Beer Run: Bull City Burger & Brewery

beers at bull city burger&brewery in durham

I’ve never been to a brewpub where I could get fries cooked in duck fat to snack on while sipping a beer flight, but this is possible at Bull City Burger & Brewery in downtown Durham, N.C. While crunching away on the shoestring fries, the Hub and I sampled eight of the nine beers currently offered (remember, y’all, we don’t do IPAs).

I was first struck by how little aroma there was to the beers – except for the Capt. Hee-Haw American Style Peach Wheat Beer, which smacked me in the face with peaches. Unlike some beer fans, I don’t issue blanket condemnations of brews with fruit flavors, but after a few sips of this one, I felt like I was drinking potpourri.

Others were Bryant Bridge Gateway Golden Ale, Dr. Bartlett’s Ordinary Bitter, Parrish Street Pale Ale, Liberty Summer Amber Ale, Rogers Lager and Pro Bono Publico Porter, plus hsaWaknoW Ale that included cacao nibs from Elemental Chocolate in Raleigh, N.C. (The name is Wonka Wash spelled backwards.) Bull City provides an excellent sheet of information on their beers which includes the types of hops used in each. And I learned how the city of Durham got its name, so it was an educational day all around.  On the back are beer-related witticisms.

My favorites were the bitter, porter and chocolate ale. I liked the amber ale more as it got a little warm. The mild chocolate flavor of the chocolate ale would likely accent the chocolate in cakes or frosting, if used in baking. The porter had a nice coffee flavor and it would make a good ingredient in a meat marinade. The bitter would play well with most foods.

Overall, The Hub and I thought these beers were not as complex and interesting as some we’ve tasted, but pleasant enough – except for that peach wheat beer. Although the golden ale was forgettable; it might as well have been Bud. We bumped the glass of it as we were reaching for the fries, and when the bartender came over with a rag he saw which beer we’d spilled and said, “If I was going to knock one over, it’d be that one.”


There she is, Miss Deviled Egg

miss smoke and fire, miss deviled egg 2012

No swimsuit competition. No earnest speeches about saving baby whales. Just deviled eggs – and beverages. Emerson Beyer and Michael Bruno in Durham invited me to be a judge for for their Deviled Egg Pageant, and how could I resist? Especially since money from tickets to the party and pageant went to Urban Ministries in Durham. The pageant started three years ago as part of a party in their backyard. This year, as part of the fundraising, it was moved to a downtown space and opened to professional chefs as well, and raised around $1,500.

Entrants – 20 in all – were asked to pair deviled eggs with suitable beverages, then add creativity to secure the coveted white satin sash. Creativity, as with Miss Steph laPod: deviled eggs containing octopus. Miss Southern Hospitality went the classic Southern route, with a matching lemony iced tea.

miss veruca salt, a sweet custard take on deviled eggs

Other judges were Amy Tornquist, chef of Watts Grocery in Durham;  Andrea Weigl, food writer for The News & Observer; Stuart White of Bluebird Meadows Farm and Noah Ranells of Fickle Creek Farm, plus Emerson and Bruno.

I paired up for judging with Tornquist, dividing egg halves between us for judging. Twenty is a lot of deviled eggs, let me tell you, and you’ve got to pace yourself. We had standards, and we showed no mercy. Tornquist said of one that included too much sweet pepper jelly that it was “what a Yankee would think a deviled egg is.” Neither of us could handle the deviled eggs topped with Peeps. We gave the person who made meringues shaped like eggs with a lemon sauce points for wit – but those were not deviled eggs.

But there were enough standout examples of high deviled-egg art that there was a lively discussion among all the judges as to the winners in the amateur and professional categories. First place in the amateur category went to Miss Smoke and Fire by Andrew and Meaghan Hutson of Durham, which included eggs with Benton’s bacon and a bourbon margarita. Other winners were Miss Vichy, topped with crunchy fried leeks; and Miss Smoky. The professional category was taken by Miss Pickled Pink by Phoebe Lawless of Scratch Baking, which involved beets. The People’s Choice, determined by guests’ votes, was Miss Fermentation Sensation, three flavors of pickled-and-stuffed eggs.


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.

Loafing around

mary turner with loaf's loaves

In the Bull Durham days, downtown Durham, N.C. was perfumed with the scent of tobacco curing. Today, if you take a deep breath, you’re likely to get a whiff of baked goods instead. How it happened, I don’t know, but three bakeries have settled downtown (including the oldest, Ninth Street Bakery).

My food-adventurous friend Mary Turner has been posting Facebook photos from her job at the newest of the three, Loaf. Although Scratch Baking is just around the corner, she says the two don’t compete. Loaf has no sit-down dining, and no fancy coffee drinks – just fresh baked things. The spot draws a lot of morning traffic from office workers, who grab cinnamon rolls or chocolate croissants. The cinnamon rolls have no

some of friday's offerings

nuts or raisins, and are made with croissant dough, with makes them different from the typical cinnamon roll.

Amply sized loaves of bread contain oat, almond or, the one I tried, polenta. It was ultra-crusty with a moist interior. Really nice. The bread menu is evolving. (Challah, perhaps?)

I also brought home a chocolate tart and what Mary described as a Canadian seven-layer bar. But if The Hub is reading this – so sorry, Bug the cat got them.

Owner Ron Graff began at the Durham Farmers Market, and still sells there during the season. The store at 111 West Parrish Street opened in November 2011.

New blogs

Food blogs populate the Internet like mushrooms on a log. And many are about as interesting. I’ve added two local ones to my list of blogs that are worth reading.

NestMeg is written by a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is studying journalism and American studies. Just because she’s a college student, don’t assume the blog is only about beer and pizza. Meghan cooks a lot, and well.

DurhamFoodie is a raucous roundup of all things food in Durham, N.C. and environs.

Got a favorite local blog? Tell me about it.

Tasty Tweetup

The Triangle Foodie Tweetup on Sunday sold out almost as fast as a tweet circulates the Web – five hours. Six Plates in Durham, N.C. served creative noshes that fueled good conversation. The blinis with smoked salmon were one of my favorites. And I wish I’d gotten the name of the dry, crisp sparkling cider they served. It was something French.

Andrea Weigl, food writer for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., started the tweetups for those who follow her on Twitter. I’ve gotten into it, too, and it’s fun to meet people that you otherwise would only know through the electronic ether of the Internet. Andrea and I will tweet when the next one comes up.

Liliana Valle of Durham offered samples of small filled shortbread cookies she calls Alfies. She said she adpated them from alfajors, traditional cookies in her native Latin America.  About the size of small buttons, they come in pecan, chocolate chunk, chocolate dulce de leche and triple chocolate. If you like a not-too-sweet cookie, they’re for you. Find out more at the web site here or look for them at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill.

Filling the empty bowls

When talking about hunger, the symbolism of the empty bowl is simple and profound. Organizations nationwide empty bowlare organizing “empty bowls” events to raise money and awareness about hunger.

Urban Ministries of Durham will hold Empty Bowls ’10 on March 5, featuring soups from eight area restaurants and bowls created by local potters. Participating restaurants include Blu Seafood & Bar, Urban Ministries’ Community Cafe, Nana’s, Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse, Revolution, Rue Cler, Watts Grocery and Whole Foods Market.

For $30, you get to taste great soups and keep the handmade bowl. Tickets are $15 for the soup tasting only. The event will be at the Durham Armory from 5:30 to 8 p.m. To purchase tickets or find out more, visit here.