Saturday, April 17, 2010

Magnolia Grill

I realize quite often that I am very fortunate to live in Durham, a city that is home to many incredible chefs and institutions. The restaurants in the area are regularly ranked among the best in the nation. This past week I was celebrating a graduate school milestone by going to Magnolia Grill. I am certainly not the first to review this local eatery, but I do want to share our experience.

Green Tomato Soup

The menu is divided into two portions - starters and entrees. Most people order one of each, but we split three starters between the two of us. If you're going to celebrate, do it in style. The first starter was this vibrantly verdant green tomato soup. Swimming in the slightly spicy sea was an unlikely duo of proteins, crab and country ham. Each bite of the soup seemed different, some salty, some pickled and vinegary, some briny. I don't normally expect much from a soup, but this one was a sparkling surprise.

Smoked Trout Salad

A refreshing salad was our middle starter. But don't let a salad fool you any more than the soup. What appeared to be butter lettuce was topped with chunks of smoked trout, dried cranberries, pickled Bermuda onions, and small bits of spicy pecans. Just to show how well crafted each piece is, even the tiny pecan pieces packed a punch of flavor. What I love about restaurants like this is that they assemble what seem to be disparate ingredients into a coherent whole.

Grits Souffle

My favorite appetizer was this free-standing grits souffle. The grits were creamy and decadent, but also light and airy at the same time. Quartered mushrooms are alongside that somehow give a smokey flavor to add extra intrigue.

Seared Duck Breast

Now that we had whetted our appetites, it was time for the entrees. The first is this pan-seared Muscovy duck breast served with a pomegranate molasses jus. The jus kept the dish lighter without losing the flavor and the simple sear on the duke was so impeccable that it would have been delicious plain. On the side were sweet potato gnocchi, some assorted vegetables and some supremed citrus and zest for that last layer of complexity. A well-crafted dish in its entirety.

Pork Chop

The other entree (yes, only two for this course) was this very nicely cooked pork chop. On the side were some shrimp and grits along with various other vegetables. This entree was not the one I ordered, but I was jealous that I hadn't because it was so delicious. The meat was tender and paired wonderfully with the rest of the plate.

The Elvis

"The Elvis" is a large slice of cheesecake flavored with white chocolate, banana and peanut butter. I rarely taste white chocolate when it's in a dessert, but the other flavors melded and stood out awesomely. The cake itself was rich and creamy. On top is a peanut butter sauce and to each side are banana slices and bacon peanut brittle. If you're not full by the time this is put in front of you, then you will be by the time the plate is taken away. For me, this sweet slice was definitely The King.

Chocolate Caramel Tart

Lastly, we had a piece of chocolate caramel tart with caramel whipped cream and a touch of fleur de sel. The filling was smooth and rich. I think it needed a little more salt to get the most of the salty-sweetness, but this dessert was still hard to beat.

I was honestly worried that Magnolia Grill would be too highfalutin for me or too pretentious, but it was everything I hoped for and more. Friendly staff, elegant atmosphere and sublime cuisine. I don't think anyone should eat there every week, but when you have a special occasion, go there to celebrate.

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