Last dance at Magnolia Grill

soft-shell crab at magnolia grill

A call this morning: Cancellation for Magnolia Grill tonight. The reservation was for 5:30 p.m., but I didn’t care if it was the senior-citizen early-bird special – we got in during its last month. The server meeting was breaking up when The Hub and I arrived, and chef Ben Barker came over to the table. I’ve known him since I was a fairly ignorant new food writer 15-some years ago. I gave him a hug, and said that this certainly won’t be the last time I see him. “It’ll be the last time you’ll see me wearing this,” he said, tugging at his white chef’s coat with “Magnolia Grill” stitched on the front.

The place felt like any other Friday night, with full tables, noise and great food pouring from the kitchen.

lamb with couscous at magnolia grill

The Hub and I considered ordering one of everything on the menu and a large doggie bag, but ultimately decided to narrow our choices. I grab soft-shell crab whenever I see it, so I took the starter of tempura soft shell with a red cabbage slaw; Hub went for smoky grilled shrimp. Since at least one thing I ordered at this last meal needed to be pork (Ben is a man who does love his pig), I got a pork rib chop with cabbage and beans in a sweet sauce. Hub pondered many options (guinea hen? beef short rib?) and came up with lamb and couscous.

All the dishes were perfect. As they’d been at each anniversary, birthday and fun time dinner we’d ever had there.

yes, three desserts

When the dessert menu came, we did something we’d never done before: Ordered three desserts. We felt so naughty, like conventioneers in a city we’d never visit again. Our choices were lemon chess pie with berries, toasted chocolate chip pound cake with banana ice cream and chocolate waffles with mint ice cream. Hub’s favorite was the pound cake. I liked the freshness of the mint flavor in the ice cream – no neon green artificiality. The lemon chess was not teeth-cracking sweet, like some.

The receipt said “Not Afraid of Flavor” across the bottom, just like always. And it made us laugh, like always, thinking about people we have known who are afraid of flavor. On the ride back from Durham, Hub remembered a book on magic he got as a kid. He found it when we got home, and near the end it says: “One of the greatest lessons for any would-be magician: Know when to stop…That way his magic was remembered as a delightful series of surprises, and by stopping before his audience was sated, he knew that he had made a good impression not only for himself, but for his art.”

Thanks for the decades of magic, Ben and Karen.

All good things…

All I could say was “what?” when the news circulated this morning that Magnolia Grill in Durham will be closing on May 31. Chef-owners Ben and Karen Barker said today that after more than 30 years of bringing inventive Southern food to the Triangle, it was time to step back and spend more time with family. You can read more here.

Quitting to spend more time with family is usually the sort of suspect thing a senator says when he gets caught with the babysitter. But for these two, it’s the truth. And they deserve a new turn in their lives, no matter how much it saddens those of us who have enjoyed their meals.

Magnolia Grill was eat-local long before it was cool. Ben started having farmers grow for him when people thought that was the strangest thing ever. Through all the changes in the Triangle dining scene, Magnolia Grill has stayed true to itself, along with seeding restaurants all over with graduates of its kitchen. It’s the only restaurant where I know walking in the door that I will have dessert, because anything Karen has produced will be good.

I can’t imagine that Ben and Karen will disappear completely into time with grandchildren and aging parents, so I look forward to the other ways in which they’ll be a part of the community. For now, I’ll miss you. And all that pork, and Coca-Cola Cake with Peanut Ice Cream.

Flowers to Magnolia

I agree that Greg Cox got it right in The News & Observer today with the majority of his best restaurant picks for 2011 in the Triangle. I certainly agree with the top pick, Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C.

It’s easy to forget that, long before the boom in Triangle restaurants and when the idea of “eat local” made diners scratch their heads, chef Ben Barker was out in front. Twenty years ago, the fact that he asked local farmers to actually grow produce just for him was weird enough to warrant articles. Now, connecting with local producers is an accepted fact for restaurants with any aspirations. Not to mention the restaurant kitchens that are populated with Magnolia Grill graduates. Read the rest of the list here and see what you think.

It’s been a big time for the Triangle in publications. Bon Appetit finally discovered us, and the February issue is plump with mentions of  Triangle goodies, from hot sauce Cackalacky (one of my favorites, it includes sweet potatoes as an ingredient) to a piece called “One Rowdy Night in Carolina.”

When I see national (usually New York-based) publications write about North Carolina, I think of a time a decade or so ago when I contacted the New York Times about a place they wrote about that was listed as being in this state. I hadn’t heard of it. When I got hold of the writer, he gave me the location – in a town in SOUTH Carolina. When I pointed out his error, he replied: “Aren’t they the same?”

For a magazine who knows North Carolina, the current issue of Our State is food themed and stuffed with sweet goodies. The cover, showing a maple syrup and, yes, country ham cake, should have been printed in scratch-and-sniff.