Wild boar ragu. Cauliflower migas. Burrata, made to order. Lamb “gyro” platter with m’smen bread. The boldly ambitious menu at Motto will not only pique the most jaded palate, but it will also have you reaching for your phone to Google a term or two. Just what the heck is m’smen bread, anyway?
Ah, says here it’s a Moroccan flatbread. At Motto, m’smen is petal-thin and supple, and the “gyro” turns out to be a bone-in lamb shank roasted to a tender turn. Served on a large slate platter garnished with roasted potato wedges and a colorful assortment of little side dishes — tzatziki, harissa, eggplant confit and fermented beets — the presentation is emblematic of an offering that embraces cuisines all around the Mediterranean and beyond.
The menu’s reach extends all the way from Portugal (an “extremely spicy piri piri chicken sammy”) to the Europe-Asia divide (khachapuri, a large, cheese-filled Georgian pastry topped with a runny egg yolk), but its roots are firmly planted in Italy. Or, to be more precise, ancient Rome.
Chef Garret Fleming is something of a culinary history buff. Fleming, an alum of the Culinary Institute of America and former “Top Chef” contestant, came to Durham from Washington to take over the kitchen late last year, just a couple of months after Motto’s opening in the location of the former Pop’s and Lucia. He immediately set about putting his own spin on the Italian menu he inherited. The scope of the offering, he decided, would be inspired by the vast reaches of the Roman Empire.
The word “garum” sprinkled throughout the menu is a telltale clue to the source of the new chef’s inspiration. Garum, a fermented fish sauce popular in ancient Rome (comparable to modern Southeast Asian fish sauce, and a precursor of Worcestershire sauce), amps up the umami factor in dishes it’s used in.
In recent editions of Fleming’s seasonally evolving menu, garum-infused honey pulls crispy Brussels sprouts out of the tired-workhorse ditch that restaurants have driven them into, and gives them new life. In another starter presentation, garum vinaigrette stands in for a Southeast Asian fish sauce dip in a European riff on lettuce wraps starring rosy slices of a wood-grilled venison filet.
Garum also works its magic in the ginger-caramel sauce that glazes a whole fried fish — recently a moist, irreproachably fresh sea bass served with a medley of wood oven-roasted vegetables and jasmine rice. The fish is one of just a handful of entree options on a menu that, at least in the early going, skews heavily to small plates.
So much the better to explore the varied terrain. A shareable charcuterie sampler covers a lot of territory in a single outing: house-cured duck prosciutto, wild game mousse (typically rabbit or duck), unctuous ribbons of lardo and burrata, still warm and oozy on a board garnished with lightly pickled vegetables, mushrooms and blood orange jam.
Marinated octopus — more tender than you would have thought possible, tossed with diced Granny Smith apples in a vibrant sorrel dressing, and draped over a smoked marrow bone — is a must if it’s in the offing.
Cauliflower migas, a Spanish-inspired casserole with tomatoes, saffron and a ragged crouton crust, fetchingly served in the small cast iron skillet it was baked in, is another worthy destination. So is a rustic dish of homemade pappardelle in a wild boar ragu. (You can pretty much assume that all pastas here are made on the premises, and that they’re served in traditional primi course portions.)
Kitchen miscues are rare, an especially impressive feat given the chef’s short tenure here and the broad sweep of his menu. The only one I encountered (other than bread service, which appears to be a work in progress) was a lackluster apple cobbler, a dessert that was only partially redeemed by a scoop of homemade cardamom ice cream.
Cheesecake with saffron-infused honey and crushed pistachios, on the other hand, is a safe bet to conclude your cross-continent adventure with a smooth-as-silk landing.
Motto is the latest venture of Urban Food Group, whose other local properties include Coquette and Vivace in Raleigh. The new restaurant inherited much of the decor underpinnings of the short-lived Lucia, UFG’s previous effort at this location. The gauzy drapes separating the dining room and bar remain, as does the pair of bull horns (a nod to Durham’s “Bull City” nickname) over the open kitchen. A wall covered in repurposed wooden crate frames is the most noteworthy change in a decor that might still be best described as urban warehouse chic — a suitably neutral backdrop for Motto’s picturesque adventure of a menu.
Which reminds me: That phone you were using to Google all those terms on the menu? Might as well leave it on the table. You’ll want to take pictures of the food.
605A W. Main St., Durham, 984-219-1965
Cuisine: Italian, Mediterranean
Atmosphere: urban warehouse chic
Noise level: moderate
Service: welcoming, generally well-trained and attentive
Recommended: charcuterie board, marinated octopus, venison filet, migas, whole fried fish, lamb “gyro” platter, pastas
Open: Dinner nightly.
Reservations: suggested (walk-ins welcome).
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in the surface lot at the opposite end of the building; NOTE: restaurant is on the second floor, but ADA compliant (elevator to the right of the stairs, accessible bathrooms).
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.