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.

Mandolin — Coming to Raleigh

November 18, 2011

Wow. A new chef-driven restaurant is about to open in Raleigh, and I’m really excited by it. Mandolin is the name of Chef Sean Fowler’s establishment, located at the intersection of Oberlin and Fairview in Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood.

This is what I know about Mandolin: nothing. Well, I’ve seen their menu, which is Southern-inspired. I’ve looked at their website. But I know nothing about Sean Fowler. Or any of the staff. Even when a menu looks promising, as this one does, I reserve judgment until I taste the food. But for some reason, I just like the vibe that these folks have created. I really WANT to taste this food. And based on the Open Table reservation system, it looks like they open next Tuesday.

Raleigh needs more of these type of restaurants. I can’t wait to try it.

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:  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.

Culinary Philanthropy

February 15, 2011

There is no industry that is more generous, more philanthropic, more community-focused than the restaurant industry.  I certainly don’t have any empirical data to support this, but when I see what goes on in the Triangle, with restaurants and chefs holding fundraisers, giving away gift certificates for silent auctions, and being an integral and visible part of our community’s fabric, I will stand behind this statement.  Most restaurants do not make a ton of money.  The labor costs, the food costs, glassware and flatware, and the rent all result in a fairly narrow profit margin for restaurateurs.  That’s one of the many reasons why restaurants fail so frequently.  The downturn of the economy has made it even tougher for these folks, and yet, they give, and give, and give some more.  Sometimes these charitable events cover the restaurant’s costs, but many times they do not.

Want some examples?

I’ll start with my good friend and rock star chef, Ashley Christensen.  Last night, she held a fundraiser for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, a non-profit that struck a chord with her after she read about the fight of young “Prince Liam,” who passed away a couple of weeks ago after a two-year battle with cancer.  She not only donated all of the profits of the highly lucrative Valentine’s Day dinner to this charity, but she also got so many vendors to provide her wine, meat and produce for free.  On top of that, she got others to sponsor similar fundraising efforts last night, such as local brewer, Fullsteam.

But it doesn’t stop there with Ms. Christensen.  She recently held a fundraising barbecue dinner for the charity that’s near and dear to me, the Lucy Daniels Center.  She holds quarterly fundraising dinners for another organization where I’m a board member, the Southern Foodways Alliance.  This series of dinners has not only raised thousands of dollars for the SFA, but they have brought the Triangle food community together at the potluck dinners held at her home.  She’s donated gift certificates to a number of charities.  She truly gives her time, her goods, and yes, her money to support causes that are important to her.

Ashley’s restaurant, Poole’s Diner, is one of many participants in the Triangle Wine Experience to benefit the Frankie Lemmon Foundation.  The list of these participating restaurants can be found on this link, but this event is an unmitigated success, raising the majority of funds needed to keep the Frankie Lemmon Center in operation.  Put another way, the Frankie Lemmon Center may not survive without the support of the Triangle’s restaurant community.  Oh, one more thing.  Ashley Christensen is on the Board of the Frankie Lemmon Foundation.  Yup, she’s giving back in more ways than one.

Take a look at the Urban Food Group’s website, and you’ll see how important charitable giving is to it — they list the charities they support on their home page.  UFG donates all of the food for Band Together’s VIP area — that’s where all the high dollar donors hang out.  They also support The V Foundation, Safe Child, The March of Dimes and more.  Kevin and Stacey Jennings, the owners of UFG, get hounded to donate gift certificates for charitable events.  This is a common theme with restaurants (and wine merchants): everyone wants something from them.  Money.  Or goods.  Or their time.  And the more popular the restaurant, the more these restaurants get requests for help.

I am really barely scratching the surface about the philanthropic endeavors of these people.  They nourish our bodies, but they also nourish our souls.  Consider that when a restaurant helps to raise $50,000 over a course of a year, that may represent 10% of its revenues.  Think of another industry that has that type of impact on our community.  I’d love to say my law firm helped raise, directly or indirectly, an amount equal to 10% of our revenues, but that’s not the case.  Part of that is because no one has figured out a way to get people to buy $250 tickets to a black tie affair to receive legal advice, but that’s only part of the point.  A law firm — mine included — can give away lots of pro bono legal services, but I would be surprised if the most generous firms provide services that that has a value exceeding 1% of their revenues.

And this leads me to my final point: chefs are remarkably generous with their time.  If they don’t host a fundraiser at their restaurant, they’ll certainly donate their services to a worthwhile charity.  Look at this Sunday’s Evening With Master Chefs to support the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.  Although the name may be a bit hyperbolic, the event features 9 local chefs cooking to raise money to support cystic fibrosis research.  This event has raised over a million dollars over the past 14 years, and hopefully the success will continue.  You might know some of these chefs, but for the most part, they’re not individuals whose name you’ll recognize right away.  But they are still donating their time, their labor, and their creativity to the community.  And we are all better off because of it.  So why don’t you go ahead and support them and their cause and get a ticket to this event?  If they can give back, so can you.

I’d love for you to provide comments where you list chefs or restaurants giving back to the community.  These folks don’t get the recognition they deserve, so let’s change that.

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?

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.