June 23, 2002

North Carolina Is Cooking, and It's Not Always Barbecue

By BRYAN MILLER

FOR more than a hundred years, the slender triangle formed by Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C., has been the country's capital of tobacco. Today, as the cigarette industry wanes, the region is enjoying a bumper crop of a different sort, this one a hybrid of high technology, higher education and quality dining.

The Triangle, as it is called, is home to 8,000 companies, numerous colleges and universities ˇ including two of the country's most handsome campuses, Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ˇ and ample sightseeing and regional festivals.

While I made the tourism rounds by day, my main pursuit was authentic Southern cooking. And as it turned out, after eight staggering meals in three days, I had only nibbled around the edge of the plate.

Allen & Son Barbeque

As soon as my plane landed, I made tracks for this regionally renowned Chapel Hill restaurant. Upon opening the door I was nearly thrust backward by a warm gust of hickory smoke billowing from the kitchen. Allen's ˇ along with Bullock's Bar-B-Cue in Durham ˇ is considered by residents as among the best reasons for gnawing ribs and soiling your shirt.

At 1:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, Allen's was crowded with well-nourished businessmen and families at tables covered with green-and-white-checked oilcloth. Plastic flowers on the tables and pig art galore add to the festive ambience.

The Piedmont, as the greater region is called, is known for its pulled pork ˇ slow-cooked, hickory-smoked shoulder of pork that is torn off the bone by hand. In this part of North Carolina, pulled pork is usually served with a vinegar and hot pepper sauce. A house favorite is the massive pulled pork sandwich garnished with lots of hot sauce and a mound of coleslaw ($4).

Main courses, like the fat, faintly smoky pork ribs, come with addictive little hush puppies and two vegetables (overcooked, but vegetables are not why you're there anyway). Entrees ˇ pork or chicken ˇ average $6 to about $8. I ordered a small plate of pulled pork, which is richly flavored but very lean, so it needs plenty of sauce.

Like many down-home restaurants in North Carolina, Allen's does not serve alcohol; if you ask for iced tea they bring out a carafe that holds enough for a school picnic. As for dessert, my delightful waitress ran off at least a dozen pies, cobblers and cakes. I can highly recommend the peach cobbler.

Mama Dip's Kitchen

Mildred Council picked cotton as a little girl, helping her family scratch out a living on their small farm. In summer, if the well went dry, she was recruited, being the tallest child, to climb onto the rim of the tall rain barrel to "dip" for water.

Today, 73-year-old Mama Dip, a tall, soft-speaking celebrity in these parts, owns an eponymous restaurant in Chapel Hill where students and residents flock for her fried chicken, barbecue and soul food. Alcohol is not available, but there's plenty of iced tea. You have to love a woman who, in her cookbook, gives a recipe for pork tenderloin and tells readers in the liner notes: "This is good for breakfast." ("Mama Dip's Kitchen," University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

It's a nondescript place on the outside; and the large dining room is plain and functional as well, with wooden booths and decorative hurricane lamps. The matronly servers could not be more pleasant.

The fried chicken alone is worth a visit: lightly battered, perfectly blistered and uncommonly moist. The ribs were first-rate, too, fatty and succulent. For dessert, go with the house specialties ˇ warm pecan pie (covered with toasty pecans, and not too sweet) and the eggy bread pudding.

Magnolia Grill

This inconspicuous restaurant in a modest building near downtown Durham enjoys a national reputation for its innovative "new Southern" fare, a fairly recent genre. Many creations of the chef and owner, Ben Barker, are at first daunting, some with six or more ingredients. For such a sophisticated place, the setting is reminiscent of an upscale roadhouse ˇ a big yet cramped, cacophonous space festooned with changing exhibits of local art. That said, it's well worth visiting for exceptional dishes like grilled yellowfin tuna in a sauce made with smoked ham hocks, red wine and homemade barbecue sauce ˇ amazingly, it did not overwhelm the fish. Along with it came hush puppies, lemon remoulade, barbecued red beans and a spicy green tomato slaw.

Perfectly grilled pork tenderloin was sublime in a spicy sweet molasses and black pepper jus. The meat arrived atop a delicious crayfish-and-grits cake, along with smoked ham, beans, green tomatoes and mustard greens.

The pastry chef, Karen Barker, Mr. Barker's wife and partner in the business, changes her superb dessert repertory periodically. Two to seek out are the lovely buttermilk pudding cake with seasonal berries, and the tart, creamy goat-cheese blintzes with sun-dried blueberry compote.

Because of the relentless crowds and apparent understaffing, service can be hurry up and wait.

Magnolia Grill's wine selection, mostly French and Californian, has plenty of choices between $25 and $35, like our bright and pleasantly acidic pinot gris reserve from King Estate, in Oregon ($30).

Fishmonger's

This is a gritty old bar and restaurant in downtown Durham with a worn checkered tile floor, long picnic tables, lazy ceiling fans and a dining counter with stools made from tractor seats and old car-tire rims. Fishmonger's is fine for a quick, if caloric, lunch.

I got off to a shaky start with a watery and bland oyster stew, but things picked up with the panned oysters ˇ essentially oysters saut╚ed in garlic, butter and paprika, then slathered over half a loaf of sourdough. Fried crab cakes are crunchy and fresh, and you can't go wrong with the cleanly fried fish and chips.

Don't expect brisk service ˇ my laconic young server seemed to prefer the warm, secure kitchen to the vagaries of the dining room. If you are pressed for time, sit at the bar.

Pop's

A short walk from Fishmonger's is a pleasing Italian restaurant. In a renovated warehouse, it's spacious and artfully lighted, with a giant painting of a chef in the main dining area. I was alone, so I sat at one of the two large bars, close to the flaring open kitchen.

The cooking is light, fresh and satisfying, with selections like mussels cooked with garlic and chili flakes, fried calamari with a fiery harissa aioli, and al dente penne tossed in a sauce of wood-smoked salmon with fennel, olives, and a citrus fumet.

From my vantage point, servers seemed to be doing a good job. Pop's has a modest international wine list with very fair prices.

One of the best Dixie desserts I sampled on the trip was Pop's warm chocolate pudding cake, intense and spongy, ringed with cr╦me anglaise and chocolate sauce.

Fearrington House

For truly first-class Southern dining in the Triangle, travel some eight miles south of Chapel Hill to rural Pittsboro. Set in a meticulously restored 1920's farmhouse, the restaurant is surrounded by magnificent gardens and acres of lawns. Lamentably, the dignified old house has been enveloped by a sprawling planned community, but you can't see it from the dining rooms.

I was greeted by a genial fellow in black tie who informed me that I could take cocktails in a rocking chair on the porch (highly recommended) or at the cheerful little bar inside.

Dinner is served on the ground floor of the old house, in cozy, irregularly shaped rooms that are formally appointed in neutral colors with plush high-backed chairs, well-spaced tables and soft lighting.

The inspired food at Fearrington House ˇ with a nod to James Thurber ˇ could be called hush puppies with a college education. Southern ingredients anchor many creations: collard greens, smoked bacon, mustard greens, black-eyed peas and local oysters. The chef, R. Warren Stephens, who came to Fearrington from the Peninsula Grill in Charleston, is deft at balancing North and South.

While rocking on the porch with a glass of Champagne, I met a couple who were revisiting Fearrington House for the first time since they were married there five years before. I don't know if it was the bubbly or the seductive setting, but before we finished our second glass they were insisting that I join them for dinner.

One memorable creation ordered by one of my companions was a perfectly seared fillet of wild striped bass on a pedestal of a crispy black-eyed pea cake with surprisingly subtle tomato-andouille gravy. Also superb were rosy slices of grilled duck breast in a lovely thyme-scented red wine sauce, accompanied by shoepeg (white corn) pudding and braised collard greens; another dish was was a meltingly tender braised lamb shank in a caramel-type sauce that was hard to identify. I called over our waitress.

"Pepsi-Cola!" she said, referring to a not uncommon braising sauce made with reduced cola and lamb or beef stock.

A consumer-friendly wine selection offers plenty of choices under $25. I wanted something bright and fresh with this food and chose 1999 Aligot╚ from Ghislaine & Jean-Hugues Goisot ($20).

Desserts are copious and, judging from the excessive number I sampled, exceptional. Warm plum tart with a caramelized red wine sauce is a big-time winner, and in the munificent Southern style, a wedge of mascarpone cheesecake is added to the plate. Sorbets are outstanding, as is the hot chocolate souffl╚. Service is attentive and professional.

Crook's Corner

On my last day in the Piedmont Triangle a local writer declared, "You mean you haven't had the shrimp and grits at Crook's Corner?" No, I hadn't, and although I had a dinner reservation elsewhere, I decided to go for it.

Crook's Corner, on the western end of Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, is identified by a giant pig on the roof and a gallery of silver hubcaps outside. What I didn't know was that I was stepping onto somewhat sacred ground for Southern foodies. An old fish market with a shady past, it was renovated in 1978 and taken over in 1982 by the chef and author Bill Neal and Gene Hamer, who still runs it.

The moment you enter you know you're at the right place. Part neighborhood diner, part upscale restaurant, Crook's is a nightly celebration. I took a seat at the small tile bar and ordered a glass of Honig sauvignon blanc from the Napa Valley ($6.50). The wine list has only 24 selections, but most are from quality producers and run under $30 a bottle.

Red fabric banquettes, cafe tables and local art that changes every month set the tone in the main room; outside is an enchanting garden bordered by illuminated bamboo.

Before taking on the fabled shrimp and grits, I warmed up with two appetizers: a heap of crackly fried oysters with hot sauce, and another house favorite, springy little jalapeĎo-cheddar hush puppies.

The main event consisted of saut╚ed large shrimp afloat on creamy cheese grits, enhanced with an earthy mushroom and scallion sauce flecked with crusty bits of bacon. Definitely worth the indulgence. The menu also features local conflations like scalawag (grilled filet mignon with bourbon brown sauce and oysters), green Tabasco chicken, and barbecue sandwiches perfect to feed a couple, or more, on the plane home. ŢŢ

Restaurant Information

Prices are estimates for a three-course dinner for two and a glass of wine for each, except for those restaurants that do not serve alcohol, indicated below.

Allen & Son Barbeque, 6203 Millhouse Road, Chapel Hill, N.C.; (919) 942-7576; $35. Lunch and dinner; closed Sunday and Monday. Open for breakfast on Saturday. No alcohol. Smoking allowed. (A branch in Pittsboro has a more limited menu.)

Mama Dip's Kitchen, 408 West Rosemary Street, Chapel Hill, N.C.; (919) 942-5837, www.mamadips.com; $30. Lunch and dinner daily; no alcohol and no smoking.

Magnolia Grill, 1002 Ninth Street, Durham, N.C.; (919) 286-3609; $100. Dinner nightly except Sunday and Monday. Smoking in bar only.

Fishmonger's Restaurant and Oyster Bar, 806 West Main Street, Durham, N.C.; (919) 682-0128, www.fishmongers.net; $100. Lunch and dinner daily; smoking section.

Pop's, 810 West Peabody Street, Durham, N.C.; (919) 956-7677; $70. Lunch and dinner daily; smoking at the bar.

Fearrington House Restaurant and Country Inn, 2000 Fearrington Village Center, Pittsboro, N.C.; (919) 542-2121, www.fearrington.com. Dinner nightly except Monday; six-course prix-fixe menu $72 a person weekdays, $79 weekends, and does not include wine, about $7 a glass. No smoking.

Crook's Corner, 610 West Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, N.C.; (919) 929-7643, www.crookscorner.com; $70. Open nightly for dinner. Smoking on the patio.

BRYAN MILLER, a former restaurant critic for The Times, is restaurant editor for Citysearch.com.


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