“OK, now I’m really wishing we didn’t have dinner reservations somewhere else.” This from the woman at the table next to us at Bar Virgile, the latest venture of Nana’s owner/chef Scott Howell.
We’re seated on the leather banquette in the bar’s cozy back room, where tables are close enough to strike up a conversation with your neighbors. Our amiable new friend and her companion, who’ve stopped in for pre-dinner drinks, have been admiring the procession of small plates that my wife and I have ordered, and that are coming out – just as we’ve requested – one at a time.
The oohs and aahs started with a sampling from the bar’s cheese and charcuterie offering. Our selections – an English Stilton, a hard Croatian sheep’s milk cheese called Paski Sir, and Curemaster Reserve, a Johnston County prosciutto on a par with some of Italy’s best – arrived on a plate looking like an artist’s palette dabbed with colors ranging from the sienna of the ham to the muted green and gold hues of whole grain mustard, green tomato relish and cornichons.
Then came an even more strikingly colorful presentation: alternating wedges of local peaches and tomatoes (Cherokee purple and green zebra tonight), flanked by a snow-white slab of burrata, garnished with basil chiffonade and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar.
It’s the next dish – charred octopus on a bed of avocado puree, spring greens, fresh grapefruit and translucent radish slices – that evokes our neighbor’s comment about wishing she didn’t have to leave to make a reservation elsewhere. But leave they must, and the gastronomic parade continues after our neighbors have departed.
They leave just in time to miss the only disappointment of the evening, as it turns out. The seared scallops look mouthwatering, but are marred by the telltale bitter metallic taste of wet-packed scallops – not the superior dry-packed that our experience up to this point has led us to expect.
Our disappointment doesn’t last long. A house-made chorizo sausage, juicy and well-seasoned, topped with fresh corn salsa and crumbled queso on a big soft bun, returns the smiles to our faces. The accompanying bistro-classic shoestring fries broaden those smiles. And dessert – a slab of lemon pound cake with an almond glaze and blueberry sauce – turns them into ear-to-ear grins.
Another visit to Bar Virgile is, if anything, more impressive, as we don’t encounter a single misfire. Highlights include exemplary fat fried oysters; a velvety duck and foie gras mousse that would do a French bistro proud; a lobster roll loaded with flawless lumps in a light mayo dressing; and (forgive me, Mom) the best German chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted.
As thoroughly persuasive as the food is, it’s the bar that, according to Bar Virgile’s name, is the establishment’s primary raison d’etre. (“Virgile” is Howell’s tribute to his grandfather, Virgil – but with a French spelling to reflect the bar’s European bar inspiration.) Daniel Sartain, the restaurant’s general manager and bar manager, lives up to that billing, and then some.
Sartain, a former Nana’s manager who teamed up with Howell and his wife, Aubrey Zinaich-Howell, to open Bar Virgile, has assembled a first-rate cocktail list. Two lists, actually. His well-researched selection of classics includes a few relative rarities (the egg white-frothy Ramos Gin Fizz and the Martinez, thought by some to be the predecessor of the martini, to name two) in addition to the usual Manhattan, daiquiri and Negroni suspects. The other list offers a seasonally changing selection of house specialty cocktails such as the Alejandro Fleming, a riff on the classic penicillin cocktail that substitutes smoky mezcal for the traditional Scotch.
If, on the other hand, you’re all about the single malt – or small-batch bourbon, for that matter – you have a fine selection of either to choose from. And if you prefer to take your poison at a lower proof, rest assured that the selection of wines and draft beers is anything but an afterthought.
Still, for my money it’s hard to resist the cocktails at a bar that has quickly earned a place among the area’s best at the art. Drinks are built with as much care as they are thoroughly researched, and as a bonus they’re served in distinctive – and in some cases, historically accurate – glassware. An avid collector of bar ware, Sartain will happily explain to you why, say, the Manhattan is served in a glass called the “Nick and Nora.”
Located in the former Citizens National Bank building in downtown Durham, Bar Virgile is an intimate space with a warmly inviting ambiance that combines elements of Old World (vintage aperitif posters on the inherited rough brick walls) and New World (pressed tobacco leaves sealed into the tabletops). The place has only been open since December, but clearly has already built a solid following of regular customers. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to bump into our ephemeral friends from that first visit next time I drop in. If and when I do, I bet they won’t have made dinner reservations elsewhere.
105 S. Mangum St., Durham; 919-973-3000; barvirgile.com
Cuisine: small plates
Atmosphere: upscale bar with a European feel
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: well-trained and welcoming
Recommended: Take your pick from the seasonally changing menu
Open: Sunday-Thursday 4 p.m. to midnight, Friday-Saturday 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Reservations: not accepted
Other: full bar; get a sitter; good vegetarian selection; parking on street and in the Church Street garage next door.
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.