Durham Food Scene
One of the food towns I have read a great deal about is Durham North Carolina, or as locals call it The Bull City. It has gained a national reputation, and visitors flock there just for the dinning experience.
The Bull City food scene has been written about in Southern Living, Zagat, The Washington Post, and Eater. It was also featured in “Food Town”, a documentary from the creators of “A Chef’s Life”. The restaurant experience in Durham is being driven by basically five people. Seth Gross with his burger and pizza concepts. Charlie Deal has carved out a niche with Asian cuisine. Wendy Woods got her start as a hostess, but then went on to open Pipers in the Park in 1999. She was probably the first to start the influx of restaurants in Durham. Matt Kelly operates five very popular places including Mateo. Gray Brooks, who owns Littler, has three other restaurants in Durham as well.
But the real factor in all of this is the diverse community. There are a lot of transplants from the north who have come to escape high taxes and urban blight. The many colleges and universities in the area are also a large contributing factor in Durham’s vibrant food landscape.
My Journey South
So, on a recent weekend, I decided to pack up the car and head to The Bull City. Google Maps had me winding through the foothills of Virginia into the Carolina Piedmont, with it’s tobacco farms, roadside produce stands. Not an interstate highway in site. It really was a pleasant drive, and after about two and a half hours I found myself in front of my hotel.
A personal note here. I visited these establishments exactly once. I may have caught them on a good day or a bad day. Just be aware that your results may vary. Also, for illustrative purposes I have included some photos that are not my own. In some cases it simply wasn’t practical for me to get a picture. I have given photo credit where due.
You can’t go to North Carolina without eating barbecue. It’s just something that you do. After arriving in Durham, I queried Maya, the desk clerk at my hotel about her favorite restaurants. She told me that “The Pit” was the best thing in Durham. Immediately after depositing my luggage in my room I headed straight there for lunch.
These folks are serious about pork, and they certainly know what they are doing. They roast whole hogs! I was greeted by a wide open space with exposed beams and warm, oak tables with matching chairs and benches. As I joined the late lunch crowd I was approached by a friendly young lady who walked me through the menu with confidence and extensive experience. Since Maya had suggested the egg rolls, I couldn’t wait to try them.
Pulled Pork and Collard Egg Rolls…You’ve got to be Kidding me!
They arrived quickly, and without fanfare. Three plump egg rolls with a side of “pepper jelly” filled the plate. The waitress had informed me that this is a sauce made from peppers, Ranch, and barbecue sauce. The egg rolls were exactly as advertised with equal parts pulled pork and collard greens. Along with the candied carrots, this dish did not disappoint. The egg rolls were slightly spicy, but when dipped in the pepper jelly, they had even more kick. I could have tried three different sauces on the table. These included a sweeter western Carolina sauce, an eastern vinegar based one or a tomato based sauce that blends the other two. I opted to stick with the pepper jelly.
The Pit is owned by Empire Eats which owns eight restaurants throughout the Raleigh-Durham area. At the helm of this restaurant group is Greg Hatem, who is known for his many re-vitalization projects.
The manager told me that they source everything from local farms, like Master Blend Farm in Kenansville. As I watched the staff work, it was apparent that they take great pride in their craft. In fact, they promise “everything but the squeal”. At ten bucks for lunch it’s definitely worth a visit.
My first night in Durham I decided to step outside the box a bit. I love French food, so I chose Rue Cler for dinner. I can’t eat southern fare all the time, ya know, and neither can you.
Rue Cler is located at the corner of Chapel Hill Street and Rigsbee Avenue. It’s in a building that was built in the twenties. Originally it was a toy store, and later a cafe in the 40’s. The restaurant is named after the famous market street in Paris. Rue Cler has received several Wine Spectator awards.
The restaurant definitely has a 1940’s French Bistro feel. It’s small with two ten to fifteen table dinning rooms. A small bar adjoins the two rooms. A concrete floor and chipped concrete walls add to the rustic ambiance of the rooms.
I was greeted by a young girl who spirited me away to my table. All of the staff wear jeans with long aprons except the hostess. My waiter was extremely professional, almost to a fault. But, he was very efficient.
The menu offers an al a carte section as well as a Prix Fixe menu. I decided to to go with the multi-course selections so as to sample more courses.
Gazpacho Crab Salad
My meal began with the Gazpacho Crab Salad. In the Spanish tradition of a cold soup, this version featured a crab meat topping that was fresh, and really added to the dish. Overall, it was bright, crisp and clean.
For the mid-course I chose the Scallop Gratinee Bearnaise Glacage. This dish had thinly sliced scallops covered in bubbly cheese. The addition of corn to this recipe was a pleasant surprise. To be honest here, I thought this dish was overly salty. It would have been much better without the added sodium.
Scallop Gratinee Bearnaise Glacage
My entree, the roasted leg of lamb was accompanied by Ratatouille, olives and White Acre Peas. The peas were excellent, and resembled black-eyed peas. The sauce seemed to me like a port reduction, and the peas reminded me of lentils. All of this was delightful, and allowed me to leisurely graze and take in the ambiance.
Roasted Leg of Lamb
Executive chef, Todd Whitney has been credited with bringing an outstanding wine program to the restaurant. For my meal I chose the Dom La Manarine Cotes Du Rhone 2017. This was $11.00 a glass. It was earthy with berry tones and a dry finish.
Rue Cler has it’s moments, but the extra salt in some of the dishes made it a little less than perfect. The ambiance makes it a great place if you want to go back in time and pretend you are in Paris. They just need to add a few sidewalk tables.
Stay tuned for part two of this post on The Bull City Food Scene. By the way, I never asked, but I believe Durham is called The Bull City because of the baseball movie Bull Durham. That movie was based on their minor league baseball team.