Small plates offer big flavor at Beyu Caffe in Durham

CorrespondentJanuary 21, 2011 

  • 335 W. Main St., Durham

    683-1058

    www.beyucaffe.com

    Cuisine: eclectic, vegetarian

    Rating:

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: coffeehouse/lounge

    Noise level: moderate

    Service: enthusiastic and attentive

    Recommended: nightly specials

    Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

The moment you walk through the front door at Beyu Caffe, you come face-to-face with temptation. There, directly in front of you, is a pastry case whose shelves are laden with a rainbow assortment of locally baked pastries and cakes.

Looking beyond, you see a coffee counter and cozy bar that divide the space into two rooms, where leather couches and club chairs mixed in among the tables set a mood that's decidedly more coffeehouse or lounge than restaurant. In fact, it's all three, morphing from one to the other over the course of the day from croissants, crêpes and caffeine in the morning to cocktails, live jazz and poetry slams after hours.

Even during the dinner hour, though, coffee mugs and laptops are as common as forks and knives on the tabletops. Maybe, you think, you should just order a press pot and a pastry.

Don't do it. Turn a deaf ear to the siren call of red velvet, caramel layer, and Harvey Wallbanger cake, at least for the time being. They'll still be waiting for you after you've explored a dinner menu that offers plenty of savory rewards.

New chef, new menu

That hasn't always been the case. For several months after Beyu Caffe opened in December 2009, the food was - to put it mildly - inconsistent. First-time restaurateur Dorian Bolden is evidently a quick study, though. By last August he had lured Juan DiGiulio away from the kitchen of Vin Rouge.

The new chef revamped the menu, jettisoning much of the original offering and replacing it with a selection of small plates and light entrees he calls "Medium Bites" that are well-suited to the casual setting.

The change is a boon for vegetarians. The entire small plates offering is meat-free, with options ranging from garlicky fries to a sampler of wilted spinach, rosemary roasted potatoes and a medley of sautéed vegetables. Those craving animal protein can choose from a handful of salads - the Southwestern, say, topped with spicy roast chicken. Or chilled jumbo shrimp over mixed greens tossed in a Cajun rémoulade, one of several dishes that reflect the Louisiana-born DiGiulio's early experience in New Orleans kitchens.

Under the Medium Bites heading, the eclectic offering is more or less evenly divided between vegetarian and carnivorous fare. At one end of the spectrum is a vegan mixed grill Napoleon, a tower of layered sweet potatoes, apples and braised fennel rising out of a moat of yellow Thai curry. At the other, Jack Daniels-marinated steak kebabs are served over couscous with garnishes of onion chutney and tzatziki. In between, options include goat cheese quesadillas (with or without chorizo), Cajun drunken shrimp, and juicy, crisp-skinned Buffalo wings.

Shining specials

But it's on the separate list of nightly specials where DiGiulio really struts his stuff. A recent appetizer special showcased the chef's refreshing take on tostadas deshebradas: crunchy tortillas topped with succulent shreds of beef, black beans and fresh mozzarella, garnished with pineapple pico de gallo and avocado crema. The featured salad served up a crisp-skinned duck leg-thigh quarter over mixed greens in a shallot-citrus vinaigrette, showered with toasted walnuts, bacon, blue cheese crumbles and snappy slices of Granny Smith apple.

Most memorable of all, though, was the entree special, catfish Bienville. DiGiulio does his bayou-country background proud with a moist, clean filet blanketed in a shrimp- and mushroom-studded béchamel, flanked by textbook haricots verts and roasted potatoes.

After you've cleaned your plate, Mother says, you may now have your dessert. Mosey over to the pastry case if you like, but for my money, you'd be well-advised to ask your server to bring back that list of nightly specials. There you're apt to find a silky crème brûlée, surprisingly rich vegan chocolate mousse with whipped coconut cream, and a first-rate bread pudding with rum crème anglaise.

According to Bolden, the name of his restaurant is a play on his goal: to provide a place where, regardless of the time of day and regardless of who you are, you can feel free to "be you." A little over a year after opening Beyu Caffe, he's well on his way to achieving that goal.

ggcox@bellsouth.net

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