Dark wood and the smell of spilt beer overwhelm the vintage Durham memorabilia, and at first glance, you could be in any dive in the country. But settle in, take a look at the trendy '50s signs that adorn the walls and the hand-written specials board, and you'll realize that Federal is just like a Parisian bistro, only American. Very American.
Actually, the bistro comparison wears out once you go beyond functionality and the chalk specials board. Federal is a place to drink and get good food in a very casual atmosphere, but the food is not French, and while there is a good wine selection, beer is obviously the drink of choice here.
"I just think that everyday food shouldn't have to be crappy," Magowan says, and that is obviously the guiding principal at Federal. The menu hits all the bar-food notes—burgers, nachos, grilled cheese—but it is also full of surprises. And Magowan's intent is for the surprises to be everyday food as well. Alongside the burger on the menu is an $8 pork carnitas plate, a $10 risotto, and a cheese plate that changes daily and is likely to be as impressive as any you'd find in the area.
Josh Wittman, one of Federal's owners, explains how and why this food is taking place in this setting. "We wanted to create a place that would break people's expectation of what it should be. That's why we go out of our way to have amazing food. People walk in and automatically think we have a full array of bad, fried bar food. When they see and sample our food, most are blown away," Wittman says.
"On the other side," Wittman continues, "we still want to have a great bar atmosphere, and that happens post-dinner anyway. Our kitchen goes out of their way, and it shows. It still amazes me that we get all types of people in the place—little old ladies, middle-aged folks, hipsters, rockers and townies." Federal's non-smoking back room has just been expanded to make sure the comfort level is the same for all these various types.
Federal is one of the success stories in an area of Durham that is in the middle of a personality crisis. Across the street from Brightleaf Square, on the block of Main Street that houses the popular James Joyce pub but also a few empty buildings, it's not certain whether this part of town will take off as the next hot spot or stay quirky and a little down and out. Business owners and town leaders would like to see a revival of the once bustling downtown, but the nature of that revival is not clear, and there are people who are concerned that Durham will lose its roots and personality in the interim.
Magowan is Federal's chef, but he's also a Durham resident, and he's well aware of the fragile nature of downtown. He's wary of the developers seeking to make it a yuppie playground. Magowan notes that media attention and excitement in the business community is centered around white businesses moving into the area: "There's plenty going on in downtown Durham already, it's just that it's black-owned businesses with black customers. No one ever covers that stuff."
When I comment that the neighborhoods around downtown are becoming more popular, he says, "More popular for white people you mean." Then he asks, "Are you saying that white people are good for business?" "They're good for this business," I say, and he concedes. For better or worse, downtown Durham is changing, and places like Federal are at the center of this change.
For the $20 dinner, Magowan made a classic Italian meal: ravioli and two salads. Like his menu, the distinction of the dishes came from the quality of ingredients and careful preparation. He started with an Insalata Caprese, a very simple dish made from layered fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, drizzled with olive oil. With local tomatoes and basil, and mozzarella from the Chapel Hill Creamery, this was a perfect summer dish. His other salad was a heap of spicy local radicchio and fennel from Four Leaf Farms, with a lemon basil vinaigrette.
Magowan serves handmade ravioli about once a week as a special at Federal, and he gives sous-chef Avery much of the credit for the quality of their pastas. "That kid's a genius. He's ridden up and down the coast of Italy on a bike, like, two or three times," Magowan says. For our purposes, Magowan made Swiss chard and marscapone ravioli with a basil butter sauce. (He wanted to use goat cheese instead of marscapone, but he couldn't find his preferred vendor at the farmers' market that morning.) The meal that resulted was fresh and delicious, and the recipes below, like the restaurant, are very user friendly. The total cost was $19.59.
one yellow and one red local tomato $1.40
bag of fresh local basil leaves $1.00
Chapel Hill Creamery fresh mozzarella $5.50
salt and fresh pepper
Slice the tomatoes and the mozzarella into 1/2-inch thick slices. Layer them alternately on a plate with basil leaves in between each slice. Drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and fresh pepper.
Radicchio and Fennel Salad with Lemon Basil Vinaigrette
1 head of fennel $1.00
1 head of radicchio $1.50
juice of one lemon $0.69
10 basil leaves, chopped (from bag in Insalata Caprese recipe)
pinch of sugar and salt
1/2 shallot, finely diced
1 teaspoon dijon
1/3 cup olive oil
Chop radicchio and shave fennel. Mix remaining ingredients together to make a vinaigrette, and dress the salad.
Swiss Chard Ravioli
2 1/2 cups flour $0.50
3 eggs $1.50
1 bunch Swiss chard $1.50
1/2 cup marscapone (or goat cheese) $3.50
6 oz. butter $1.50
zest of 1 lemon (from lemon in Radicchio and Fennel Salad recipe)
8 basil leaves (from bag in Insalata Caprese recipe)
3 chopped cloves of garlic
pinch of salt and pepper
Wisk 2 eggs into the flour. Knead dough until it becomes smooth and elastic. Let it sit for 20 minutes. Sauté the chopped Swiss chard in olive oil with garlic and salt and pepper. Cool this mixture and squeeze it dry. Add the marscapone and lemon zest. Beat the remaining egg. Roll the pasta out to the second thinnest setting on your pasta machine (this can be done by hand if necessary). Place heaping tablespoons of the filling about 3/4-inch apart, brush all around with beaten egg, and fold over, pushing out the air pockets as you seal the raviolis. Cut around each ravioli, trimming excess pasta. Boil for about 3 to 4 minutes in salty water, until they float at the surface for about 1 minute. For the butter sauce, melt 6 oz. butter over medium heat, being careful not to let it brown. Remove from heat. Add 8-10 leaves of chopped basil, and 1/4 cup of the boiling, starchy pasta water; whisk everything together, and season with salt to taste. Pour the sauce over the raviolis, toss and serve.