This week brings news of a Grocery that isn't a grocery and a train that never leaves the station.
You won't find checkout counters or aisles of canned goods at Watts Grocery (1116 Broad St.; 416-5040; www.wattsgrocery.com), a casual-chic neighborhood restaurant that opened last week in Durham. What you will find is a menu loaded with enough locally grown produce and artisanal North Carolina products to put your average supermarket to shame. Owner/chef Amy Tornquist transforms this bountiful harvest into a Southern-inflected menu whose current offering includes fried green tomatoes with shrimp rémoulade; roasted butternut squash salad with stilton and spiced pecans; and crab cake served over pea shoots with a cucumber and late tomato salad.
And that's just for starters. Entree options include grilled wahoo with field peas, grilled corn and Sungold tomato salad; quail smothered in country ham gravy; rockfish muddle with braised greens and hushpuppies; and hand-cut rib-eye with pimento cheese butter and Jim Beam brown sauce. And desserts - well, let's just say that, with options such as Krispy Kreme bread pudding, pound cake with lemon-lavender cream, and apple blackberry crostata, you can forget about the express checkout lane.
Tornquist's fans will recognize her menu as an epicurean autobiography, from her childhood in Durham to her first restaurant job working for the legendary Bill Neal at Crook's Corner to La Varenne in Paris, her culinary alma mater, to her 14 years' experience as owner/chef of Sage & Swift Gourmet Catering. The same could be said of the dining room, which combines elements of Tornquist's history in Durham (paintings by local artists, including Tornquist's husband and chef/partner at Sage & Swift, Jeremy Kerman) and in Paris (a well-stocked zinc bar) to stylish effect.
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In Carrboro, the destination is gastronomic rather than geographic for Southern Rail (201C E. Main St.; 967-1967), which opened late last month in three vintage train cars adjacent to Carr Mill Mall. Mike and Christina Benson, who own the restaurant with operating partner Spencer Pope, have restored the cars to function as a dining car, bar car and prep kitchen, and connected them with a glass enclosure to expand the dining space.
Executive chef Joe Brzoska, formerly of Acme Food & Beverage, has created a seasonally changing menu of contemporary American fare, with options such as coriander-crusted tuna with a spicy peanut sauce; vegetable lasagna with a local tomato marinara; and the chef's signature pan-seared and oven-roasted twist on traditional Maryland crab cakes. Prices are mercifully modest, topping out at $17 for a pan-fried center cut pork chop with mushroom bourbon cream sauce which, according to Pope, is an inch-and-a-half thick.