food outlets. They smoke several of their own meats, including bacon and turkey, and the bread on the sandwiches and paninis is high quality; I went with a smoked turkey panini with fresh tomatoes, red onions, and local goat cheese, and other than the bread being sliced a little too thinly it was excellent. Prices are also insanely reasonable, with $8-9 getting you a sandwich and one of about ten options for side dishes, one of which was fried okra, which I can never turn down. (It was average, a little greasy and short of salt, but also piping hot when I got it.) They even offer the local paletas made by Locopops, with six flavors available; the strawberries and cream was a little too understated for me but the French tart flavor – essentially fruits de bois, with blueberries, raspberries, cherries, and red currents – was perfect.
Foster’s Market, towards Chapel Hill, apparently is the brainchild of a locally famous chef, offering a wide array of sandwiches and pastries; the service was excellent, but the food was only fair, probably not worth a return visit for me.
I should also mention Vin Rouge in Durham, which we didn’t visit because my wife declined my offer of a nice upscale French dinner, but would be a must for me any time I’m solo in Durham for dinner. Review is at that link; the executive summary is that you must get the bacon confiture starter.