"If someone wants to hold an event in the restaurant, we'll rent the restaurant out," says Wilma Dillard, who ran her family's business until it closed last month due to an uncertain economy.
As for the new use of the former dining space, Dillard explains, "The building is still ours and it felt wrong to put someone else in it. I don't know how it will go, but I have nothing to lose by trying."
Since the restaurant closed, Dillard has taken on a new role as the marketing director at Chick-Fil-A on Hillsborough Road in Durham. But she still has her family's recipes close at hand.
In addition to Dillard's much loved mustard-dressed barbecue—something of an anomaly in North Carolina—her restaurant will offer some of the sides for which is was known, including carrot soufflé. Barbecue will be available for events outside of the building, too. Contact Dillard at the restaurant (919-544-1587) to schedule off-site catering, or to pick up barbecue on the last two Saturdays in May. Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on May 21 and May 28, Dillard will open her doors to sell barbecue by the pound. "For anyone who calls, we'll have barbecue," she says. And with that, Dillard's is back, at least in moderation.
But until this week, one of the foodiest downtowns in America did not have a top-notch burger and beer joint.
Bull City Burger and Brewery, which opens today, has filled that niche. Located on Parrish Street just off Mangum, the vibrant, locavore eatery mixes old school sensibilities (the grill workers wear two-cornered paper hats) with an urban vibe: High, pressed-tin ceilings, track lighting, large front windows for people-watching and red-clay walls.
The food, while exacting, is not fussy. And how could it be considering diners are seated as if at a picnic—at long, communal tables, the wood salvaged from old tobacco barns and corn cribs?
At a soft opening earlier this week, my husband, an ardent carnivore, declared the Bacon & Blue burger ($9) the best he had ever eaten—dethroning its counterpart at Williams Gourmet Kitchen in south Durham, which had held the No. 1 spot for 26 solid weeks.
The secret is, in part, in BCBB’s quality of beef, which is raised in North Carolina, grass-fed and free of antibiotics and added hormones. The meat is painstakingly ground at the restaurant, not so thin as to dry out, but thick enough to hold moisture. And when I say moisture, I don’t mean grease. BCBB’s burgers are not those fast-food grease missiles that leave a pool on the plate like a car with an oil leak.
Twenty minutes after the restaurant was scheduled to close at 5:30 p.m., Kim Walker, a longtime customer who volunteered to help on the final day, called a winding line of customers’ to attention. “We don’t think we’re going to have enough food for everyone left in line,” she told the crowd. “But that’s just a testament that you’ve been a blessing to this business.”
For two days, Dillard’s loyal patrons flocked to the restaurant to pay dues to the Dillard family, and, of course, to snag one more plate of barbecue. Burnette Smith, a Durham resident who has frequented the restaurant since at least the mid-1960s, made three trips today, deterred the first two times by a line that curved around the front door, and determined on her final stop to stand however long it took to get one more taste of barbecue, ribs, and carrot soufflé. “This is my last chance,” she said before waiting for nearly an hour.
Standing a few steps ahead, Geoff Bell echoed Smith’s sentiment. “This is the last supper and I hate that it’s the last supper. I don’t want it to be the last supper,” he said.
Julie Miller, who moved to Durham five years ago from Rock Hill, South Carolina, said she stood in hopes to stockpile some of the remaining meat to stretch out for a few more days. Among the Triangle’s many eastern-style barbecue stands, she favored Dillard’s South Carolina mustard-based sauce. “This is devastating to me,” she said of the restaurant’s impending close. “I’m getting 10-pounds.” But in that, Miller was unsuccessful.
Barbecue was the first thing to go today. According to Walker, the restaurant sold over 100 pounds in the last two days. But customers were happy to get whatever they could. And once up to the line, they reported the remaining foods to folks behind them.
“Hey, there’s carrot soufflé,” Smith accounted, smiling. “I see one hush puppy.”
Further back in line, customers swapped stories of Dillard’s past and penned their name in a guest book nearly 30 pages deep.
Seated in a corner near the restaurant’s entrance was Geneva Dillard, whose husband, Samuel Dillard, started the family business. She received customers much like a widow at a wake. Miller stopped to introduce her two small children, and lifelong friends swooped in to hold hands and offer both condolences and congratulations. The restaurant, though closing due to an uncertain economy, was going out on top.
“I’m proud to know that we meant so much to the community. I’ve felt blessed,” Dillard said, eyeing the restaurant’s outpouring of support. “But if I’d known this would have happened, I would have cooked more food.”
For the Dillard family, the business isn’t really over yet. On March 26, the Hayti Heritage Center will award the restaurant with its Hayti Legacy award. And the Dillards promise to continue to sell their much-loved BBQ sauce at area stores.
Let's get one thing out of the way: Yes, Bonne Soiree is expensive. It isn't a place to dine once a week, or probably even once a month, unless you're of means.
Even if you have the money to go there often, Bonne Soiree isn't the kind of place one's senses are likely to be able to patronize frequently. Unlike its nearby price-range competitors like Elaine's and Cypress on the Hill—Bonne Soiree is actually a tad more expensive than either—the atmosphere inside speaks to special occasions. The tiny dining room, elegantly done in light blue and deep purple, with antique washstands and warm, romantic lighting, is, in the words of its proprietress, Tina Vaughn, "an escape from your day." But it's no ordinary escape; it feels like a world apart from the place where your day is: a voluptuous, sumptuous yet elegant place, intimate and personal in a way that relates as much to other luxuries like massage or therapy as it does to mere sustenance. Not only is the menu handwritten, so is your check.
Everything about Bonne Soiree has that stamp of uniqueness on it, all the way down to the wines poured by the glass, which are unusual and in many cases almost unknown to the majority of diners. It's as though the place exists especially for you during your meal and will disappear, along with the entire restaurant, the moment you step back out into the world from which Bonne Soiree provided you a temporary escape.
That is to say that, carved out of a little panel of the old Courtyard mini-complex, on ho-hum Franklin Street in the scrubbed, preppy heart of Tarheeliana, Bonne Soiree is a bit like a dream. And sadly, it's one we won't be having much longer. Even though News & Observer food writer Greg Cox anointed it the Triangle's best fine dining restaurant in 2006 mere months after it opened, and its chef, Chip Smith, was just named a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation's Best ChefSoutheast prize, Bonne Soiree will close at the end of April. It really is disappearing.
Eastern Lights, a venerable Chinese and Korean restaurant in Durham (4215 University Drive, 403-3650, www.easternlightsrestaurant.com), serves a 10-course New Year's banquet featuring particularly juicy and tender dumplings.
The recipe descends from Chef Frank Chao's father, who fled from China to Korea to escape conscription during the 1940s.
Makes about 25 dumplings
For the filling
1/2 cup water or chicken stock, at room temperature
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon Totole-brand Granulated Chicken-Flavor Soup Base Mix (optional)
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon ginger root, finely minced
Scant 1/2 pound of ground or finely minced pork belly, texture should resemble raw hamburger (see cook's notes)
2 stalks spring onion, roughly chopped (see cook's notes)
1 cup of white onion, minced
2/3 cup Napa cabbage, minced
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Mix the water or chicken stock with the soy sauce, salt, soup base mix, white pepper, ginger and spring onion. Gradually add the liquid mixture to the meat, stirring in vigorous circles in one direction only. Once the first batch of liquid is absorbed, add more.
When all the liquid has been incorporated, add the white onion and the cabbage and stir in a single direction.
Add the vegetable oil and continue to stir in a single direction for three minutes. Add the sesame oil and stir in a single direction for two minutes, or until the meat looks dry and has lost its pinkish hue. Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
For the dough
About 2 cups loosely packed bleached all-purpose flour (see cook's notes)
2/3 cup boiling water
Using a fork, mix the boiling water into the flour to form a shaggy mass. Knead by hand for 15 minutes or until the dough has the silky texture of a "baby's cheek." Cover and rest for 20 minutes. Knead for another 5 minutes.
Divide the dough into two pieces and roll each piece into a rope about 1 inch in diameter. Cut the rope into half-inch segments.
Lightly sprinkle a cutting board or counter with cornstarch. Using a small rolling pin, flatten each piece of dough and roll into a round, roughly four inches in diameter. Roll the dough as thinly as possible for a maximally delicate dumpling skin.
Hold the dough in your left hand. Smear 1 1/2 teaspoons of filling the length of the round. Pinch the round at the right corner, forming two half-moon-shaped flaps at a slightly splayed angle. The goal is to pleat the inner flap and press each pleat into the outer flap. With the left thumb, roll a bit of the inner flap over the right thumb; withdraw the right thumb and press the formed pleat into the outer flap. Repeat until the entire dumpling has been pleated and closed. (YouTube abounds in demonstrations of wrapping technique; enter keyword "potstickers").
Cooking the Dumplings
Spread a light sheen of vegetable or canola oil in a non-stick frying pan. Add the dumplings to the pan without crowding them. Fry for 1 minute and then add enough room temperature water to cover the dumplings to the level of their pleat. Cover and cook for 7 minutes (if you have a particularly well-engineered frying pan and lid, you may have to leave a slight crack so the water can slowly evaporate).
Once the water evaporates, the dumplings will begin to fry in the residual oil. Cook the dumplings until the bottoms are browned and crisped. Pay close attention, as the dumplings will quickly burn. For steamed dumplings, line a steaming tray with cotton cloth or tightly-woven cheesecloth and place over a pot of boiling water. Arrange the dumplings on the cotton. Cover and steam for 10-12 minutes.
* Flour is a crucial variable. A low-gluten, bleached all-purpose flour (Gold Medal for example) will produce ideal results, while a higher-gluten, unbleached flour (say King Arthur) will yield a tougher, chewier skin. My experiments with White Lily brand flour, a low-gluten flour famous for producing light and tender Southern biscuits, came up a cropper. White Lily does not have enough gluten to produce the necessary elasticity.
* Don't be tempted to substitute supermarket-prepared ground pork for ground or hand-minced pork belly. Pork belly's high fat content is integral to the consistency of the filling.
* If the dough is incorrigibly crumbly, add water by the drop. Don't be tempted to add more than strictly necessary to form an elastic dough. Excess water will make the dough heavy and chewy.
* Don't be seduced by the food processor. In a split second, it will reduce the cabbage and onion to watery pulp.
Uncooked dumplings can be frozen. Space the dumplings on a cookie tray and place in the freezer. Pry loose the frozen dumplings and place in a freezer bag for long-term storage. To cook, place the frozen dumplings directly in the frying pan or steamer—do not thaw beforehand. Frozen dumplings require a bit more cooking time: about 10 minutes in the frying pan, 15 minutes in the steamer.
Sadly, Big Mouth Billy Basses—the plastic, singing fish that were popular 10 years ago and thrust back into the light of day on the walls at Durham's Fish Shack (2512 University Drive)—will soon return to their dusty spots in local attics.
According to Dan Ferguson, who owns the Fish Shack and its neighbor, the Original Q Shack, the fried-fish eatery officially closed its doors last Sunday due to low sales. "I really loved the concept and thought it would work," Ferguson says of his business.
But after a mere nine months, the Fish Shack couldn't survive. "It was just like digging a ditch. It just couldn't recover," Ferguson says.
On a better note, Ferguson says that the Original Q Shack continues to prosper. When I spoke to him on the phone just moments ago, I could hear the bustle of customers in the background.
Our 2011 diet resolution? Consume as many calories as possible in the Bull City.
The New York Times recently listed Durham among the top 41 Places to Go in 2011. Sandwiched between Kurdistan and Kosovo, and listed among some of the world's most exotic, surreal landscapes and wild cosmopolitan cities, Durham stands her ground at #35. (And one of only four domestic locations.) She's found her cool, all right, exuding from the increasingly famous and vibrant food scene. The story praises restaurants Scratch Bakery, Revolution, Rue Cler and Parker and Otis, as well as Durham's own Counter Culture Coffee.
Where do you go for quintessential Durham eats? One of my favorites: Joe's Diner. It's the only place where I can get a 1/2-lb. hot dog wrapped in pastrami, with a side of animated conversation from owner Joe Bushfan or any neighborhood customer. I like that it's off the beaten "foodie" path, too.
We asked a few Durham food bloggers where they go. Check out their top haunts below, and share your favorite Bull City meals in the comments section.
"By far my favorite spot in Durham is Six Plates Wine Bar. Matty [Matthew Beason] is one of the best restaurant owners around; they really practice what they preach when it comes to supporting local business and farmers. The menu is inventive, always changing and never half-assed. Their wine selection is affordable and extensive, and the staff is always eager to share their knowledge and help customers really learn about wine. I always feel at home when I walk through the door. A few other places I frequent are Toast, the Bulkogi truck and Dos Perros." - Matt Lardie, greeneatsblog.com
"Fed [The Federal], of course. Its affordable, diverse menu, extensive beer list and casual vibe get my vote every time. Where else can you get coq au vin one night and a burger and fries the next?" - Chris Reid, carpedurham.com
"Watts Grocery is my favorite Durham restaurant because it's the epitome of everything that makes Durham food and drink awesome. Chef Amy [Tornquist] locally sources as much food as possible, which contributes greatly in flavor to her Southern-inspired, New American cuisine. The menu experiments with fun combinations, and the cocktail and dessert offerings are always inventive, not to mention delicious. Yet the atmosphere is bright, cozy, relaxed, and a little eclectic; it's fantastic food and drink without pretense." - Becca Gomez Farrell, thegourmez.com
"Had a hard time just coming up with a single favorite restaurant. My ultimate treat and to-die-for restaurant: Vin Rouge. They have the best French onion soup on the planet. Honestly, anything Matt Kelly puts out, you know it's going to be good. It is also my go-to place for oysters. Out to dinner and fun with friends: Dos Perros. Consistently good food, great atmosphere and Charlie [Deal] has done a wonderful job stocking up on good beer for us Durham beer nerds. Simply Thai, my utmost favorite family-run restaurant. And the Farmhand Foods truck. For God's sake, the sausage with pimento cheese on a pretzel roll is to die for!" - Johanna Kramer, durhamfoodie
"I swoon when I think about Vin Rouge. From their 'sweetbreads of the day' that is on their standard menu to their daily specials. One special that sticks out to me in particular is the '"au pied de cochon': local pork trotter beer-braised (in local beer of course) and stuffed with black truffle. I get hot flashes just thinking about that dish." - Christie Vasquez Hadden, myrestaurantguru.com
Only Burger, Durham's mobile burger eatery, has a new place to park and call home. Approximately three weeks ago, the food truck opened a brick and mortar location at Hope Valley Square shopping center (3710 Shannon Road, Suite 118, Durham, http://durhamcatering.com/onlyburger, 919-724-9377). At the new location, the menu is basically the same—$4.75 for single burgers and $7.25 for doubles—except that it has expanded to include beer (and seating). Only Burger will celebrate its grand opening at 11 a.m. today with half priced burgers.
Andrews, like many other fair food vendors, doesn't spend his year in the food business. But in the 11 days of the fair's festivities, he occupies his time with hot dogs—$5 for foot longs, and $3 for regular sizes. And what began for his friend 40 years ago as a business opportunity, he explains, quickly devolved into a way to make friends. Andrews says that one of the highlights of the fair is to catch up with people that, even as a Raleigh resident, he only sees once or twice a year.
Choplin's, which began as a tent and evolved into a full fledged booth, used to visit multiple area events, including the pumpkin festival in Spring Hope and the Old Thrashers Reunion in in Denton. But "the booth got old, and so did I," says Andrews. But the State Fair, which hit a record high this year with over 1 million visitors, is enough to catch up with most of the state's fair going residents in a short amount of time.
Choplins's, which found a place near this year's decadent Krispy Kreme burger, is no thrills: red hot dogs with chili, fries, and drinks. But it's a stand that's worth visiting year after year—one that provides a dependable food with a friendly face. When I stopped by earlier this week for a second time, one of the booth's workers, Mike Elledge recognized me, as he and others do most of their return customers. "You've been here before, haven't you?" he asked. I had, and as a State Fair classic, Choplin's booth is one that I plan to visit again. Here's to already counting the days until fall 2011!
When Johnson’s away from his microphone—back at his trailer or tucked in the Lions Club’s kitchen, where he cooks ham, grits, and gravy each morning—his words still resonate. “Limon piiiiie,” Johnson’s expression for lemon pie, croons across a PA system, and shows up as a painting with all five I’s on the club’s front window. Over the years, Johnson’s “gift for gab,” as he puts its, has made the Lions’ pie so popular, the club plans to place wooden pie cutouts in front of its booth next year for fans to pose for pictures. But pie, says Johnson, is only one of three things that make the club’s booth stand out.
As it ends up, it’s Johnson’s words that make the pastry so special. The Lions Club sells pre-made, store bought pies to its customers for $3.50 a slice. But its other best selling items—vegetable soup and buttermilk biscuits—are made on site each day.
The club has made soup since its first day at the fair in 1943, when members cooked on grills and gas stoves instead of a range. Now, with a more equipped kitchen, the Lions are able to offer a wider selection of fresh foods, including biscuits. Last Sunday alone, the Lions sold over 1,000 biscuits made that day by Frances Lawrence and Monnie Jenkins, who are not club members, but Apex residents who have cooked at the Lions’ stand for the past 10 years.
Johnson says the club has perfected its offerings during its 67 years at the fair. The vegetable soup is a protected recipe. And the pies (pecan, coconut, lemon, apple, sweet potato, and chocolate), though store bought, have been tasted and selected individually among a long list of brands to ensure the best flavor. Still, says Johnson, the club doesn't have everything as it would like. "There's not enough room for everyone," he explains, which is true. A line pours from the door daily until 2 p.m. But at least the following can be said for those who have to wait: There's no mystery about the menu.