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.

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

Restaurant Review Roulette: Spartacus Restaurant

December 8, 2010

OPA!!!  You know, I really like Greek food, but I rarely eat it.  The saganaki is always a treat for the family, you can’t go wrong with kabobs, and any cuisine that highlights lamb can’t be bad.  There’s lots of great olive oil and herbs I love and feta and more.  Why, oh, why do I hardly venture out to a Greek restaurant then?  And why have I never been to Durham’s Spartacus Restaurant, which has been open for 17 years and is the subject of Greg Cox’s review this Friday?  I can come up with a lot of excuses.  I don’t get over to Durham all that much anyway.  Hell, I don’t get out to eat that much, period (except for lunch).  And when I’m craving a food, it’s probably not the simple, classic style of cooking that is Greek food (except for the occasional lunchtime gyro, but even that’s not something I do all that much).

Anyhow, I suspect Spartacus has lasted for nearly 2 decades because it’s good, high value food.  It’s a place where the owners value the customers.  It’s not because of it’s location, in the old South Square area on the Chapel Hill side of Durham, nestled by a Target and a Sam’s Club (or maybe that is a reason for its success, with all the traffic in the area).  Maybe it’s because of their belly dancer, Paola.  I might give the place a try on a Friday night just for that!

I also think that Greg Cox will have liked Spartacus.  Maybe not loved it, but a strong like.  So the question ultimately comes to this: is Spartacus a 3 star place, or does it get that extra half star?  My head tells me that it’s just 3, but for some reason, I’m leaning towards that 3.5 star review.  I could chicken out and give them both the same odds, but I’m not going to do that.  Here we go:

5 stars — 100 to 1

4.5 stars – 25 to 1

4 stars —  3 to 1

3.5 stars — 7 to 5

3 stars — 6 to 5

2.5 stars — 5 to 2

2 stars — 5 to 1

1.5 stars — 8 to 1

1 star — 23 to 1

Yeah, I really went out on a limb with those odds.  Anyhow, what’s your prediction?  And do I need to get over to Durham?


Edit, December 10, 2010: Argh!  I really missed on this one, as Greg Cox gave Spartacus 2.5 stars.  I’m losing my touch.  Or I’m getting lazier by not doing any research on this place.

Restaurant Review Roulette: Pop’s

November 3, 2010

A long time ago, Pop’s was a really hip restaurant owned by hipsters, visited by hipsters, and all with a hipster attitude to match. The menu was fairly ordinary semi-upscale Italian, but the food was good. But that was indeed a LONG time ago. A lot has changed over the years. There’s no more attitude. They’ve actually moved locations. And the food is still pretty damn good. Or so I’ve heard, because I have not been to Pop’s since the days that they opened. It’s not that I held a grudge for all these years over the place’s attitude, it’s just that I never made it back to Durham to eat there.

And now Pop’s is about to be reviewed by the Raleigh News & Observer’s restaurant critic, Greg Cox. I think Mr. Cox will like Pop’s. I hope he has a silly title for the review, like, “Pop’s Rocks.” Mikey would like that title, I bet (that’s an obscure joke based on an urban legend that 2 people will get). But I look at the menu of Pop’s, and I scream, “I WANT THAT IN RALEIGH!” And I also know that the owners, John Vandergrift and Chris Stinnett (who also own Rue Cler), really care about their craft. So I do think this place will get lots of shining stars from Cox.

But how many??

It’s not a 5 star place. It will get at least 4 stars, I can confidently proclaim. Will it get that elusive extra half star? That’s the big question, and I could be a chicken shit and give 4 and 4.5 stars the same odds. But I, however, am a fearless prognosticator who dares to take the big chance, to live on the edge, to go without a helmet, to shoot for the stars, and to get rid of the training wheels. I’m going with 4 stars, but only because I think Greg Cox will start to be a bit harder to please.

Am I right? Am I wrong? Does anyone really care?

5 stars — 7 to 1

4.5 stars – 5 to 4

4 stars —  4 to 5

3.5 stars — 3 to 1

3 stars — 6 to 1

2.5 stars — 8 to 1

2 stars — 16 to 1

1.5 stars — 25 to 1

1 star — 60 to 1

What sayeth you?  How many stars will Pop’s receive this Friday???


Edit, November 5, 2010 — Damn, I hate being wrong in one way and right in another.  I hate it when my odds are off, as Greg Cox gave Pop’s 3.5 stars.  I was right when I suspected getting 4 stars would be harder than ever before.  And Tom from Raleigh, you should have bet some money!

My Kids and Food

August 10, 2010

Many of you might think that my kids eat everything and anything put in front of them.  Not so.  Each of our four children has his or her idiosyncrasies,  things that are loved or loathed.  My oldest loves most food, but he hates legumes of any kind — except for roasted peanuts, perhaps.  He just can’t stand the texture and now the taste.  My older daughter doesn’t like seafood or red meat.  My younger son doesn’t like cooked fruit, except for applesauce.  My younger daughter doesn’t like bananas or fresh peaches or pineapple.  Only one of the kids will eat raw tomatoes and none of them like cilantro.  I sometimes stress out, as my (unrealistic) expectations are that they should like everything.  Yes, that’s a completely ludicrous position, and I’m coming to grips with it.

I recently visited Vin Rouge in Durham, taking my younger two children (they’re 9 and 11).  I’ve known chef Matt Kelly before he started there, but I’ve only eaten his cooking a couple of times.  Vin Rouge has become the place where other chefs eat, primarily because of Kelly’s dedication to the craft of cooking.  He’s one hell of a cook, and if you ever visit on a Sunday night, you’ll find a handful of local chefs eating there on their night off.

Anyhow, shortly after we sat down, a huge charcuterie plate landed on our table, featuring 5 different kinds of pate’, a pork rillette (or was it rabbit?), plus some bacon confiture, salami and other goodies.  The kids tried some of the items on the plate, liking some and saying, “That’s different” with others.  My son later tried and liked my sweetbreads.  The kids ordered hanger steak — rare (although they were torn between that and the mussels).  For dessert they had chocolate mousse and creme brulee.  It was a pretty safe meal, except for the pate’ and the sweetbreads.

Last night I attended a potluck where a number of chefs were in attendance, including Matt Kelly.  I thanked him again for the charcuterie plate and told him that my kids had fun with it.  He responded, “It’s great to serve normal food to kids, as it’s so rare for that to happen.  I get all kinds of crazy requests to accommodate kids.”  I thought about that for a moment, and then realized that Matt’s statement might be the highest complement he could have paid me as a food-loving father.  Suddenly, images of my kids’ food adventures started running through my head.  I took those same two children to Publican in Chicago last month, where they sampled lamb neck, sturgeon, octopus and pork rinds.  They loved the frites with fried eggs on top (someone needs to do that dish around here — are you listening, Ashley Christensen?).  They didn’t think the food was weird at all.

And so, after all these years, I think that I’m finally able to handle the kids’ dislikes.  They’re by no means picky eaters, and I realize that.  They may never have a passion for food the way that I do, but they’ll always understand its importance.  Yup, I’m damn lucky indeed.

Restaurant Review Roulette: Restaurant Eden

May 26, 2010

After last week’s review of bu.ku, where I was quite confident of what Greg Cox was going to do, I return to unfamiliar territory of restaurants about which I know nothing.  This time, it’s Durham’s Restaurant Eden, which based on its name strives to be a gustatory paradise.  Restaurant Eden opened in the same location of the beloved, but insufficiently busy Starlu.  The teaser in today’s N&O says that Eden has some hits and misses — but then, that’s what happened in the Book of Genesis, too, right?  Alas, that teaser shows that Eden may not be a 5 star place that defines a garden of paradise.   Another thing that suggests the same is that 5 of the 9 entrees on the menu include “Garden Veggies.”  Now, we know that the Garden of Eden was filled with lots of great things to eat, and one that was a bit taboo, but let me just say that I suspect that even Adam and Even never called anything “veggies.”  That’s a term used by the serpent or lazy marketing folks.  But even worse is for a restaurant to use these same veggies time and time again — that’s not paradise, folks, that’s Applebee’s.  Just sayin’.   And I also want to know if they serve apples or any other forbidden fruit in this restaurant.  Is it clothing optional, or is this Eden after the fall from grace?  So many questions.

So, without further ado, here are this week’s odds:

5 stars — 39 to 1

4.5 stars – 22 to 1

4 stars — 9 to 1

3.5 stars — 3 to 1

3 stars — 5 to 2

2.5 stars —  4 to 1

2 stars — 9 to 1

1.5 stars — 23 to 1

1 star — 58 to 1

Have you dined at Restaurant Eden?  If so, how many stars would you give it?  More importantly, how many stars do you think Greg Cox will bestow upon it?  And let me know if there are any serpents lurking about.


Edit, May 28, 2010 — Greg Cox gave Restaurant Eden 2.5 stars.  The review reads like the restaurant deserves more than that, as it focuses on somewhat misleading menu descriptions and a heavy hand with the balsamic reduction.  I suspect this is one review that was hurt by the paper’s space limitations.  Would love for Greg to post on his blog his thoughts on other dishes.

Scratch Bakeshop to Open Next Week

May 25, 2010

Phoebe Lawless, Durham’s baker extraordinaire, will be opening Scratch’s new bakeshop next week at 111 Orange Street in downtown Durham.  For those of you who do not regularly visit the Durham Farmer’s Market, Lawless is known for her fantastic pies, including chocolate sea salt, shaker lemon, and many savory varieties.  Of course, Phoebe’s donut muffins are, as my 9 year old puts it, “To die for.”  Those donut muffins were a huge hit at last fall’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, and they sell out quickly each week at the Durahm market.

Construction of the new bakeshop has been ongoing for several months, and final inspections are scheduled for the first of next week.  The 1,400 square foot bakeshop will have a regularly rotating schedule of baked goods, including empanadas, flatbreads, and lots of pie.  Lawless sources nearly all her ingredients locally, and she is one of the leaders of the local Slow Food convivium.  The bakeshop will also be a great place for coffee, as Lawless invested in a La Marzocco espresso machine and will be using Counter Culture’s beans.  The hours of the bakeshop will be 7:30 to 4, Monday through Friday and Saturday from 9 to 3.

And for you farmer’s market faithful, no need to worry, as Phoebe will continue to have a booth on market days.

Time for a donut muffin.


Scratch Seasonal Artisan Baking
111 Orange Street
Durham, NC 27701