Is it possible to eat too much meat and fat, assuming skillful cookery and preparation, and a sensible budget?
That's the question that I, accompanied by my wife (who confined herself to questions equally interesting but of less heft), set out to answer at an anniversary dinner last Thursday, at Durham, North Carolina's Magnolia Grill. I am pleased to answer that, at least at the Magnolia, the answer is no. While I left fully satisfied, I wanted to eat more. I still want to eat more.
For those who've never visited or heard of the Magnolia, it was founded in 1986 by Ben and Karen Barker, who like many of the better chefs and cooks of the region got their start in Bill Neal's semi-legendary Crook's Corner, of Chapel Hill North Carolina. The cooking at Magnolia, unlike Crook's which concentrates on southern regional styles, is more or less classically French, albeit with a southern flair and an emphasis on locally grown ingredients from trusted farmers. Therefore the menu continually changes, depending on what's in season. I've never seen two menus alike at Magnolia, though some dishes do reappear from season to season.
Dinner began at 7:30, with bread, butter, and bottles of mineral water. Standard stuff, though the butter gets high marks for having been made at a local creamery from the work of cows which, to our knowledge, live pretty much as the god of cows intended them to live, with a fully organic and/or natural diet. Good bread, made in house, but the sole point of bread at a place like this is just to get the juices flowing.
Then to the first courses. Magnolia treats what would be considered appetizers at many similar restaurants with the care and attention that generally go to main courses, and some of the restaurant's most creative cooking can be found at the upper half of the menu. This is where things tend to get experimental, and it's quite possible and enjoyable to build a satisfying meal simply by ordering these. This is in fact what my wife did, though I'll confine myself to describing what I ate.
Strongly considered but rejected were a dish of grilled local shrimp with a paprika aioli and chorizo arugula salad, and a purple tomato and mushroom soup with eggs. Accepted was green tomato soup with lump crab and country ham, for starters, followed by a pan-seared foie gras with a bourbon/port glaze, accompanied by a pickled watermelon relish and peas with their shells.
The soup was served cold, and was tart and tangy as with any green tomato dish. The presence of the crab meat provided a pleasingly sweet contrast to the tartness of the tomatoes and the smokey flavor added by the ham. This was comfort food, albeit four-star comfort food.
The foie gras on the other hand, was something else, one of the best dishes I've consumed in my life. Seared just enough to provide a thin crust atop the organ, otherwise the stuff was like butter, albeit much richer than any butter you'll ever eat. The juices from the foie gras mixed surprisingly well with the relish atop it, the relish giving a tactile crunch lacking in the organ itself, and a pleasant sweetness in contrast to the savory umami of the liver. The choice of watermelon also added a pleasing color contrast to the dish of the evening.
But those were just openers. Now that the wine was flowing, it was time for something truly substantial: roasted berkshire pork confit (that is, pork that has been aged and preserved in hog fat), over red rice and beans, with a chutney of pickled red onions seasoned by mustard and vinegar. In a word, decadence. The pork sliced with ease and fell apart in the mouth, full of juices enhanced in flavor by the preservation, with just a hint of smoke. Even the rice and beans, a simple staple, were seasoned with care and were enhanced when mixed with the onion chutney. This dish nearly exhausted me with its savor and substance.
But not quite. First we broke for coffee, accompanied by (in my case) a glass of Blanton's single barrel reserve bourbon, followed by more coffee and dessert, another comfort item: a slice of coconut cake with candied pineapple and a dusting of sugar. The cake was moist and suffused with coconut throughout, a pleasant surprise as I was expecting just a white cake with a coconut icing, and mixed pleasantly with the tart but sweet pineapple.
The slice was also, to put it mildly, huge. This was followed by a glass of sweet vintage port, and a cab ride home. It helps that the restaurant is in walking distance from my home, so I was able to send my dog to pick up my car the following morning.
If you are ever traveling in North Carolina, and hopefully are on an expense account, you owe it to yourself to stop by the Magnolia. A meal for two will go, depending on alcohol consumption, for something in the neighborhood of two hundred dollars, not cheap but certainly not expensive for a restaurant in its class. In a little over 20 years the restaurant has become an institution, and shows no signs of letting its high standards fall.