After longer than I’d like to admit, I finally made my way west to Durham to sample a restaurant that friends and critics alike have raved about: Watts Grocery. As one of the Triangle’s elite localvore hot spots Watts was high on my list of Durham eateries, especially after browsing the Poole’s like menu online.
A quick drive down the Durham freeway led us to a colorful, modern styled building just outside of the bustling downtown. Large pots full of herbaceous goodies like indigo basil and mint lined the doorway with promise. The interior of Watts is equally as colorful as the herbs outside with bright orange lamps, cyan walls, and sea-foam cabinets.
Using Watts ingenious online reservation system (a novel idea and one I’m a big fan of) our table was ready and we were sat within seconds of arriving. Off to a good start!
Our waitress arrived just as quickly as we were sat, described the nights specials including seared sea bass over a bed of wilted greens, and helped us choose a cool, refreshing wine since it was a bajillion degrees out and the thought of a room-temp red was almost nauseating. We chose a bottle of an organic Pinot Gris from Oregon that tasted sweet and dry, like crunchy apples and green grapes. Sipping with new enthusiasm, praising Oregon for it’s micro-climate, we browsed the menu for an appetizer to munch on while we decided on our mains: Local Cheese Plate, Fried Chicken Liver Salad, Steamed Clams and Beer-Battered Shrimp…what to get? Glancing to my right I noticed our neighbors enjoying cueball sized hushpuppies from a parchment cone and made up my mind. “Could we have a side of hushpuppies as an appetizer?” I asked. “Ofcourse” our server replied, this obviously being a frequently asked question by her immediate response.
Another glass of wine and the hushpuppies arrived piping hot in a swirling stand reminiscent of contraptions you may find at the state fair. We ordered our mains, finally deciding on two of the menu favorites, and dug into the hushpuppies. The outside was fried slightly darker than usual, giving the corn-flower crust a great nutty aroma and home-made quality. The inside, laden with small chunks of local cheese and scallion, was sweet and dense like fresh cornbread. If there’s one thing they were not lacking it was butter, my pant button felt like it was going to pop off and careen across the restaurant into someone’s glass after each bite. Sadly, that didn’t happen…would have made for a great story.
As we tried to resist polishing off all 6 hushpuppies our mains arrived. What I liked most, even before we dove in, was the presentation. Each dish looked as though it could be served at Sunday dinner at home, not like 10 CIA interns spent 15 minutes assembling each garnish. It looked so appetizing, like chef Amy Tornquist had put all of her love and passion onto the plate herself. Megan chose the House Papparadelle with Spring Onions, Asparagus, and Peas with farmer’s cheese and chives in a white wine cream sauce. The pasta was FAR too large to be considered papparadelle, even by Northern Italian standards. The “noodles” were as large as lasagna sheets, but tender and velvetty even though they were over-dressed in an aromatic light cream sauce with al dente veggies nestled inbetween. A inspiring dish but one we’ll skip next time for something a little more…Carolinian.
Like my choice, a nostalgic homage to the south: Chicken Fried South Carolina Quail with cornmeal spoon bread, wilted greens and Meuniere sauce. The quails, 1 and a half cut in half and deboned (except for the wing and drum) and a new experience for me surprisingly, tasted of the strongest dark chicken meat. It was succulent and breaded better than any fried chicken I’ve had. The spoon bread tasted like cornbread pudding, moist and elegantly rustic. The greens, beet greens I believe, were simply wilted in olive oil and plenty of garlic for the perfect bitter bite to compliment the richness of the quail and spoon bread.
I cleared my plate faster than I should have, regretting it was gone, wishing to enjoy the flavors all over again. As though she saw the depressed look on my face, our waitress arrived with the dessert menu and offered her preferred selections. Megs was dying for the Red Velvet Layer Cake, enticing but far to gluttonous after eating 1.5 quails. Mango Sorbet? Too generic. Our choice: Watts Spring Sundae with vanilla bean ice cream, citrus poached rhubarb, lemon sauce and House-made biscotti. Talk about a flippin’ flavor explosion. Uber creamy ice cream topped with jammy, almost candy-like bits of translucent rhubarb with a texture like ripe pineapple, all smothered in a delightfully tart lemon sauce with two biscotti to act as spoons! Everything was phenomenal…except the biscotti. Sad, I know, but they’re still batting 800. The biscotti were soft and far too sweet, more like sticks of shortbread or sugar cookies than the crunchy Italian delights we all love.
Soft biscotti or not, our meal at Watts Grocery was one to remember with dish after dish taking us on a new, but familiar, journey around the South East. On that note, it is with great pleasure and the hope of returning very soon that I decree:
Watts Grocery: YUP!
So get your ass to Durham and grab a table at Watts, but don’t forget your wallet…you’ll be washing dishes for years!