Entering NanaSteak, you’re greeted by a host stationed at a stand made of salvaged industrial machine parts. Seated at a raspberry faux leather banquette set against a wall painted a rich shade of ripe plum, you look across the two-story dining room, past a sea of white tablecloths, dark wood and clusters of globe pendant lights suspended from the high ceiling, to an open kitchen.
To your right, early evening sunlight washes in through a wall of steel-framed windows in the sleek modern building where NanaSteak opened in February between the Aloft Hotel and the Durham Performing Arts Center, spilling across cantilevered stairs that lead up to a mezzanine dining room directly above the kitchen. To your left, a Medieval-looking door on a pulley is pulled aside to reveal surrealist paintings on the walls of a private dining room.
Clearly, this is not your father’s steakhouse.
Well, of course it isn’t. It’s the latest venture of Scott Howell, the multiple James Beard Award-nominated owner/chef of Nana’s. In the nearly quarter century that his flagship restaurant has been ensconced as one of the area’s premier fine dining destinations, Howell’s seemingly bottomless well of energy and creativity have also yielded a diverse collection of inventive riffs on traditional concepts, from taqueria (NanaTaco) to Parisian bar (Bar Virgile).
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For his modern twist on a steakhouse, Howell and his wife, Aubrey Zinaich-Howell (who modestly describes her title as “the net” because she catches everything that falls through the cracks between other assigned roles) partnered with longtime Nana’s veterans Graham Weddington (dining room manager at NanaSteak), his brother Brad Weddington (bar manager) and chef Tyler Vanderzee.
True to Scott Howell form, the NanaSteak menu offers a fresh take on the American steakhouse experience while remaining true to the spirit of the concept. Steaks — a variety of cuts, from flatiron to filet — are accurately grilled to order over charcoal and properly rested. (Note: steak aficionados will argue until doomsday over the relative merits of grilling over flames vs. searing on a flat surface. In the end, it’s a matter of personal preference.) Several cuts can be had for under $30, though a separate section labeled Upper Cuts offers pricier fare such as Wagyu New York strip and veal porterhouse. Prime rib actually lives up to its name with USDA Prime beef.
Order the house specialty handle steak, a 32-ounce dry-aged bone-in rib-eye for two ($76, including your choice of one large side), and your server will advise you to allow 35 minutes or so for its preparation. It’s well worth the wait and the price tag. Just be sure to take the time into account if you’re having dinner before a performance at the DPAC next door.
A selection of optional sauces, from classic bordelaise to chimichurri, is available, though the steaks are well-seasoned and flavorful enough to stand on their own merits. At any rate, a purist would likely object to the veal jus that’s ladled by default over steaks before serving — and will be happy to know that the jus can be held or served on the side on request.
NanaSteak further bucks steakhouse tradition by including your choice of a family-style side — many of which showcase local produce — in the price. With options such as roasted corn in leek cream, savory mushroom bread pudding and Brinkley Farms butterbean succotash, you’ll want to spring for an extra side or two. Nana’s fans will no doubt find it impossible to resist an order of risotto, one of Howell’s signature dishes at that restaurant.
Those same fans may well opt to begin their meal with another Howell trademark, the aptly named “big bowl of mussels,” expertly cooked in a broth amped up with Firsthand Foods chorizo and roasted tomatoes. Then again, anyone who has had Scott Howell’s fried okra could reasonably decide that an heirloom tomato salad garnished with “croutons” of cornmeal-dusted baby okra pods trumps the mussels. The local tomato season will soon be coming to an end, after all, and you can always get the mussels next time.
A Bibb lettuce update on the steakhouse classic iceberg wedge, with roasted cherry tomatoes, crunchy shards of pancetta and crumbles of blue cheese in a buttermilk dressing, is another first-rate starter. So is fritto misto, a medley of fried calamari, shrimp and smelts punctuated with spicy exclamation points of shishito pepper.
Rotisserie-roasted chicken, moist beneath a well-bronzed (albeit less than perfectly crisp) skin is a solid main course alternative to red meat. Other options include grilled fish (tuna, salmon or swordfish), a bouillabaisse that I regretted not ordering after watching the dish sail past me on its way to another table one night, and a handful of pastas. Lobster carbonara tantalized with a beautifully cooked tail in its split shell when I ordered the dish, then let me down hard with heavily sauced, over-salted pasta. It was the only noteworthy kitchen miscue I encountered at NanaSteak over the course of two visits.
Except for desserts, that is, whose .500 batting average would be stellar at the nearby Durham Bulls Athletic Park, but is disappointing here. One night, a local peach crisp was on the money while lemon custard cheesecake was dense and gelatinous. On another visit, Grand Marnier creme brûlée (another Howell signature) lived up to its reputation, while a raspberry mousseline had started to break and weep down the side of a caramel-chocolate ganache cake. Knowing Scott Howell’s passionate perfectionism, I doubt it’s long before the wrinkles are ironed out.
In the meantime, you could always drink dessert. The Weddington brothers’ 20-plus years of combined experience at Nana’s is as evident in NanaSteak’s well-stocked bar and expertly crafted cocktails, as in its wait staff, who are among the most welcoming and well-trained in town.
As you’re sipping your 20-year-old tawny port, take another look at that host stand. It’s the same one that greeted guests at Pop’s — another one-time Scott Howell venture, and further evidence of the chef’s gift for bringing the past and the future together in the same place.
345 Blackwell St., Durham; 919-282-1183
Atmosphere: vibrant, open, dramatically eclectic
Noise level: moderate
Service: welcoming and well-trained
Recommended: heirloom tomato salad, mussels, bibb wedge, fritto misto, steaks, sides (order extras, take some home)
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Reservations: recommended, especially on DPAC nights
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; limited street parking; see website for information about nearby parking garages.
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.