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.

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