Thursday, February 19, 2009

Magnolia Grill - Ninth street, Durham

Finally I get around to blogging our Valentine's dinner experience at Magnolia Grill. I'll try to make it worth the wait. It's funny that this comes just shortly after the announcement of the Barker's nomination in the Outstanding Restaurant overall category for the James Beard Awards (more info here). I regret to tell you I didn't take my camera, therefore, no photos accompany. I couldn't bring myself to do it.

I'd been looking forward to this dinner for two weeks (actually more like two years). We had an early reservation and the restaurant only had a handful of tables filled when we arrived around 5:30. It was filled with natural light and the music was low. The ambiance was relaxing. We were seated at a half-booth. This is one of those long benches that line an entire wall, where they throw table after table alongside it and flank the other side of the table with chairs. I experienced similar seating in Panciuto in Hillsborough (also a fine dining restaurant). I have to tell you, it's my least favorite seating setup. It's not as intimate as I'd like, and fellow diners can't help but look at what's on your plate with curiousity (since they're a whopping 2 feet away), myself included.

The host pulled out the table for my husband to sit down and then pulled out my chair. It was a nice touch. An extensive menu was placed in both of our hands and the hard selection began. For me, I'm limited with cheeses and seafood (not for much longer though), so it was a bit of an easier choice, but had I not been, I would have taken much longer to make my selections. The only complaint I could muster about the entire dining experience was that we waited quite awhile for our server to come and offer drinks initially. After that, she was top notch.

For my first course, I selected the smoked Eden Farm Berkshire pork belly in Sorghum-bourbon glaze on baby butterbean fondue with red mustard greens and pickled turnips. When this arrived, I was pleasantly surprised with not only the presentation, but the portion size. It was substantial for $10. I've never had pork belly before and I expected it to be mostly a big slab of fat, but it was quite meaty. It had a very subtle smoked flavor that was so well balanced with the sweetness and acidity of the bourbon glaze. The butterbean fondue reminded me slightly of the mashed peas I ate while in London. They were a nice accompaniament, both color and texturewise to the rest of the dish. The greens and turnips were minimal in comparison to the forementioned components but added lovely texture, color and subtle flavor to this excellent starter.

My husband had the cannellini bean soup with Carolina shrimp, apple bacon, escarole and roasted peppers. I tasted it and while it was very very good, I was happy to have all of my first course to myself !

For my second course, I ordered the grilled Maine scallops in red wine essence on couscous carbonara with oyster mushrooms, roasted root vegetables, apple-smoked bacon and arugula. I am not even slightly exaggerating when I say these are the largest scallops I have ever seen. There were two of these monsters on my plate, which again was beautifully presented. They must have totalled near a half pound together. They were the most perfectly cooked scallops I've ever eaten. They weren't gritty, or even slightly chewy. They were seasoned to perfection. Their perfect texture was well complimented with the meaty oyster mushrooms and the earthy root vegetables. The couscous was also a welcome punch of texture. It was the largest couscous I've ever had (the grains about half the size of barley). I also adored the red wine essence that graced this dish. It was a perfect dish and I ate every bit of it.

One of the things I really appreciated about the experience was that the server knew all of the dishes well, and she offered information about how things were prepared and made sure we were okay with them. For example, she mentioned that the scallops were grilled and just slightly translucent in the center and wanted to know if that was okay with me. For my husband, who ordered the grilled Berkshire pork rib chop in Bourbon jus on cornmeal spatzle with sweet potato, turnips, country ham and southern greens, she noted that they typically served this medium rare (reddish-pink) and inquired if that was acceptable to him. He opted for medium, which was perfect to his liking and he too ate up every bit of his dish.

The food was served warm, not hot, perfectly cooked. They pay attention to such small details here, that you definitely feel the difference between eating here and somewhere else that also uses fantastic local ingredients, like Piedmont. For example, when returning from my visit to the ladies room, I found the napkin I had left balled up on the table, refolded. It's small touches like this that make the extra money spent feel worth it. For two courses for the two of us, and a bottle of Pelligrino, the bill totalled out around $75. Add tip to that and we topped out around $100. I look forward to going to Magnolia Grill again for a special occasion in the future. It was the perfect dining experience.

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Melanie Busbee said...

You made that all sound so good.
I too have often been seated in those booth tables that are on top of one another. I hate it!!!! That has happened at Panciuto, Magnolia Grill, The Carolina Inn, and Pop's. Boo!

Heather said...

everythign sounds so good! glad you had a great valentines!

teg said...

Sounds pretty tasty - too bad they don't sound at all vegetarian-friendly! (I'm always looking for nice places to take my parents when they come to town, and they are both veggies).

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