Chef Matt Kelly plates Southern-inspired tapas dishes at Mateo.
“The Triangle was just plopped down in the middle of all this farmland,” says Mike Ellis from behind the bar of Mateo, an airy brick-and-wood tapas joint with a distinctly Southern flavour in downtown Durham, North Carolina. He’s talking about the so-called “Research Triangle,” a bustling agglomeration of high tech and higher learning bounded by the three cities of Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh. If you’re looking to discover what’s new in Carolina cooking, the Triangle is the place to go.
A trio of factors explains the unique food scene in the Triangle: the plentiful supply of fresh ingredients, a cosmopolitan population that comes from all over the world to study and work, and a posse of determined chefs who are wittily adapting classic Southern fare for a new era.
So, let’s dig in already
At Mateo (the Spanish name is a nod to chef-owner Matthew Kelly), the cured country ham in the small mixto comes from nearby town of Smithfield, and the turnips and pumpkin seeds – heck, even the smoked Chapel Hill Creamery farmer’s cheese – in the kale salad are from local producers. And it’s not just farmland that explains all this bounty. The Atlantic Ocean isn’t far away, and those gambas in olive oil and garlic are from North Carolina waters.
To continue your culinary research of the Triangle, make your way to the six-pointed brewer’s star that perches above the entrance to the microbrewery at Bull City Burger and Brewery, where you can feast on craft ale and a designer burger made from pasture-raised beef. (Owner Seth Gross maintains they would rather close the doors than serve big-agro, corn-fed beef.) If the soft drawl of the locals doesn’t remind you you’re in the Carolinas, then the reinterpreted deep-fried pickle chips will. And the “Future Beer Drinkers” sign that hangs above the children’s play area lets you know these are savvy business people, too.
For dessert head for the pink confines of The Parlour, a cheerful ice cream shop run by cool couple Vanessa and Yoni Mazuz. It’s hard to think of anything on offer here being a vice – the ice creams are housemade, and the seasonal berries and peaches (a Southern mainstay) come from nearby Lyon Farms.
Next, Raleigh your appetite
At Iris restaurant (located in the North Carolina Museum of Art), you can refuel after a morning of admiring Rodin sculptures with a beef short rib pot pie; in a region that’s all about retracing roots, the dish is filled with root vegetables like parsnips, celeriac, onions and carrots. In town, try Beasley’s Chicken + Honey for an even closer take on Southern comfort. This industrial-chic addition to Ashley Christensen’s small empire of Raleigh eateries (she owns four others, and two more are on the way), with its exposed air ducts, giant menu blackboards and drinks served in Mason jars, is a buzzing haven in the workaday state capital. The Berkshire pork shoulder meatloaf topped with charcoal onion gravy is a must – but be sure to order a side of creamed collard greens for a full low-country experience.
You can spend several happy hours at the sprawling Raleigh Farmers’ Market seeing just how far the local-fare movement has come here in the Piedmont Hills, but save time for Herons restaurant, in the suburban Umstead Hotel, where Southern cuisine reaches its haute expression. From the palmetto squab (a.k.a. pigeon) appetizer with rutabaga and red cabbage to the venison loin with salsify, pecan hash, hibiscus and sorghum barbecue sauce, you’ll be discovering high dining with a distinctly Southern accent.