Magnolia Grill to Close

May 2, 2012

I just received and email from Karen Barker of Durham’s legendary Magnolia Grill. She and her husband, Ben Barker, both Beard award winners, will be closing the restaurant at the end of the month.  Here’s the email:

Friends , Colleagues & Professional Associates –

Karen and I have had the extraordinary luxury of cooking together every day for the last 30+ years. There is no way to convey how rewarding it has been to share our pursuit of this craft, but…

it’s time to do something different.

We will close Magnolia Grill on May 31, 2012.

We are not sure what’s next but we are going to take a break and see.

We have all our parents, all 80 years old, or nearly. We want to see them more. We have two grandchildren we’ve barely spent any time with; we want to see them more. We have co-workers we’ve been around more than our sons – it’s time for that to change.

Thank you to every one who’s given us the opportunity to learn from you, to feed you and be fed by you, to share with you, to experience the exhilaration and conviviality that has been our life in food. We’ll always be indebted to each and every one of you.

Thank you,

b2 & Kay

I’m very sad that we will be losing this amazing restaurant. It’s the one place where I said, “I am simply not capable of cooking like that.”  But I am also happy that Ben and Karen will be moving on.  I wish them all the best, and I suspect we’ll hear more from them.


John Fleer — Rock Star — Stir the Pot

September 13, 2011

It seems that VarmintBites has turned into nothing more than a means to publicize fundraisers, but when one is on the Board of Directors of two different organizations having food-related fundraisers, well, you can understand.

So, this Sunday and Monday we’re having another Stir the Pot, those fantastic events hosted by Ashley Christensen to benefit the Southern Foodways Alliance. I’ve attended most of these events, and they’re a ton of fun, but this week is different.

This time, the guest chef of Stir the Pot is John Fleer, Rock Star. Yes, that’s the term used by John T. Edge, the Executive Director of the SFA. That’s a term I’ve heard Ashley Christensen use for him. Could it be because he was the celebrated chef of Blackberry Farm, one of the best inns in the country?  Or that he left Blackberry at the height of his career and notoriety so he could do something that allowed him to spend more time with his familly? Like work at Sunburst Trout or take over as chef at Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers, NC.

Yes, those are good reasons to call him a rock star (and I’ve had his food — it’s rock star quality). But the real reason to call him a rock star is that he acts like one, and I have pictures to prove it. It’s been 4 years since I took these photos, and at the time I said they wouldn’t see the light of day, but I’m changing my tune. I’ve got pictures of Fleer chugging Southern Comfort. I’ve got pictures of him stealing a kid’s bicycle (OK, he just rode a bike laying on the street). No, I don’t have a photo of him passed out, but I can try.

The problem is, you don’t get to see these photos unless you attend one of the Stir the Pot events. The fancy, five-course dinner with wine pairings prepared by Chef Fleer is at Poole’s Diner on Sunday night at 7 PM.  The Monday evening potluck is at Ashley Christensen’s home (Brunswick stew, beer by Foothills Brewing, a drink by Fox Liquor bar, and wine donated by Eliza Kraft Olander. The Sunday dinner is $150 per person plus tax and tip, whereas the Monday potluck is $35 per person plus a side dish or dessert that celebrates your sense of place, wherever that may be.

Reservations are required and space is limited. Call Poole’s Diner at 919-832-4477 to reserve your spot for either or both nights.

So go ahead and sign up. And maybe these photos will end up on display.


An Amazing Event for an Amazing Organization

September 12, 2011

You like Herons restaurant in the Umstead, don’t you?

And you love the Shimmer Wall, Marbles Museum and the cool ring sculpture on the lawn behind the North Carolina Museum of Art, right (it’s called Gyre, for what it’s worth)?

Well, what would you think about an event where that particular artist, Raleigh’s own Thomas Sayre, and the Herons’ chef, Scott Crawford, combine forces for a once in a lifetime event? An event where Chef Crawford, and some other amazing guest chefs (including Colin Bedford from the Fearrington House and Matthew Medure of Jacksonville, FL) create food inspired by Sayre’s art? Where the chefs and the artists come together and talk about how they inspire each other?

This event — Expressions, A Celebration of Food and Art —  is happening on Friday, September 23rd at the Umstead Hotel and Spa. This event benefits the Lucy Daniels Center, and I need you, my readers, to step up and buy a seat or two. You’ll be the recipient of some amazing food and wine that will knock your socks off. You’ll learn about the creative process for chefs and artists. And you’ll be helping out an amazing organization — the Lucy Daniels Center — the Triangle’s leading provider of mental health services to children.

I’m begging you to come to this event (I’m the chair of the board of the Center), and you won’t regret it. Heck, if you buy a seat at this dinner, I’ll double your value. I’ll cook a special dinner for anyone who buys a seat and mentions that they heard about it through VarmintBites. So, that means you get the dinner at Herons and then a dinner at my house. Yes, the Herons dinner will be better, but mine won’t be too shabby, either.  We’ll have to work out the logistics, but if 24 people buy seats and mention my site, then I’ll have to figure out a way to cook another dinner for 24. Yes, I might have to break it into three dinners of eight, but we’ll get it done.

To buy tickets online, go here: https://jtsuther.wufoo.com/forms/expressions-registration/  And when you list the guests, mention “Referred by Varmint” to be added to the dinner list. We’ll follow up with you.

If you have questions, call the Center at 919-459-1611 and ask for Patti Wilt.


Bella Mia — Restaurant of the Year

January 21, 2011

Greg Cox of the News & Observer named Bella Mia his “Restaurant of the Year.” Now some people have asked, “A pizza joint?  Restaurant of the year? Seriously?”

My response: Most definitely.

Note that Cox did not say Bella Mia was the best restaurant of the year.  Nor did he give it his highest rating of 5 stars — it only received 4 stars.

So why does Bella Mia deserve to be called the Restaurant of the Year?  When one looks at the state of pizza in the Triangle a year ago, there are a lot of places that make a decent pie.  Some have wood-fired ovens, some use great ingredients, and you could always get a solid pizza.  But could you get a transcendent pizza?  No.

Bella Mia makes a transcendent pizza.  Their coal-fired oven hits temperatures of nearly 1,000 degrees.  The Guerra brothers, Louis and Anthony, use the finest ingredients and cook those pizzas with just the right amount of char.  There is no place in North Carolina that comes close to this play.  Some individuals may disagree, but the consensus is that Bella Mia is unlike any pizzeria that came before it in our area.  And because it is so much better than anyone else makes it worthy of the ROTY designation.

This is the only restaurant with which I am totally obsessed.  I’ve probably eaten there 30-40 times since they opened.  I’ve gotten to know the Guerra family fairly well, and when you think of how big of a chance they took, investing in beautiful tile-laden coal-fired ovens in the back of a Cary strip mall, I can’t help but smile over their success.  They dared to raise the bar for an iconic food like pizza, and they blew away the competition in doing so.

So congratulations to Bella Mia and the Guerra family.  And a big thumbs up to Greg Cox to have the balls to pick a pizza joint as his Restaurant of the Year.  Who’da thunk it?


Adult Gingerbread for the Holidays

December 24, 2010

I love gingerbread.  It’s always been one of my favorite flavors, particularly when served warm with some soft cream.  It represents the essence of winter comfort food, not too sweet, with depths of flavor beyond most other desserts.  But that depth was sometimes illusory, as it was just a smack of molasses paired with a touch of ground ginger.  This holiday season, I wanted more flavor.  I wanted more complexity.  I wanted a goddamned adult version of gingerbread.

Thank goodness for Karen Barker.

Barker, the co-owner and Beard Award winning pastry chef of Durham’s Magnolia Grill, has the hand’s-down-bet-the-farm-you-can-take-it-to-the-bank-absolute-best gingerbread you’ll ever taste.  This isn’t one of those pale cakes that you whip together in 2 minutes that will still taste just fine.  This is a dark, foreboding-looking gingerbread, with three types of ginger, coffee, black pepper, and dry mustard in it.  It’s a gingerbread that has some kick, without being piquant.  It’s not a dense cake, but it’s really rich.  And when paired with something somewhat sweet, like Barker’s Hot Buttered Rum Raisin Sauce and some vanilla-nutmeg ice cream — oh, my.

And that’s what my guests were saying last week when I concluded a 6 course dinner party last weekend.  This dish is a winner.  This gingerbread means business.  And hell, yeah, I made three of those cakes, so there was plenty for breakfast the rest of the week.

Not-Afraid-of-Flavor Gingerbread

  • 2-1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp dry mustard
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 8 Tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp peeled, very finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 2 Tbsp finely chopped crystallized ginger
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 1/2 cup brewed coffee
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 cup orange juice

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9X9X2 square pan or a 10X2 round pan. Line bottom with parchment paper, and butter the paper.

Whisk together the flour, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, ground ginger, dry mustard and salt.

With a mixer, cream butter with the sugar and the fresh and crystallized ginger. Add eggs one at a time to blend.

Slowly add the oil and then the molasses. Mix to blend.

Gradually add the flour and spice mix until just barely blended, scraping bowl as needed.

Heat up the coffee in a small saucepan to a simmer, add the baking soda, stir, and add to the mix. Add the orange juice until fully combined. The batter will be thinner than what you would expect.

Pour batter into the pan and bake at 350F for about an hour and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan. Invert onto parchment paper, and then flip back over onto serving platter. Eat. And then eat some more.

From “Sweet stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts” by Karen Barker, University of North Carolina Press


Reverse Restaurant Review Roulette: Name that 4-Star Chinese Restaurant

December 15, 2010

The top of page 3 in the food section of today’s News & Observer had its typical tease for Greg Cox’s weekly review, which is how I usually identify the restaurant to be reviewed.  In some instances, they don’t name the restaurant, so I end up sending Greg an email to find out the subject of the review.  They did something completely different today, which I hope doesn’t become their standard procedure: the teaser said, “Greg Cox gives four stars to a Triangle Chinese restaurant.”

Geesh, they’ve already told us how many stars the restaurant receives, so I can’t do my typical story this week.

So, we’ll turn it around for once.  We know that a Triangle-based Chinese restaurant is getting a 4-star review on Friday.  We just need to guess what restaurant that might be.  I’m going to have to disqualify myself, because I’ve dined with Greg at one local Chinese restaurant, that was pretty darned good.  And he told me about a couple of others.  I will say that if he gave 4 stars to the restaurant where we ate, I’m going to be at odds with him.  But I don’t want to jump to conclusions here.

What are the 4-star worthy Chinese restaurants in the Triangle?

***********************

Edit, December 17, 2010

Greg Cox awarded 4 stars to Asian Grill in North Raleigh, a tiny establishment in a strip mall that features Shanghai cuisine, including very tasty soup dumplings.  I am a complete novice when it comes to Shanghai cuisine, but I actually accompanied Greg when we had lunch there several weeks ago.  It was delicious, including some dishes I’ve never had before (sea bass with a wine sauce).  They had soup dumplings.  Really good soup dumplings.  This place is good.  Damn good.  But is it 4 star worthy?  In a vacuum, yes, this place has 4 star food.  It’s really good stuff.  But under the N&O’s rating system, a casual place like this can only get 4 stars.  It’s as high as it can go.  I’m not sure that Asian Grill represents the pinnacle of casual Chinese dining.  I know that Bella Mia, for example, represents the pinnacle of pizza, and they got 4 stars.

However, I leave that discussion for another day, when I write about the inherent problems with a star-based system.  Until then, just get over to Asian Grill.  It’s a great addition to the local dining scene.


Ashley Christensen’s Take on Barbecue — With Fullsteam!

November 4, 2010

As I wrote earlier, Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner is preparing a very special barbecue dinner to benefit the Lucy Daniels Center.  This won’t be any ordinary barbecue, however.

Ashley cures the pork for 3 days, with a special rub of salt and other herbs and spices.  This turns the pork into the most amazingly succulent swine you’ll ever taste.  But then she slowly smokes that pig over nut wood (typically pecan) for hours and hours, until a nice, crust is formed and the meat is redolent of that sweet smoke.  Of course, she has her own take on sauce.

You know it will be good.  No, you know it will be the best damn barbecue you’ve ever had.

But there will also be beer.  And we’re talking about beer that was created to be served with barbecue: Fullsteam’s Hogwash, which is a hickory-smoked porter.  We’ll also be serving the Fullsteam Carolina Common, a lighter beer for those who prefer it that way.

And as far as side dishes are concerned, you won’t be disappointed.  Don’t expect some limp green beens or dried out corn sticks.  There will even be a special Brunswick Stew.  And banana pudding so good, it’ll make you want to smack someone.  I mean, kiss them.

We will have some of Ashley’s roast chicken for those who don’t eat pork.  And if you’ve had that chicken before, it’s the best.  Anywhere.

But I need you to buy tickets to this dinner.  Yeah, it’s pricey, but it’s for an amazing cause.  The Lucy Daniels Center is the Triangle’s leading non-profit provider of children’s mental health services.  Why is this a big deal?  Because in this economy, with so many people unemployed, it’s harder than ever on children.  And parents don’t have the resources to pay for the help their kids’ needs.  The Lucy Daniels Center provides some sort of financial assistance to 90% of the families who receive care.  A large portion of those families receive care for free.

So I ask you — No, I BEG you — please go to the Lucy Daniels website and buy tickets to the dinner. Or call Patti Wilt at 919.459.1611. You’ll have a great meal.  You’ll enjoy the beer.  And you’ll know you’ve done something very special for families in need.  And there’s nothing better than that feeling.  Not even the banana pudding.

Buy tickets thru PayPal here: http://www.lucydanielscenter.org/page/pooles-diner-to-host-q-for-kids-fundraiser-november-7

Or call Patti Wilt at the Lucy Daniels Center at 919.459.1611

Adults are $75, kids under 14 are $35, and all but $25 is tax deductible.  Sorry, no beer for the kids.