The Refectory Café has been collecting awards - more than 20 of them, according to the menu - for its food and environmental leadership practically since the restaurant opened seven years ago.
Then why, you might well be thinking, have I never heard of the place?
Most likely because you havent had occasion to spend time at Duke Divinity School, where the original location opened in 2005. Or at Duke Law School, where a second Refectory Café opened four years later. Both were open to the public, but - lets face it - the Duke University campus is not the most accessible of places.
Things changed in a big way last fall, when owner Laura Hall moved the original location off campus. The new digs - in a building on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard that Hall has given such a thorough makeover youd hardly believe it was once a Pizza Hut - are more spacious and inviting. Theres even a wraparound patio under a pea green awning, setting the tone for a dining room whose cheery greens and yellows underscore the menus emphasis on fresh, healthy fare.
Service is still cafeteria style, but the roomier quarters have brought with them expanded hours and a larger selection.
Best of all, the new location makes it easy for anyone to find out why The Refectory Café has been winning all those awards.
Awards like Best Chili in Durham, garnered in the 2007 Bull City Challenge. For a vegan chili, mind you, one of many items designated on the menu as vegetarian, vegan and/or gluten-free. Its a signature menu staple, along with Indian dal over brown rice (another award winner, and deservedly so) and the perennial favorite grilled cheese and house-made tomato soup.
The emphasis on healthy fare makes the fact that The Refectory Café has taken home Dukes Best Food On Campus award for seven years running even more impressive.
If I were passing out awards, Id add a few to Refectorys collection:
* Most Risk-Free Way to Try a Dish That Sounds Too Healthy to Be Tasty: Curious about that Indian dal, but hesitant to commit your entire meal to it? Ask for a sample taste. An ardent advocate of healthy eating, Laura Hall has won many a skeptic over to a vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free dish simply by offering a taste.
* Best Creative Take on a Po Boy: Tempura-battered jumbo NC shrimp with a fresh herb-spangled spicy rémoulade on a locally baked roll. Served with snappy house pickles and choice of side (Im partial to the kale salad with walnuts and dried cherries).
* Dish Most Likely to Make You Feel Both Indulgent and Virtuous: Steak frites, featuring local beef filet, shoestring fries and a medley of seasonal vegetables. The steak is grilled precisely to order, and the vegetables (recently highlighted by local asparagus) cooked to a snap-tender turn. Bonus points for skillful seasoning. In fact. ...
* Master of Seasoning: Executive Chef Stacey Grisham, whose kitchen consistently demonstrates an essential culinary skill that eludes many chefs nowadays.
* Best Cheesecake Variation: Greek yogurt cheesecake, a towering wedge of creamy, subtly tangy goodness on a Graham cracker crust. Honorable Mention to pretty much anything pastry chef Rosa Perry has put in the display case, from chocolate hazelnut tart to lattice-crusted cherry pie.
* Most Virtuous Beverage Selection: Local beers and a dozen organic wines by the glass. Also smoothies, natural juice sodas, flavored mineral waters, locally roasted coffees, Lavazza espresso, and Republic of Tea antioxidant teas.
And in the Breakfast/Brunch Category:
* Best Pancakes: Lemon ricotta pancakes - big and fluffy, delicately crisp at the edges, and not too sweet. Perfumed with lemon, theyre so good that you may even prefer them without the 70 percent pure maple syrup that comes with them. I did.
* Oatmeal Dish Most Likely to Win Over People Who Dont Like Oatmeal: Baked oatmeal, a casserole of whole oats, brown sugar and seasonal fruit (recently blueberries), bound together with local cage-free eggs. Think fruit crumble, but not as sweet.
All of which is not to say that The Refectory Café is an unqualified success.
The method of ordering can be confusing for first-timers, for one thing. Theres no menu over the cafeteria line, so youll want to look over the menus just inside the door before getting in line.
Nor is everything on the menu an award-winner, though youre not likely to encounter anything thats entirely out of the running. Outer Banks tuna, ordered medium-rare, may come out rare. The chunky tomato sauce in the fresh pappardelle pomodoro comes off as one-dimensional, though the pasta itself is on the money.
Still, Id be surprised if, next time The Refectory Café prints a menu, they havent added to their collection of awards.
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