My wife and I traveled to Durham and Chapel Hill last month and had some remarkable dining experiences.
First: just like to say how much we enjoyed staying at The Carolina Inn - a beauty of a hotel that has a very helpful staff and a very informal, warm environment + reasonable rates.
Food - Our first night we ate at The Lantern in Chapel Hill. A remarkable restaurant with tremendous food from a chef with a great deal of passion and an interesting history. I only knew some of the story when we dined, but after our dinner we both had to do some research, "who is behind this food?"
It's a very unassuming place where everything we had was polished (Asian influence). The server we had is how servers should be - interested in what they were doing and the food they were serving - no "corporate school of serving," no "server 101 psychology" to get a larger tip, just intelligent service and a genuine interest in the food being served.
We had Shaking Beef (pictured), seared rare Wagyu flat iron steak with black pepper, sweet caramelized red onions, watercress salad and soy-vinegar pan sauce. My wife had lemongrass BBQ'd Niman Ranch pork tenderloin with cool rice noodles, lettuce cups, Vietnamese herb salad, chile-lime sauce and roasted peanut hoisin.
Desert was a Cocoa bean panna cotta with roasted organic cherries and bittersweet chocolate-buckwheat pocky. Everything was memorable (except maybe the pocky - very bitter).
Lunch next day was at Rue Cler in Durham (not pictured). Fun place, great idea - French influenced menu. My wife had steak frites $17 - the steak was not as char-crusted as the French versions we've had and this particular one was a little more fatty than average, but still good. I had the Croque-monsieur $7.00 house made ham and Gruyere - very good, very generous portion. Added a side of fresh asparagus, simple and very nice.
Dinner - next was Magnolia's in Durham. We'd eaten there once before and loved it - this time no different. There's a seriousness to Magnolia and just a little pretentiousness, but it's well earned - the food is exceptional, combinations that you marvel at, "how did they come up with that?"
I started with a Twice-Baked Grits Souffle with Wild & Exotic Mushroom Ragôut, Aged Sherry-Mushroom Emulsion & Shaved Confit Foie Gras $9.95 (pictured). I ate it s-l-o-w-l-y to make it last. For her entree my wife had Pan-Roasted Muscovy Duck Breast in Bigerade Jus with Pomegranate Salsa & Pearl Barley “Risotto” with Roasted Cauliflower & Citrus Vinaigrette $24.95 and for desert she had their signature Blackout Cake - a chocolate lovers indulgence. It's a very special experience from start to finish.
We had breakfast/lunch at Foster's market near Durham next, where the ordering confuses but the food is great - another group of food people motivated first by food. It's a casual atmosphere with eclectic outdoor seating and a very casual sense of time ;) Enjoyed their new selection of $$ friendly wines.
Lastly, we had a dinner at Watt's Grocery. We were driving back from Savannah and had originally planned to stay in Knoxville as a halfway point, but last second we decided to drive an extra 2 hours and go back to Durham, CH to eat there, and we were so glad we did. The best meal of the great ones we had.
Watt's is another unfussed over, unpretentious space with simple tables and decorations - pretty minimal overall. My wife started with local charcuterie, in which the surprise item was the pickled artichokes. Crisp and lightly pickled, "where do we get these?" we wondered. Entrees were Pan seared Duck Breast served on a Vidalia onion custard with sautéed English peas and spring onions and finished with a grainy mustard pan sauce $19 (fab!), and I had Pepper rubbed NY Strip Steak (pictured) served with a Poblano pan sauce and grilled vegetables over Dave’s overnight chipotle beans. The steak was the best NY Strip I've ever had. Strips can be tough, this one was as tender as a filet, and the pan sauce had just the right amount of chile flavor and kick. The overnight beans were a great addition and have prompted an email to the restaurant for the recipe. The clincher though was the coconut cake (pictured) for desert. I'm not a huge coconut fan (probably because I've only had the plastic kind) but this was pretty dreamy.
All in all we wish the Durham/CH area was a lot closer - it's not that we mind the drive, it's just that we'd like to start eating sooner ;)