Southern biscuits are extremely important, and as I’ve mentioned before, a never-ending obsession of Mr. Food Snob. I am from the north and don’t consider myself Southern in any way, but…BUT! I have wholeheartedly adopted the Southern biscuit. They make quite frequent appearances at our Sunday morning table.
In the baking realm, biscuits are one of the quickest, easiest breakfast treats to make. The ingredients are items we regularly have on hand, so biscuits are often a breakfast possibility without even so much as a forethought. And they’re fast: I can throw together, roll out, and cut the dough in the amount of time it takes my oven to preheat.
Don’t get confused, though, by those flaky, layered biscuits; those are not what we’re talking about here. Those require lots of rolling and refrigerating and rolling again—hard work. Nope, Southern biscuits are easy. We don’t need layers!
Oh, and they puff up so beautifully. And they’re so soft and luscious inside, so golden and crusted on top. Biscuits are incredible.
Even better: egg and cheese biscuits.
Our eggs come from Hillsborough’s Latta’s Egg Ranch this week; they’re readily available at your Durham Whole Foods. We scrambled them, divided them into biscuit-sized pieces, and placed a slice of cheddar cheese on each to melt. Then put each piece on a warm, soft biscuit.
And there you have it!
The best biscuit recipe in the world is from Alton Brown. Seriously, I’ve tried several. I even took a Southern Biscuits class at Southern Season’s Cooking School, in which we tested grandmothers’ old recipes from two genuine southerners. But Alton Brown’s are out-of-the-park better than everyone else’s. So just go on over to FoodNetwork.com and print out his recipe—laminate it because you’ll want to keep it forever—and make yourself some Sunday biscuits.
Dos Perros! Authentic Mexican cuisine in an “elevated setting,” as they describe it. Most of us, when we think of Mexican food in the Triangle, probably imagine one of the many taquerias or taco trucks that abound in Durham. (Carpe Durham talks about some of them here, here, here, and here.) Dos Perros is different, though. It’s high-quality Mexican food in a more elegant, though by no means formal, atmosphere. DP is not a regular stop for us, but it’s a nice treat on occasion, and we wandered in one night recently for a late dinner.
It is extremely dark in Dos Perros at night, which makes photography difficult.
DP offers a relatively simple, short menu, with fewer than a dozen entrees and about the same number of appetizers—which I appreciate. It’s best to do a few things and do them right: quality over quantity. Besides, there’s nothing worse than going to a new restaurant and discovering a twelve-page menu with an overwhelming number of food choices. It inspires a condition I call NMA—New Menu Anxiety—which is a rather distressing way to begin a meal.
Dos Perros starts every table off with tortilla chips and a couple of fresh-made salsas. The salsa verde was the most interesting to us—comfortably spicy and with a richer flavor than the tomato salsa.
We shared a lovely chicken tamale that Dos Perros had on special. Its flavor was mild, but very good.
I actually have a new appreciation for tamales after learning how to make them this year from my Texan friends, who customarily gather a group of people and make a huge batch at Christmastime (we were slow on the draw so we did it in February instead). Tamales are something I missed out on for the first twenty-eight years of my life and plan to fully enjoy for the next twenty-eight. And Dos Perros is a good place to do so.
Mr. Food Snob was feeling adventurous and ordered a tuna steak. It isn’t the prettiest plating we’ve ever seen, but it was a huge, tender cut of tuna, cooked according to the cook’s preference (I told you … adventurous!) and served over zucchini rice with a creamy sauce. He was happy and has no further comment.
I had North Carolina shrimp “chilpachole,” in a chipotle and ancho chile sauce, with rice and beans on the side. Given the description, I expected a good bit of heat in the sauce, but it was surprisingly mild and well-rounded. While I’d have enjoyed more spice, the shrimp had a smooth, clean texture and a delicate but satisfying flavor.
Rice and beans—such ordinary food, the simple dish on which much of the world survives. Rice and beans can be boring and dry, or they can be full of flavor. Dos Perros’ rice and beans complimented the shrimp nicely and were each well-seasoned and cooked.
I didn’t get a picture of them, but my shrimp, rice, and beans came with warm tortillas (made fresh at a Roxboro Road tortilleria). These were the greatest tortillas ever, just perfectly soft and smooth and wonderful. They were clearly fresh, and as I’m learning, freshness in tortillas makes a world of difference. I will now be going out of my way to pick up some of these when I want to make Mexican food at home.
For dessert we had what was clearly the highlight of the night: the chocolate poblano ice cream. When it first hit the tongue the ice cream was a perfect balance of richness, creaminess, and almost-dry dark chocolate flavor. It was just a bit sweet, the way good chocolate should be. The hint of poblano pepper came upon swallowing as a pleasant warmth in the throat. I’m really not an ice-cream person. I know that’s weird, but the stuff is all too damn sweet for me. But this ice cream’s truly complex balance of flavors was brilliant. Good one, Dos Perros!
I hope, for all the world’s sake, that they keep this one on their menu.
One final note: our waiter was outstanding. He was attentive but not overbearing; he was congenial and easy-going; he came to the table just often enough. I wish I could remember his name because I’d give him a shout out. All in all we had a good dinner (though nothing we’d go running back for), a fabulous dessert, and great service at Dos Perros.
Apologies for our long absence. With travels, work and school schedules, and the general chaos of life, we’ve been a bit neglectful with Food Snob Durham lately. We haven’t stopped eating, though, lucky for you, and we have some posts in store for the coming weeks.
First, a wonderful French lemon tart.
Lemons are quickly becoming a regular item on our grocery list. They have so many great applications—in sauces, pastas, baked goods, and fruit salads. While citrus makes its way to our table year-round, we tend to start thinking about fruit tarts and lemonade more in the spring and early summer. To really celebrate the full beauty of the lemon, a French lemon tart is the perfect thing.
The recipe for this tart comes from David Lebovitz, and since I followed his French tart dough (from a Parisian cooking instructor) and his Lemon Tart filling precisely, I won’t bother to reproduce the recipes here. I highly recommend them just as they are.
The filling is essentially a lemon curd that is baked for just a few minutes to help it set in the shell. It creates a very thin layer in the 9-inch tart shell, but because the lemon curd packs such a strong flavor punch, a small quantity is all you need.
Topped with a bit of whipped cream (*fresh and local from Maple View Farm), the lemon tart is a bright, sweet, and satisfying dessert. Any time of year!
Geer Street Garden is a gastropub located just outside of the downtown loop in Durham. It opened last year in the former Fletcher’s Gulf Station, at the corner of Foster and Geer Streets. We stopped by once in those early months after it opened, but by early 2012 we were due to give it another try.
On one of those gorgeous 80-degree days we had in February (February!) we stopped by for a weekend lunch on the porch. I know that by now (mid-April) we’ve all been reveling in the warm weather for weeks; we’re past the honeymoon stage. But that weekend the world was still for the most part wintry (notice: no leaves on the trees yet) and we were beyond lucky to be sitting outside on the porch having an afternoon beer in Durham. Man, I love this place.
Geer Street Garden was clearly excited about the gorgeous weather too: All the doors and windows were open.
We chose a picnic table and perused the menu for a few minutes. Geer Street features a lot of local and seasonal ingredients on their menu—especially local beef, pork, and cheeses. And of course beers!
I’m not really a midday drinker myself, but Mr. Food Snob doesn’t mind. He ordered a beer all by himself. Unfortunately at this point in the game he hasn’t the foggiest clue which one it was. Apologies.
We had the Tamale Plate with black beans, pico de Gallo, and crema. It consisted of two tamales swimming in an ocean of black beans. TWO tamales would’ve done me just fine, but it isn’t really an adequate Mr. Food Snob portion; he could’ve eaten twice that. BUT, he rides his bicycle 150 miles a week and therefore doesn’t eat like a normal human. The salsa had a little spice to it and the overall flavor was excellent.
We also ordered a Roasted Veggie Baguette with a side of fries. Normally I’d opt for the salad on the side, but I guess the unseasonably warm weather had me feeling rebellious. The sandwich came with roasted zucchini and red pepper, grilled onions, arugula, olive tapenade, and goat cheese. Even that boatload of toppings wasn’t enough to balance out the thick, dry bread, though. The overall flavor could’ve been stronger—probably with more tapenade or just better-distributed ingredients.
The fries, too, were nothing to write home about. I’ve bet too often on the mistaken notion that when I go to a pub or bar the fries should be great. Fries, in my mind, are bar food, and bars should at least be good at bar food. This principle does not always hold though. Many, many bar fries are very, very mediocre. Fries are something I eat maybe two to three times a year, and when I do, I want them to be good. Where can a food snob find good fries in Durham?
I will say that the Geer Street fries somehow mysteriously vanished from my plate. But in the end I wished I would’ve just ordered the salad.
And, now, a little pickle rant: I have never figured out why it’s so hard for sandwich shops to put out good pickles. I buy pickles at home, and they stay happy in their pickle juice until I consume them, and they’re fresh and crisp and juicy and delicious. But every damn time I get a complimentary pickle next to my sandwich in a restaurant, the thing is a half-dried-up, rubbery, discolored mess. All I can say is What the?
So Geer Street Garden’s food isn’t out of this world. It didn’t change us forever, and it doesn’t beckon us back. But we had a lovely experience sitting out on the patio full of happy Durhamites on a Saturday afternoon—kids, adults, hipsters, dogs, and even food snobs.
Blue Coffee Cafe has been in Durham longer than we have, which makes it feel like an “old Durham” restaurant. (In fact we’d stopped in for coffee on a similarly rainy winter morning in 2009 when we were house hunting.) According to its website, though, it has been serving Durham for “over five years”—much less time than we expected. We were curious about the back story, but couldn’t find much information on the cafe’s website or Facebook page. Perhaps it has been around longer, but changed ownership some time in the last decade?
The restaurant’s blue walls are proudly littered with framed photos of Barack Obama’s visit to the restaurant (in 2008 when he was campaigning, I believe). A coffee bar and pastry case surround the central cash register and ordering window. The shrink-wrapped baked goods are likely not made in house.
Blue Coffee has the feel of an old small-town diner. The menu items are standard, ingredients very basic, and preparation much like any ordinary person could do at home. In my hometown, in fact, this was about the best you could do for a breakfast out.
Blue Coffee’s well-advertised (on huge signs in several windows) $3.99 breakfast specials are evidently a top-selling menu choice. Unfortunately, as we’ll detail below, no creativity, originality, flavor, or attention seems to have gone into the food itself. And beginning with subpar ingredients certainly doesn’t help the situation. We were underwhelmed in all ways by our breakfast experience at Blue Coffee Cafe.
The cafe has two separate dining areas, one consisting of small tables and chairs, and the other a more cozy seating area in back with a sofa and lounge chairs. This gives the restaurant plenty of space, but on the day we visited it was desolate even at prime weekend breakfast time on a Saturday morning.
We ordered from the advertised specials and watched our OJ being poured directly from the Tropicana Pure Premium gallon jug. Not-from-concentrate orange juice: the one element of our dining experience at Blue Coffee that actually exceeded our expectations. Even at higher-end cafes and breakfast spots in town, we’re often stuck with the made-from-concentrate crap. So at least we got real juice!
The sausage gravy and biscuits were … okay. The one giant clump of scrambled egg was completely unseasoned—a problem that reappeared on our second plate, as you’ll see below. The sausage gravy seemed authentic enough and tasted pretty good, but the biscuits didn’t live up to Southern biscuit standards we’ve come to expect in this region. They were very soft but tasted somewhat doughy and didn’t have the usual richness of scratch-made biscuits.
The plating of this dish isn’t very pretty—but how could anything be, on Styrofoam?
The “Big Breakfast” $3.99 special included bacon, scrambled eggs, grits, and toast.
Instead of one long rant about everything that was wrong about this breakfast, I’ve decided to offer some helpful tips on how to make it better:
Season the eggs: salt and pepper would be nice. Because food needs flavor.
Same goes for the grits. Aren’t Southern grits supposed to be loaded up with fat and flavor—cream and/or cheese and/or herbs? These grits were literally just corn grits and water, not even a touch of salt.
Use real bread: there are plenty of great bakeries in town that I’m sure would love to supply some fresh bread. The “wheat” version of Wonder bread just doesn’t do it for me. I can’t stomach preservatives first thing in the morning.
Offer real butter for the toast for those of us who cringe at the mere scent of Country Crock.
And while we’re on the real kick, how about real jam rather than the same “mixed fruit jelly” they’ve been serving for seventy-eight years at “family restaurant” chains?
The bacon was fine; but bacon is hard to screw up. I’ll leave it at that.
As you can see from the photos, everything we ordered at Blue Coffee was served in/on disposable dishware: Styrofoam plates, plastic cups and silverware, and paper napkins. Even our salt and pepper came in little paper packets, and all the condiments were individually wrapped and disposable. We don’t even use paper towels or paper napkins at home (call us tree huggers), so it’s a little disheartening when the two of us create half a bag full of trash from one little breakfast.
Blue Coffee’s downtown location is great, but its food, atmosphere, and service all leave something to be desired. Even the bull thinks so.
Scratch opened its storefront in downtown Durham in 2010 after years of serving pies at the Durham Farmer’s Market. Most Durhamites already know the story of Scratch, since it has practically been broadcast from the rooftops. In the course of just a few years, it has received impressive attention from the local (1, 2) and national press (1, 2, 3), including a feature video on the Cooking Channel and several mentions in Bon Appetit magazine (1, 2, 3). Indeed, Scratch is a beloved bakery-cafe in downtown Durham.
Pie in itself is endearing, but Scratch adds to it a hearty dose of local, seasonal ingredients, Southern tradition, and fresh-baked from (of course!) scratch original creations. It clearly recognizes (and, let’s hope, embodies) the trending terms of current foodie lingo: Simple. Real. Local. Seasonal. Fresh. Artisan.
But forget all that pretense. How about a report of a real hands-on experience at the shop? We recently visited Scratch on a cold but bright winter Saturday morning and snagged a few treats to bring home and sample for breakfast.
Scratch’s menu rotates regularly; it features seasonal ingredients and is developed according to what’s available locally at the time. It’s a great place to get inspiration for your own use of local produce—especially in the winter months when the options are a bit slim.
Not surprisingly, Scratch’s menu is baked goods-heavy; but their breakfast and lunch options usually include some protein and local produce as well.
I’ve dined at Scratch several times since it opened, so I’ve seen a fair sampling of these seasonal menus. There’s always some Southern-inspired comfort food, as well as something vegetarian, and usually a couple of pretty original dishes. I can appreciate the effort to keep the menu simple, but, oddly, many of the menu items don’t quite form a complete breakfast or lunch, and Scratch doesn’t offer any side dishes or a la carte items to complete a breakfast. So, for example, Mr. Food Snob (ALWAYS) wants a sausage biscuit. But one sausage biscuit doesn’t cut it for a man who rides his bike approximately 150-200 miles a week. And three sausage biscuits—well, that makes for a rather colorless and imbalanced breakfast. Why can’t he add some scrambled eggs, fruit, vegetables, something to make it a balanced meal? This shortage of options and the awkward loneliness of certain menu items is an ongoing problem.
The lonely baked goods wouldn’t be unusual if this was just a bakery; but it’s a place where people can come and sit down for a meal…and the options Scratch gives us can sometimes be a bit, well, awkward.
If you do just want to pick up some pastries or baked goods, though, Scratch certainly has you covered. Someday I intend to sit down and eat an entire one of those chocolate crostadas; I’ve had my eye on them since the storefront opened and somehow still have not landed at Scratch at the right time of day. Maybe tomorrow…
Being an amateur home baker myself (a persnickety one!) I was excited to see that Scratch uses King Arthur Flour. So I thought I’d go ahead and point it out to anyone who might care.
Now, for the food we tasted…
The chestnut coffee cake was my favorite item of the day. Scratch has the basic breakfast cake down to a science, and throughout the year they feature seasonal flavors in the basic cake. At the peak of last summer I had one with blackberries, and it was a genuine delight—pillowy soft, sweet cake with a punch of tangy blackberry every few bites. The chestnut cake had a bit of warm spice, a bit of crunch, and was equally as good as the summer cake I so fondly remembered.
Mr. Food Snob is a biscuit fiend. Have I mentioned how much the man loves carbs? Well, biscuits might just be his ultimate carb, and he’s been downright obsessed with them since the moment we landed in the South. Having tasted a lot of biscuits since then, he says Scratch’s biscuits could use a few tweaks if they want to make it to the top of his list. The biscuits at Scratch do have a rich flavor and are soft on the inside, but they’re a bit overdone/crunchy on the outside (note the dark spots on the one in this pic—okay on a cake or a loaf of bread, but too much caramelization for biscuitdom). The country sausage is tasty and had an unobtrusive non-grisly texture (as it should be).
Okay, now, doughnut muffins.
Doughnut muffins are a staple and much-hyped (see the video) item at Scratch; they always seem to be available in abundance at the shop and the farmer’s market. What on earth is the appeal of these things, though? The extra coating of sugar on the outside just dulls the flavor of the muffin itself. This one was supposed to be chocolate but didn’t taste anything like real chocolate. All I got was sugar, sugar, sugar. There was no depth, no richness; even the texture was unexciting. This was at least the third time I’ve tried one, thinking that all my previous experiences must’ve been duds since everyone is downright obsessed with the things. Nope, still don’t get it.
Please don’t ask me to explain the apparent sesame seed in the middle of the one in the photo; I have no clue where the H that came from.
For our savory contribution to brunch, we tried the winter vegetables and dumplings, which consisted of turnips, chard, sweet potatoes, chives, and homemade dumplings in a light vegetable broth. The overall flavor was subtle and inviting, and it would’ve been great dish, had the vegetables not been a bit hard and undercooked. We got what might’ve been the first bowl of the day (we arrived just when they opened), and evidently the veg hadn’t had time to fully cook yet. This dish, in fact, provides a pretty good representation of our general experience of Scratch—it was a smart, original idea, but a slightly-less-than-stellar execution.
We haven’t found Scratch to be entirely consistent or reliable, but the few dishes we’ve loved, we’ve REALLY loved. So we’ll likely return and keep testing out the waters. How about you? Stop in and try out Scratch, and let us know how you think it measures up.
The longer I live in North Carolina, the more addicted I become to warm weather and the more impatient I am with anything resembling winter. I grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania, where the winters go on seemingly FOREVER—long past the point of enjoyment and well into the phase of despair. It’s dark and cold and miserable for the better part of six months up there, and cabin fever and winter blues are the norm for everyone.
I called the Piedmont region “vacationland” for the first two years I lived here because I couldn’t get over the gloriously sunny 65-degree days in the middle of January. I laughed when we got the occasional inch of snow and the whole city shut down. I ditched my heavy winter coat and mittens and began to wonder how I lived so many years of my life in the darkness and life-draining cold. I open all the windows as soon as it hits the upper 60s again in February, and maybe everyone here thinks I’m a little nuts, but they don’t understand where I come from. Winter here is different. It gives you little glimmers of hope all the time.
In North Carolina winter, the leaves do fall off of the trees and the earth does quiet down in dull browns and greys. But the bright sun and blue sky keep appearing. Winter here is a perfectly fine time for, say, taking puppies on their first hike in Duke Forest. Here’s a snapshot of a typical winter day in Durham:
I’ve been in North Carolina long enough now that the glamor has worn off a bit. I don’t always romanticize it so. Winter is winter, after all. It’s a period of shorter daylight and longer darkness, of damp ground and cold feet and hands. But it’s also the time for soup and hot chocolate and curries and fresh-out-of-the-oven cookies—and by these comforts I usually survive and am grateful. And if I get a little frustrated with winter, I can break all the rules and celebrate summer food—like this roasted cherry tomato pizza (albeit with sad, packaged, trucked-in basil).
I started making this pizza late last summer, when tomatoes were still in season in Durham. It quickly became our favorite new pizza in 2011, and I’ve continued making it right through the fall and winter. Even when tomato season passed, I could still pluck a few sad basil leaves from my herb garden and serve the pizza with a salad of fresh greens from my CSA box.
If you have a little case of the winter blues this year, or if you’re longing for a taste of summer, or even if you just love pizza, give this one a try.
Roasted Cherry Tomato Pizza
1 pizza dough of your choice (a thin crust is best; I’m partial to the recipes in Peter Reinhart’s American Pie but you can use a store-bought dough or your normal recipe)
1 pint of cherry or grape tomatoes*
a few Tbsp olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp Par mesan cheese, grated
8 ounces of part-skim mozzarella cheese* shredded
4-6 fresh basil leaves*
Follow the recipe instructions for your dough.
To roast the cherry tomatoes: preheat oven to 450F. Or, if you’re already heating your stone at 500F, just lower the temperature for a few minutes to roast the tomatoes. Spread tomatoes on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast for 10-12 minutes, or until they burst. Remove carefully (sometimes there’s a little smoke) and set aside.
To assemble the pizza: Roll out the dough and drizzle a little olive oil over the surface; brush to even out. Sprinkle the dough with Parmesan cheese. Then cover with the shredded mozzarella and the roasted tomatoes. Season the top with salt and pepper.
Bake on a preheated pizza stone (preferably for at least 45 min) or a pizza pan at 500F for 8-10 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbly. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes, then sprinkle with the fresh basil, slice, and serve.
*Indicates local availability, in the correct season of course.
Saladelia Cafe has over twenty years of experience serving the Durham area. This cafe and catering company now has five Durham locations, and if you’re out much, you’ve probably seen their catering trucks all over town too. We strolled in on a Saturday night for a quick bite on our way to the movies and got lucky enough to catch a local jazz band while we enjoyed a light dinner.
The University Drive location—which I’ve always understood to be Saladelia’s main branch—is in a rather unimpressive plaza near South Square. The atmosphere inside leaves something to be desired, but we give them bonus points for featuring local artwork on their white walls. In fact, Saladelia has a lot going for them in the ethics department:
they are locally owned and operated
they support local farmers (but which ones? what foods?) and buy organic when possible
they use wild-caught seafood, free-range eggs, and hormone- and antibiotic-free beef
their desserts and pastries are made with locally milled flour (from where?)
they recycle, use paper products made from recycled content, and have recycling bins available at the busing station in the cafe
they use biodegradable plastic cups and flatware
If I were them I’d probably be bragging about this all over my website, twitter feed, etc. (rather than just posting it on a tiny sign in the restaurant). (But then again, I belong to what must be the most narcissistic and self-promoting generation on record.)
Food ethics and sustainability matter, and it appears that Saladelia was doing these things right long before it was cool, popular, or expected of every responsible restaurant owner. Apparently since these principles have been a part of the company since its inception, they don’t feel a need to get on their high horse about it. Which is just kinda neat!
Now on to the food.
Saladelia emphasizes Mediterranean cuisine, but they have a little bit of everything in the cafe—salads, deli sandwiches, homemade soups, hot dinner entrees, a pastry and coffee bar, smoothies, and a dessert case. They feature daily lunch and dinner specials in addition to their regular menu (if you’re curious about today’s, check their twitter feed).
Pictured here is HALF of the menu. On the other side are more of the dinner items, tapas, and breakfast/brunch selections. There’s plenty to choose from, and most of it is simple, familiar, Mediterranean-inspired food.
If you’ve been following the FSD blog, you know by now that I’m a salad fiend. I eat a fresh salad for lunch almost every day, and sometimes (especially after, say, weeks of heavy holiday eating) I want one for dinner too. I ordered a Greek salad at Saladelia and figured I couldn’t go wrong since (a) “Salad” is in the restaurant’s name and (b) Mediterranean is their specialty. I rounded it out with some pitas and hummus.
I’ll be darned if the salad wasn’t great! Everything was fresh and crisp and colorful; and since the cooks made the salad to order, it wasn’t sitting in a refrigerated case for half the day (thank you). It had typical Greek-salad elements: lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, pickled jalepeno, kalamata olives, red onion (pickled in this case), and feta, but with the addition of shredded carrots, green peppers, and chickpeas (bonus: protein!). My “pita points” were toasted utterly to death—like, I was worried I might crack my teeth on them—BUT, luckily, I had soft, warm pitas on the side. Other than that one little problem, I devoured everything on my plate.
Saladelia renewed my faith that a Greek salad really can be a wonderful thing.
The evening’s dinner special was a grilled chicken breast served on ratatouille.
I felt great pride upon realizing that Mr. Food Snob has become the kind of person who chooses ratatouille enthusiastically. When we first met, he was cautious about his vegetable intake (conditioned thus by parents and society at large), but he has now become an adventurous eater who’s willing to try anything and loves nearly everything. Score!
He was happy with his grilled chicken breast and colorful ratatouille at Saladelia, as well as the fresh hummus and warm pita he’d ordered on the side. The ratatouille special had been sitting under a heat lamp for a while, so the veggies were, not surprisingly, basically one mashed stew—no one bite different from another—but the flavor was good and the chicken was properly cooked (i.e. not dried out into chewy hunk of tough rubber).
Since it was a Saturday night, we also had the pleasure of hearing a local jazz combo while we ate. I don’t know the band’s name, but by playing familiar standards they gave Saladelia’s somewhat awkward dining space a relaxing vibe. It was an unexpected surprise that made the space warm and inviting—and went a long way toward lifting my spirits.
We opted for a plain ol’ chocolate chip cookie on our way out the door (top left in the photo). It was a bit difficult to chew and had obviously been sitting in the case for some time, but it hit the sweet spot and we were on our way.
All said and done, I was pleasantly surprised by Saladelia. I suppose I’ve become a bit jaded by its conspicuous presence in Durham and therefore didn’t expect a lot going into it. On top of that, I was in a grumpy mood after having a lousy day, which should’ve made me more likely to whine about the food. But hey—Saladelia turned my day around. The meal wasn’t life-changing, but there wasn’t really anything wrong with it either, and that’s about the best I can ask for. So there’s the power of a simple, everyday dinner done right. And that’s enough for me today.
After a couple weeks of slacking at the end of 2011, we’re back with new restaurant reviews and recipes for 2012 on FoodSnobDurham.com. But first, we’ll cover a restaurant we visited at the end of last year.
The Blue Note Grill on Chapel-Hill Durham Boulevard opened in 2011—a blues cafe that dishes up dinner and live music six nights a week, as well as lunch Monday through Friday. We decided to check out the Blue Note Grill for its regular Monday night jazz jam a few weeks ago.
Blue Note Grill has an eclectic regular menu consisting of burgers and sandwiches, barbecue, burritos/quesadillas, and typical bar appetizers. They also have weekly specials.
I could probably start out with some words of encouragement and hope, but the best way to sum it up is this: the food at Blue Note Grill was pretty terrible. The ingredients were obviously of inferior quality—from the bland, industrial tomatoes, to the flavorless iceberg lettuce, to the cheap, white, preservative-loaded buns. I didn’t have high expectations for the food, but one can always hope for a surprise!
It was already late for dinner when we arrived, and we were starving, so we appetized on some sweet potato fries. The fries, served with sweetened cinnamon butter, actually weren’t bad, but sweet potato fries are kind of hard to mess up. I personally am not usually prone to adding any kind of sweetness to sweet potatoes (I have never understood those sweet-potato casseroles covered in marshmallows and maple syrup and brown sugar. Why, why, why?), but Mr. Food Snob and I agreed: this wasn’t a bad pairing, and each of us could dip to our own preference.
So there: I did say something a less-than-entirely critical.
Round two: entrees. The burgers at Blue Note are made from 100% beef brisket, ground in-house daily. Freshly ground beef is usually a good sign, but the burger at Blue Note Grill, unfortunately, was the driest we’ve ever had. Really, EVER. And trust me, my mother had a special talent for turning a perfectly good piece of meat into a hockey puck. Blue Note’s burger beat mom’s record by a landslide. It was a dry, flavorless brick of meat. Mr. Food Snob didn’t even finish it, and that never happens.
We had heard from Carpe Durham that the onion rings were decent, so Mr. Food Snob did swap them out for regular fries with his burger. And like the sweet potato fries, the onion rings weren’t too bad. They were sliced thick and had a good salty, crunchy coating. We were learning fast: stick with the simple fried foods that are hard to screw up. But who wants to eat that exclusively?
The quesadilla we ordered was one of Blue Note Grill’s several vegetarian options. It was a black bean quesadilla that came with shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, and guacamole on top, as well as a mild salsa on the side. Inside it was loaded with black beans, grilled onions, and a “three-cheese mix.” The makings of a good quesadilla seemed to be there, but the finished product lacked flavor and interest across the board.
Despite being unimpressed with our food at Blue Note Grill, we thoroughly enjoyed the jazz combo and decided that if we ever returned we’d come just for the music, appetizers (yeah, the fried ones), and beer. Unfortunately (for BNG, but not for us), in the glorious city of Durham there are many great venues that can offer the complete package, and when we go out, I guess we just want it all. To survive in the thriving restaurant culture of Durham, Blue Note is going to have to raise the bar on their food.
We receive a variety of wonderful lettuces and greens throughout the year in our CSA box. A rich array of fresh, tender leafy greens are available in central North Carolina in spring and fall: numerous lettuces, arugula, swiss chard, spinach, and the like. In the winter, we have hardier varieties as well: kale, mustard and turnip greens, collards, bok choy, and cabbages.
Eating seasonally in the South has introduced me to greens I had never been exposed to growing up. I now have favorite recipes for chard and arugula and several varieties of kale. I eat tons and tons of greens in three out four seasons since they appear so abundantly at the farmer’s market and in our CSA box. What a great step forward for my health! I remember when just the phrase “leafy greens” terrified me!
Due to this proliferation of greens, I’ve been experimenting with dinner salads for the last several weeks. I love having salad for dinner because (a) I love salad, (b) I feel healthier when I eat things that are mostly fresh and raw, and (c) lighter dinners leave room for bigger desserts. And, mind you, point (c) does not undermine point (b)—No! Because I would likely be having dessert either way. But with salad for dinner, dessert feels more in balance.
This salad recipe features local lettuces, as well as local eggs and bacon. I used a baby lettuces mix and some red-leaf lettuce from last week’s box. It would work well with almost any tender lettuce or mix of greens. This salad is also perfect for fall because these items are in season and readily available in Durham. Pears, though not generally available locally, are also in season in autumn and are featured in the recipe. The salad is satisfying as a complete dinner. I suggest serving it with French wine, and while you’re at it, have a French dessert as well (see point [c] above).
Note: I’ve adjusted this to make two dinner-sized portions. It would probably serve four as a side salad, and of course could be multiplied, with one egg and one slice of toast for each plate.
French Bistro Dinner Salad
recipe adapted from Cooking Light
2 tablespoons finely chopped walnuts
2 large eggs*
2 bacon slices*
6-8 cups gourmet salad greens*
2-3 Tbsp crumbled blue cheese
1 ripe Bartlett pear, cored and thinly sliced
4 (1-inch-thick) slices French bread baguette, toasted*
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extravirgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Toast nuts in a toaster oven or small skillet until lightly browned. Remove onto a plate or cutting board and set aside.
Wipe out skillet, and then cook bacon over medium-high heat until crisp on both sides. Remove from the pan, cool, and crumble. Reserving 1/2 teaspoon drippings for salad dressing.
Poach eggs. Good stovetop instructions can be found here (my preference). If you want to wimp out and don’t mind a bit of radiation in your food, you can microwave them. Drain and allow to cool slightly.
Combine walnuts, bacon, greens, blue cheese, and pear in a large bowl.
Whisk together 1/2 teaspoon reserved drippings, vinegar, oil, tarragon, and mustard in small bowl. Drizzle over greens mixture; toss gently.
Divide salad mixture between two large plates; top each serving with a slice of toasted baguette and poached egg.
*Indicates local availability. All recipes posted on Food Snob Durham feature local ingredients from Durham, North Carolina. You can find fresh, seasonal produce as well as eggs, cheese, meats, and more at the Durham Farmer’s Market.