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.