The Magnolia Grill
While visiting family in Durham, North Carolina this weekend we had the chance to dine at the Magnolia Grill. We had eaten dinner there once before and loved it, so we had high expectations for this second visit. Magnolia didn't disappoint.
The chef-owners of Magnolia Grill are Ben and Karen Barker. Ben manages the main menu and Karen is the pastry chef. Their food has been called "New Southern Cooking" and each delicious dish, while often simple, is full of flavor and interesting ingredient pairings. Since opening Magnolia Grill in 1986, the Barkers have been the recipients of James Beard Awards and accolades from Gourmet, Wine Spectator, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Esquire, The New York Times and other prominent publications. In 2001, Magnolia Grill was named the 11th best restaurant in America by Gourmet.
I always get a good feeling when I see the chef-owner of a prominent restaurant actually there, night after night, working in the kitchen or at least being present on the floor. I liked it when I saw Charlie Trotter on the floor at Trotter's, I liked seeing Ming Tsai expediting orders at Blue Ginger, and I like seeing Ben Barker in the kitchen at Magnolia. Ben Barker has been working in the open kitchen both times we've eaten at Magnolia Grill and he's reportedly there full-time. Karen Barker also works there full-time, although is less visible to the customers as her role as a pastry chef puts her in the restaurant at different hours. I like that kind of involvement and think it's one of the things that keeps a great place great.
There were four of us at the table and so we were able to sample a wide variety of Magnolia Grill's offerings. We ate:
*Cool as a Cucumber Soup with Vermouth Shrimp, Buttermilk and Dill
*Pan-Seared Foie Gras on Jerry's Italian Honey Figs with Blackberry Gastrique, Mache and Shaved Vidalia Onion Salad
*Peregrine Farm Heirloom Tomato and Celebrity Dairy Goat Cheese Salad with Arugula, Foccacia Croutons and Sungold Tomato Coulis
Our one disappointment of the evening was that they were out of the "to die for" appetizer---Grilled Nectarines with Serrano Ham and Buttermilk Blue Cheese, Almond Picada, Fennel-Arugula Salad, and Clementine Syrup. My in-laws had tried these once before and swore they were the best thing on the appetizer list. So that was disappointing, but the appetizers we did have were each delicious. Flavorful and just the right balance of richness and light.
*Pan-Roasted Wild King Salmon in Green Tomato Creme Fraiche Vinaigrette with Blue Lake, Yellow, and Fava Beans, Red Pontiac Potatoes and Sungold Tomatoes
*Pan-Seared Sesame-Crusted Alaskan Halibut in Crab Kombu Broth on Sugarsnaps and Cucumber Vermicelli with Peppery Greens
*Grilled Niman Ranch Centercut Pork Chop in Sorghum and Smoked Tomato Jus on Brunswick "Stew" with Sweet Corn, Country Ham and Cornmeal Spatzle
Everyone enjoyed their entrees, but the salmon and the pork chop got the best reviews from the table.
*Bing Cherry Ice Cream and Toasted Buttermilk Waffles with Cherry Compote
*Peach Melba Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta
*Banana Banana Split with Milk Chocolate Malt and Peanut Butter Sauces and Cocoa Peanuts
*Dark Chocolate Peppermint Pattie Cake with Whipped Cream
The desserts were delicious and each struck just the right note---the panna cotta was light and refreshing, the chocolate cake rich and intense. I loved the ice cream and waffles and their take on the banana split was very creative. It's not hard to imagine why Karen Barker was named "Best Pastry Chef in America 2003" by the James Beard Foundation.
This is just a small sampling of the Magnolia Grill menu. I realize we happened to order a lot of fish on this visit, but it should be noted that they were also offering steak, lamb, rabbit, osso buco, and blackeyed pea cakes among the entree selections. Magnolia Grill's staff is completely without pretense and its decor is casual. All this allows you to focus on the meal itself and savor the flavors. We loved our visit and with any luck we'll be back for a third.
1002 Ninth Street
Durham, North Carolina