Walking along the front of the office building whose ground floor houses Local 22, sidling along between the tables on the narrow sidewalk patio, you can’t resist the urge to peek over the burlap cafe curtains into the dining room. You take in whimsical sculptures of barnyard animals, columns veneered in rough planks, mismatched chairs at farmhouse tables, bowls and baskets of local produce and rustic loaves of bread, vintage-look filament bulbs suspended over a long concrete bar.
You step inside, and directly in front of you is an open kitchen flanked by a large chalkboard menu. Listed among the daily changing riffs on mac-and-cheese, hush puppies, soups, desserts and seasonal sides, chances are you’ll see at least one entree special featuring humanely raised meat from Pura Vida Farms in northern Durham County – lamb ragout, say, or braised pork cheeks over sweet potato puree.
The evidence is everywhere you look. Local 22, which opened in October in Erwin Square Plaza, is another play on the trendy gastropub concept. And you don’t need to know the restaurant’s name to appreciate that Giorgios Bakatsias’ latest venture pays more than lip service to the locavore ethic.
Bakatsias, a prolific restaurateur whose other restaurants include Vin Rouge, Bin 54 and Kipos, opened Local 22 in the space where he had previously operated Vita, a Mediterranean eatery geared primarily to the lunch trade. He made the change partly in order to appeal to the growing residential population in the area, and partly to offer a distinct alternative to the Mediterranean-inspired menu of Parizade, Bakatsias’ restaurant next door.
Bakatsias kept longtime Vita chef Yianni Dontas in charge of the kitchen, and moved Josh Coburn over from Parizade to take over as sous chef.
After a bumpy start, the duo appear to be making a solid transition from Mediterranean to Southern-accented locavore cuisine.
As long as the cold weather holds, it’s hard to go wrong with one of the soups of the day, like lentil and kale or lamb with garbanzo beans. Or the mac-and-cheese, which might be studded with house-made sausage one night and evolve into a wickedly creamy amalgam of cheddar, parmesan and black truffle by the next time you visit.
Regardless of weather, the mix-and-match selection of charcuterie and cheeses makes a fine nibbling companion for a glass of wine or local draft beer. Better yet, one of the half-dozen highballs (a welcome break from the usual cocktail routine) showcasing sodas made by Durham-based Brood Soda.
The Carolina Punch, which pairs gingery Brood Devil with N.C.-distilled Covington sweet potato vodka, ought to do nicely.
Charmingly presented on a board garnished with grilled crostini, house pickles, onion jam and a mustardy deviled egg, the charcuterie board’s attractions include Johnston County prosciutto, local sausages, chicken liver mousse and cheeses from Goat Lady Dairy and Chapel Hill Creamery. I’d steer clear of the beet- and gin-cured salmon, though, whose primary flavors are salt and fish, in that order.
I’d take a pass on the hush puppies, too. Tempting as they look on the board, with fillings such as pastrami and chives or bluefin crab and sweet pea, the result is invariably an undercooked, doughy interior and a crust that borders on burned.
Flatbreads are fine, as long as you bear in mind that you’re not getting a pizza crust (regardless of what the menu says) but a traditional thin flatbread. With topping options ranging from seasonal vegetables and pesto to lamb, roasted red peppers, feta, mint and harissa, they work well as either a shared starter or an entree.
When it comes to the main course, though, it pays to check the specials board. Rewards might include pan-seared Arctic char over roasted root vegetables and penne tossed in a rosemary-citrus butter sauce; duck legs with roasted baby sweet potatoes and collards seasoned with ham hocks; or braised lamb shank over cauliflower puree and duck fat broccolini.
While the food is commendably local, service is unfortunately all over the map. One night, a salad course delivered hot on the heels of a charcuterie board (in spite of my request that it come after) were part of a meal that left our party feeling rushed. How rushed? Four courses in 47 minutes.
On another visit, we had the opposite problem: lapses in attentiveness and pacing problems highlighted (or rather, low-lighted) by an otherwise exemplary presentation of pan-seared scallops arriving lukewarm.
Still, Local 22 shows considerable potential. The kitchen has already upped its game, and continues to tweak its repertoire. And, given Giorgios Bakatsias’ track record, I’d be surprised if the wait staff don’t follow suit.