A confession: sometimes, I grow weary of sharing small plates, of assembling a big meal from little dishes at cool restaurants. Now and again, I long for the self-indulgent luxury of dinner on the scale of, say, a Thanksgiving fête at Julia Child's house. I want to be pampered, overfed, stuffed.
Durham chef and restaurateur Scott Howell channels the idea of such a decadent feast with his fourth and latest venture, NanaSteak. Nestled between the grand, soft-seated Durham Performing Arts Center and Aloft, Durham's other boutique hotel, NanaSteak is an attempt to reinvent a tired old institution—the steakhouse—for an increasingly experimental culinary landscape. If every theater district demands a grand steakhouse, NanaSteak aims not just to deliver it but to remake it in the city's audacious modern image.
But do today's diners have room in their bellies for such a thing, an inclination in their ravenous souls for glistening charred meat paired with butter- and cheese-laden starches and veggies? Sure, from time to time, many of us still announce, "You know, I could really go for a good steak," only to wheel out the grill, take our chances with a chewy cut from Golden Corral, or blow the month's light bill with old standards like Angus Barn and Sullivan's or newfangled favorites like Death & Taxes and The Durham, cool places that serve big slabs of beef without calling themselves a steakhouse. Unabashed, though, NanaSteak puts the claim right there in the name.
In mid-February, hungry for comfort food, I rushed to NanaSteak the first week it opened. I enjoyed the imperfect experience enough to return two months later—and, once again, to ravage my diet.
It takes but one look to know that this is a new style of steakhouse: the inviting, bright interior is a far cry from the stereotypical dark-wood, low-light den where wealthy men consume red meat and red wine and make shady business deals. Amid the barn wood, burlap, and metal, servers in black and white don't peddle trollies of carved meats but instead tote wicker baskets laden with caramelized onion-and-rosemary focaccia and moist cornbread madeleines.
The focaccia is buttery and rich, a portent of intense indulgences to come. On my first trip, guajillo chilis overwhelmed the cornbread; thankfully, NanaSteak now omits such frippery, one of several welcome fixes still being made.
Both times, I sampled the foie gras with wild elderberry sauce and cipollini onions and fried oysters with pork belly and roasted peppers. The palm-size, seared foie gras tantalized, its crunch dissolving into sudden tenderness. Nestled over tiny pale onions, the delicate liver arrived in a tart splash of exotically purple elderberry jus. When the restaurant opened, the foie gras was listed on the menu as an appetizer; two months later, according to our server, so few people had ordered it that it slipped into the inferior realm of "special." Let's hope it doesn't fall any further.
The oysters were less rewarding. While the breading was textured and light, neither the mollusks nor the light puddle of broth in which they floated boasted much flavor. If not for the perfectly prepared pork belly and peppers, the appetizer would have been bereft of taste altogether. As it was, the oysters lacked even a touch of salt, and both salt and pepper shakers had been left off the table, a sure sign that you're supposed to have complete faith in the chef.
Howell and his team did regain my bruised trust soon. Hell-bent on culinary excess, my companion and I added a double pasta course—lobster carbonara, accompanied by campanelle with ramp pesto and meatballs. We marveled over the indecently creamy, golden sauce of the carbonara; it clung to the frilly pasta and the sweet lobster meat in perverse, sinful glory. And in a brilliant gesture of Southern cucina povera, the beef meatballs, made tender with the addition of leftover focaccia, nearly collapsed in a pungent, garlicky sauce made from the humble ramp. It was peppery and strong, the flavor lasting longer than date night at DPAC.
At last, the time arrived for the raison d'être, the source of NanaSteak's simple portmanteau—the rib eye. Grilled to a perfect medium rare, with smoky juices seeping from the sides, the steak somehow failed to wow. It was tender, yes, but it didn't deliver the flavor you'd expect from this popular cut or the twenty-eight dollar price tag. As if anticipating these shortcomings, several sauces are available for an upcharge—béarnaise, chimichurri, a cracked pepper hollandaise with foie gras. These condiments are delicious, but they're forced to do more work than they should on such a pricey cut.
Elsewhere, there is veal porterhouse and short rib, prime rib and steaks of salmon and tuna. But I opted for a relative rarity—duck, cooked on a rotisserie. It was surprisingly unsatisfying, its glistening fattiness marred by a limpid, barely browned skin that only teased with a suggestion of crispness. Rotisserie duck is a much more exotic and alluring option than the ubiquitous rotisserie chicken. But for NanaSteak to capitalize on the offering, the duck will need to fall off the bone, while the skin needs to be handled with more expertise, until it caramelizes into a perfect coating.
Our server admitted the chef had been working on the duck and altering the approach, but because it wasn't selling, it may end up being cut from the menu. I'm not so sure the blame goes with the customer, and I hope I get the chance to try it again.
Where the entrées failed, though, the sides—contemporary, often decidely Southern turns on classic steakhouse staples—succeeded. NanaSteak's take on creamed spinach includes Swiss chard. The bitter greens weren't overcooked, so they maintained some bite beneath a drizzle of slightly sweet cream. And in a region where every new restaurant offers some variation on macaroni and cheese, NanaSteak's is noteworthy. Brown on top, the piping hot Grand Cru Gruyere and béchamel beneath stay smooth, complementing rather than overpowering the pasta.
The sweet potato gratin is moan-inducing, too, with tender golden sweet potatoes bathed in a ricotta sauce that conceals a bed of dulcet prunes. Moist and singing with sage, the savory mushroom bread pudding stole the second meal by evoking and updating fuzzy Thanksgiving memories.
At last, dessert pushed holiday-like satiety into inability-to-breathe territory, but it was worth it. The salted butterscotch pots de crème, served with homemade ginger snaps, requires a deep dive down to the cup's bottom. The Bananas Foster omits the tired tableside pan of flaming bananas and is instead constructed as a silky wonder in a glass.
In paying homage to the classic steakhouse, NanaSteak is best when it breaks with tradition, rewriting the rules of the most standard ostentatious fare. That presents some challenges, with some big misses mixed among major hits. NanaSteak has worked on the problems, though it hasn't perfected them. Still, when I pushed away from the table, I'd finished the feast I'd sought.
This article appeared in print with the headline "High Stakes"