Restaurant News & Reviews

Dining review: At Littler, dive in with chicken fried duck tongues

The chicken fried duck tongues have been the talk of the town since Littler opened in June in downtown Durham.
The chicken fried duck tongues have been the talk of the town since Littler opened in June in downtown Durham.

If a menu can be said to make a statement about a restaurant’s mission, then the seasonally evolving offering at Littler is a full-throated shout.

Making the loudest noise of all, figuratively speaking, are the chicken fried duck tongues that have been the talk of the town since Littler opened in June in downtown Durham.

Joining the chorus is a lineup that currently includes beef heart tartare, potted rabbit with house-made Ritz crackers, pan-roasted Guinea hen, and foraged watercress with smoked scallops.

To say that this menu stands out – even in Durham, the region’s acknowledged foodie Mecca – would be an understatement. But the message goes much deeper than mere marketing. You might even call the menu a manifesto, building on a foundation laid in recent years by chefs who have been expanding our palates and our environmental sensibilities one foraged mushroom, one wild-caught shrimp, one crispy pig ear at a time. Littler’s menu proclaims that the time for dipping our toe into the waters of these under-utilized and under-appreciated foods has passed. It’s time to dive in.

The dish that has had the most tongues wagging (sorry, couldn’t resist) has drawn raves from some and has been dismissed by others as little more than a novelty (hipster gator bites?). But the chicken fried duck tongues inarguably have two things going for them: The dish makes use of a part of the animal that would otherwise go to waste, and the execution is first-rate. Chef Amanda Orser, whose resume includes a decade as chef de cuisine at the now-closed Magnolia Grill in Durham, nails the classic crunchy batter while retaining the moistness of the meat inside.

What little meat there is. Each tongue yields about as much meat as half a chicken wing flat, once you’ve stripped it off the band of cartilage that runs down the middle. To be fair, you get a generous pile of them on the plate (though you might find yourself wishing for more than a token smattering of the star anise-pickled peach accompaniment). At any rate, you should order the duck tongues at least once, if only to brag to your friends. And when you tell them about the experience, feel free to use the catchall “tastes like chicken” if you must. But really, they taste like duck.

If duck tongues are a one-time fling, the beef heart tartare is worthy of a long term relationship for an adventurous foodie. I certainly wouldn’t mind a standing date with this voluptuous mound of finely diced (and surprisingly tender) flesh and processed cheese (think Velveeta, and wipe that smirk off your face; it’s an inspired stand-in for the traditional egg yolk), glistening in a mustard seed-spangled sheen of olive oil.

You’ll find the tartare under the “Raw” heading, where it’s currently joined by oysters on the half shell and speckled trout crudo. Add a couple of items from the “Snack” section – the potted rabbit, say, and latke Benedict – and you’ve got a share plate feast unlike any other. And if you only get one starter, make it the Benedict, which features supple house-smoked trout alongside a crisp-crusted potato latke that’s topped with an olive oil-poached egg yolk. Served over a vivid green puddle of hollandaise flecked with fresh parsley, tarragon and chive, it’s my favorite of all the dishes I sampled at Littler.

The North Carolina red drum is a close second. One of five listings under the “Supper” heading, the dish pairs irreproachably fresh, expertly pan-seared fish with a Carolina Gold rice cake, served over succotash in a broth enriched with crab roe.

But I wouldn’t say no to an encore performance of roasted Guinea hen with cheesy spaetzle and Johnston County acorn squash. Or to Wagyu beef hanger steak with crispy Vidalia onion threads and a downright decadent bone marrow flan.

Regardless of which entree you choose, at least one of the seasonal (and shareable) vegetable sides is a must. Carnival squash, roasted whole with a gratin of bread and cheese, is a memorable presentation. But you won’t go wrong with sesame-spangled green beans, either, or fried Brussels sprouts with apple balsamic and chiles.

For dessert, spice cake with poached pears and pear-ginger sorbet is the way to go. Elderflower panna cotta is also on point, though the peeled muscadines that are served alongside miss the mark. Granted, peeling the grapes does eliminate the skin’s inherent bitterness. But it also removes much of the muscadine’s characteristic flavor, and the resulting gelatinous mass makes for an unappetizing presentation.

Kitchen miscues are mercifully few, though, especially given the ambitiously daring menu. The only other notable disappointment I encountered was the meager (bordering on nonexistent) catfish baccala stuffing in otherwise excellent shishitos rellenos.

Service is solid, too, impressively well-trained for a restaurant open less than six months. The bar, on the other hand, can be frustratingly inconsistent. Depending on who’s mixing, your Bird of Paradise (a tequila cocktail garnished with a small scoop of Thai bird chile sorbet) can live up to its heavenly promise, or turn out as a half-melted blob of sorbet afloat in an insufficiently chilled drink. Until the entire bar staff get up to speed, the modest but intelligently chosen wine list is a safer bet.

Located in the original Monuts space, Littler is an intimate 36-seat urban bistro with candlelight and a turntable playing vinyl oldies setting a casually romantic mood. A worthy destination already, the restaurant will no doubt improve with time – especially given that the owners are the same folks who own the estimable Pizzeria Toro. And it’s surely no coincidence that one of Toro’s signature starters is crispy pig ears.

110 E. Parrish St., Durham; 919-374-1118

Cuisine: contemporary

Rating: 1/2

Prices: $$$-$$$$

Atmosphere: casually romantic urban bistro

Noise level: moderate

Service: well-trained

Recommended: latke Benedict, beef heart tartare, red drum, Guinea hen, spice cake

Open: Dinner Wednesday-Monday

Reservations: recommended (walk-ins welcome)

Other: full bar; get a sitter; good vegetarian selection; parking on street and in lot beside the DPAC.

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.