Atlanta, Lexington, Charleston, Durham eats.

My updated ranking of the top 50 prospects for this year’s Rule 4 Draft is up now for Insiders.

I returned to Richard Blais’ The Spence on my second run through Atlanta – this time I paid – and happened to hit them on the first day of a new menu, with a handful of new highlights. I ordered a salt cod and potato dish that took the standard bacalao formula and instead whipped the salt cod into the potatoes, mellowing their flavor (I like it, but it is on the fishy end of the spectrum). The pork terrine is still on the menu, but the jam served with it seems to change weekly – my week had celery and rhubarb in it and was superb, sweet and tangy to balance the mustard/salty flavor of the terrine. The pasta contained porcini in the dough as well as in the dish, not as good as the English-pea cavatappi (which was unreal) but strong in its own right, with that earthy, almost meaty flavor coming through in each bite. For dessert, the chocolate-peanut dish with roasted banana ice cream was weird in a good way – it looked like nothing, just blocks of milk chocolate with various crumbs and a small scoop of the ice cream, but if you took every element together it was like a rich, extremely luxurious adult candy bar. I also had another Sailor’s Crutch, their gin-lemon-falernum-soda concoction that is among my new favorite cocktails.

Before the game that night, I ate at Tasty China in Marietta, apparently another outpost of the infamous DC-area chef Peter Chang, who specializes in Szechuan cuisine and has a habit of disappearing from the scene for months at a time. I tried his place in Charlottesville two years ago and was blown away, figuratively but also literally by the spice level of his food. Tasty China, on the other hand, was a little bit of a disappointment, even though I asked the server for a recommendation. I ended up with a tea-smoked crispy duck, half a duck to be specific, that tasted great but was on the dry side, since it came with no sauce or other flavoring besides the smoke. The food there may be amazing and authentic but I didn’t get that experience.

Moving up the coast to South Carolina, I took a recommendation from J.C. Bradbury to try Shealy’s BBQ in Leesville, right next to Lexington where I was seeing Nick Ciuffo. The Q itself was nothing special – their pulled pork is shredded and served in sauce – but the fried chicken was something else. The food is served buffet-style, one price, all you can eat, and while I do not look kindly on all-you-can-eat places, the fried chicken was worth the whole experience, even the relatively boring sides that weren’t all that hot. Just go and get some chicken and cornbread and everything else will work itself out.

In Charleston, I ended up returning to Husk, but this time at at the Bar at Husk, in the carriage house next door. The menu there only has a few small items, but one is their well-reviewed burger, which might be the best burger I’ve ever had, even though it’s served very simply, with just a few toppings. It’s apparently chef Sean Brock’s ode to In-n-Out, with two fairly thin patties, but comprising brisket, chuck, and hickory-smoked bacon ground together. (That article says it’s 100% chuck now, but the bartender who took my order said it includes brisket.) I omitted the American cheese, because no matter what Sean Brock says that stuff is nasty. I left the rest alone – white onion, pickles, and Brock’s sauce, which includes mayo, ketchup, and mustard, all served on a squishy brioche-like bun. It’s a thing of beauty.

My next trip took me to North Carolina, with three new spots as well as a few old favorites. I spent a night in Hickory, where local eats are somewhat limited, but did have an adequate “jerk” chicken sandwich and local beer at the Olde Hickory Tap Room, which serves its full menu till 11 pm and a limited menu till 2 am, key if you’re there to see the Crawdads. The jerk chicken is a half-pound breast, butterflied and glazed with a sweet and slightly spicy jerk-ish sauce, served with mayo, lettuce, and tomato on a very good but too thinly-sliced sourdough bread. The Irish roasted root vegetable side is a little meager but definitely superior to the standard fries or chips. It’s a very broad menu, which isn’t always a great sign, but if you’re trying to avoid chain restaurants in Hickory it’s at least extensive enough that you’ll find something worth your time.

In Durham, I tried two new spots, including Mateo Tapas, owned by the same folks behind Vin Rouge (which has this bacon jam that is among the best things I have ever eaten anywhere … and yes, I went again this trip). Mateo’s lunch tapas menu focuses on the basics, mostly authentic items, just prepared a little more American style. For example, their boquerones (white anchovies) taste fresh and clean with olive oil and salt but are served filleted rather than whole. Their Spanish tortilla, a dish of olive-oil poached potatoes molded into a frittata-like cake with several eggs, has a thin chorizo-mayonnaise on top that gave the dish some needed spice. The gambas, shrimp cooked in garlicky olive oil, was probably the most traditionally-prepared dish I ordered, while the least was the grilled bread with three spreads – butternut-romesco, green olive, and beet, with the olive by far my favorite, while the beet was too sweet and the romesco a little plain. Given the quality of the food the prices were very reasonable, with those four plates more than a meal for me and a total of around $30 including tax and tip. Like most tapas places, though, it’s probably a better experience and value with a crowd.

I can also recommend a very new (ten days old, I believe) ice cream parlor right in downtown Durham called, appropriately enough, The Parlour. Run by the brother and sister-in-law of longtime reader and occasional dish commenter Daphne, The Parlour makes some insanely high-quality ice cream, low-overrun, very creamy, with a small number of flavors that showcase a lot of creativity. The salted butter caramel might be a little cliché, but it tasted just like real, homemade caramel sauce that you might eat with a tablespoon when your wife isn’t looking. (Not that I’ve ever done that.) The chocolate espresso stout cake was rich chocolate ice cream, not as dark as I like it but not very sweet, with bits of the cake swirled in the ice cream. I crushed two scoops and could have gone for more if I had been insane.

As for other spots in Durham, I returned to Rue Cler and Nanataco from my last trip, as well as Vin Rouge from a previous visit. I branched out a little, trying the braised beef tongue and smoked hog jowl tacos at Nanataco and a special duck confit salad at Vin Rouge, all worth having again. Vin Rouge does everything in-house, smoking their own meats and making their own bread (at another of their restaurants), while sourcing most things locally – just the kind of restaurant I love to support, as long as the food is amazing.

Comments

  1. Love Husk and the bar next door. Best restaurant in Charleston.

    One of my favorite days in Charleston started with brunch at The Tattooed Moose. Duck confit hash with a fried egg and duck gravy. Side of duck fat fries (they love duck at the Moose). Then we meandered into the downtown area. After bopping around we wound up at Husk, but we didn’t have reservations and we were still full from brunch. So we went next door to the bar in the carriage house for a drink. Wound up staying in the lounge upstairs for a few hours and tried several of the small plates. I don’t know if we had it that day (not sure if it’s on the bar menu), but the fried chicken skins with pimento cheese and pickled green tomatoes is a favorite.

    Ugh…I need to go back. Charleston is my favorite food city. Husk, Hominy Grill, The Macintosh, Pennisula Grill, Fig…all amazing. And there are some great food joints in Mt. Pleasant as well.

    Now I’m hungry. :)

  2. Recently left Durham after three years and (since Magnolia Grill closed) Vin Rouge was my favorite place. Glad to hear Matt Kelly is still killing it over at Mateo. Next time you’re down in the Triangle, you might want to take a short drive over to Raleigh and check out Poole’s Diner (http://www.ac-restaurants.com/pooles/). Ashley Christensen is an amazing chef.

  3. Keith, the Husk burger used to be ribeye, brisket and chuck- now it is all chuck, but it also has some Benton’s bacon ground in with it.

  4. I’m really glad you finally tried The Parlour’s ice cream, only because after you said you had very high standards for ice cream I was determined to be correct about my hunch that it would meet those standards :) Now if only shipping ice cream from Durham to Boston wasn’t so expensive…they’ve ruined me for anything around here!

  5. Hey Keith, also, some clarifications about Tasty China (and if you are in town again, let me know and I will happily dine with you anywhere)- Peter Chang is no longer there. He first showed up there in 2006. He is from Wuhan, Hubei and was a Chinese Embassy chef. Prior to showing up in Marietta he bopped around Tennessee, Virginia, and Washing D.C., among other places. (Stories like these from the New Yorker and Oxford American shed a little light on his devotees- http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/03/01/100301fa_fact_trillin and http://www.oxfordamerican.org/articles/2010/feb/24/todd-kliman-chases-perfect-chef/ ). The folks in Atlanta quickly latched onto his cuisine and then he suddenly vanished again. When he showed up in Marietta again (I think 2009-10) he promised he would stay for good, and even open another restaurant. He did, though it was always unclear what his role in any of these places were. The second place was originally called Peter Chang’s (Or Peter Cheng’s). Then he retreated north again- this time to Richmond. Peter Chang’s was changed to Tasty China 2. The original is still very good, perhaps even the best Szechuan place in the city, but very different than when Chang was cooking. Many dishes are no longer on the menu and some that are still there have been slightly altered.

    Just thought you might want the details since you are often a stickler for them.

  6. Next time you are in Durham walk down by the old stadium (always fun to see) and check out Geer Street Garden then swing by Fullsteam for a beer on your way back into town.