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Oval Park Grille rivals pricier counterparts in town

A warm, tasty evening at Durham's Oval Park Grille 

Carolina Mountain Trout, with oyster mushrooms, corn and grilled kale, all topped with Tabasco fried onions at Oval Park Grille

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Carolina Mountain Trout, with oyster mushrooms, corn and grilled kale, all topped with Tabasco fried onions at Oval Park Grille

This is what Iceland tastes like.

With our spoons, we cut a vanilla fjord from a glacier of house-made ice cream. We carved skerries of cake from a lava bed of warm chocolate. If we could have, we would have swum in a thermal pool of Molten Chocolate Cake, but the ramekin was too small.

This dessert capped a meal at Oval Park Grille that rivaled those at swankier Durham restaurants. Open just two months, OPG, as it's abbreviated on the menu, occupies a comfortable middle link in the city's food chain; it is neither plankton nor whale. Downtown has become a construction zone of new restaurants, coffee shops and bars, only the hardiest of which will survive. Ninth Street, known for its funky eateries, is being run over by invasive species like Panera Bread and soon, Waffle House—the kudzu of restaurants. Meanwhile OPG has settled in the space formerly held by Broad Street Cafe. This block near Club Boulevard, which includes Watts Grocery, Palace International and Joe Van Gogh, still feels like Durham before hard hats became haute couture.

With clean lines and high ceilings, the dining room is inviting, not fussy. Long shafts of light brighten all but the darkest corners—and sometimes a dark corner is exactly what you want—while a long bar (flanked by two TVs, but they were unobtrusive with the sound off) invites the sociable. Once the oppressive humidity breaks, the covered front patio will be ideal for autumn evenings.

We started our meal with an ample salad of Tiny Farms lettuce, dotted with red and purple heirloom tomatoes—just delivered by a local farmer, according to our cheerful waitress Claire—cucumbers, feta cheese and tzatziki sauce. Fresh and crisp, the lettuce tasted like it had been pulled from the ground that day, as did the tomatoes. While inexperienced hands would have bathed the greens in tzatziki—why, to make us forget we're eating vegetables?—the amount of sauce was modest, enough to enhance but not overpower.

My husband ordered the grilled pork tenderloin, swaddled in a broth of summer succotash and sweet and sour tomatoes. Tender as a kiss, it submitted to a knife and fork.

"Outstanding. Lean, not one bit of fat," he said, nodding his head. "And the vegetables stand up to the pork."

If I were a meat-eater, I would have chosen the padron burger, if only for a vehicle for fried padron peppers, which are in season right now. Instead, I chose the grilled vegetable sandwich, a strata of zucchini, arugula and avocado. The olive oil, roasted garlic and lemon imbued the entire dish with a delicious earthy flavor, and the ingredients gave it textural diversity: crunchy, smooth and silky.

The only dim spot in the entire meal was the side of Mediterranean potato salad—although it gets points for skins-on red variety. Compared to the rest of the dishes, it tasted bland, or perhaps I was too full to enjoy it.

The wine, beer and liquor selection is well-curated, proving that a list need not be vast. The West Coast IPA was a respite from our daily beer, Two-Hearted Ale. The hops, not the alcohol, were the centerpiece of this beer, and tasted fresh, bright and green.

It was my husband's birthday, and to honor another year on the planet, we ordered a glass of 15-year-old Dalwhinnie. Since earlier in the meal, I had mentioned the occasion, the pour was probably more generous than usual. Smoky, amber, rich: Dalwhinnie is one of those Scotches that you hold in your mouth, back by the soft palate, in order to fully enjoy its depth.

The meal ended. Our plates were scraped clean. Not a drop of Dalwhinnie was left. We looked at the empty ramekin, not even a streak of chocolate remaining, and closed our eyes.

Lisa Sorg is the INDY Week editor. She can be reached at lsorg@indyweek.com.

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