It’s about a month before Durham chef Matt Kelly’s newest restaurant, Saint James, is ready to open, and he’s driving up Roxboro Street on his way to see the ice king of the Southeast. He’s driving away from a dining room scattered with appliances, wood and construction equipment for a restaurant that was supposed to open last Christmas, then in June, and finally any day now.
Saint James Seafood Restaurant and Raw Bar, expected to open this week in the Brightleaf District, is one of the most anticipated Durham restaurant openings this year. Kelly, the James Beard-nominated chef who has helped put the city on the national dining map, is breathing new life into the former Fishmonger’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar, a Durham institution that closed in 2015 due to financial woes.
Seven years ago, Kelly wrote Saint James’ first menu on a cocktail napkin while on an airplane and always has imagined his ideal seafood joint as marrying the fried fish nostalgia of childhood trips to the beach with renewed demands for everything on the half shell.
“The first time I ate an oyster was one of my favorite moments ever,” Kelly said. “And then when my dad was in the Air Force, bringing back lobster from Maine. Having live lobster around when you’re a little kid is kind of a cool thing.”
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Kelly, 40, made a name for himself cooking at the Durham French bistro Vin Rouge for owner and restaurateur Giorgios Bakatsias. He struck out on his own and opened Mateo Bar de Tapas, a Spanish tapas bar that was named a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in 2013. He personally has been a semifinalist for a James Beard four times.
Last year he added to his restaurant portfolio with Mothers & Sons Trattoria with chef Josh DeCarolis, an Italian trattoria with the smoky breath of a wood fired grill, and Lucky’s Delicatessen with chef Drew Brown, a sandwich shop with a choice beer cooler. Each restaurant offers a take on a different style of cooking, as if Kelly were a movie director visiting different genres.
Now there’s Saint James, likely the one most tied to North Carolina and its traditions of the sea, both seafood and pirate.
Fish, fresh and fried
It’s built around a raw bar serving about a dozen oysters nightly – half from here, half from elsewhere – amidst shrimp, clams and crab claws. There will be shellfish towers, three-tiered spectacles of seafood soon destined to be the most Instagrammed dish in Durham.
Small plates are almost all seafood: charred octopus, baked crab dip with crab roe toast, a take on New Orleans barbecue shrimp, but also pork and crab shumai and pork ribs with Alabama white sauce. For mains, there’s a traditional seafood pot, shrimp and grits and a lineup of fish roasted, sauteed or braised.
Kelly doesn’t distance himself from North Carolina’s most famous seafood contribution, the fried fish platters of Calabash, offering an entire section devoted to the deep fryer. There’s also a whole fish taco kit meant to be shared and picked apart by the table and assembled on house-made tortillas, and a list of sides including fries, collards and turnips done in the style of cacio e pepe (or cheese and pepper).
“We love fried seafood here, we love it, we grow up with it,” Kelly said. “It’s rooted in us and to not serve it, I think, we wouldn’t be doing our past justice.”
General manager Sean Miller said the cocktail list will be mostly rum-based, trending toward tiki drinks, and that among the dozen beer taps will be one dedicated to muscadet.
Saint James will open with dinner service and eventually will add brunch, Kelly said.
“The biggest thing is we just want people to be happy,” Kelly said. “We know how hard people work for their money and for them to give us money to do what we love, man it doesn’t get any more privileged than that. It’s awesome. To get the freshest most awesome seafood and prepare it for you, that’s the dream.”
Over the years, Kelly’s role has shifted from chef to restaurateur. This time around, he’s been a construction foreman, go-fer and a general doer of whatever needs to be done. He’s made emergency trips to restaurant supply stores when no one else could and bargained with vendors that he would throw their office Christmas parties if they met certain delivery deadlines.
He calls Saint James the hardest upfit he’s done yet. Fishmonger’s had been in the location on West Main Street for 30 years, first as a seafood market, then as a restaurant.
Kelly said the long construction process has cost him employees and money. Travis Robinson, the chef de cuisine for Saint James, cooked at Gocciolina in Durham during construction, and along with a few other employees, have opened countless boxes and put a kitchen together.
“The construction is my least favorite part; it’s always a challenge,” Kelly said. “That’s because I’m a chef. I’m not in the construction business. I’m in the food business.”
The Saint James team renovated Fishmonger’s with a sledgehammer, remaking the kitchen, coolers, bathrooms and every aspect of the dining room, save the black and white tile floor.
Carrying the torch
In the process, they unearthed a seafood palace with porthole doors of polished brass and a marble bar with more than a dozen bright yellow high top chairs. The ceiling is high, and Saint James may be loud and bustley, but there’s also an upstairs “Captain’s Quarters” for private dining, complete with giant wooden chandeliers and paintings on the wall devoted to the sea.
Kelly said the name comes from Saint James, patron saint of shellfish, whose shipwrecked coffin was carried up from the bottom of the sea by scallops, oysters and other crustaceans and deposited on the shores of France. It’s also personal.
“It’s also the name of a hospital opened by my great great grandfather in Western New York: Saint James Mercy,” Kelly said. “I thought it would be cool to go into work in a building that was the same as my grandfather’s.”
Throughout construction, even when brown paper covered the windows and the doors were left open, passers-by would peek in and see the restaurant change. An older couple caught Kelly on the sidewalk one day and declared Fishmonger’s a landmark, but sounded impressed by the Saint James menu Kelly rattled off the top of his head.
“We look to carry the torch a little bit,” Kelly told them.
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson
Saint James is at 806 W. Main St., Durham. Look for updates at facebook.com/stjamesseafood.