There’s no telling how many cocktails Shannon Healy has made over the past two decades. Healy, the longtime head bartender at Crook’s Corner before he opened Alley Twenty Six in 2012, was way ahead of the modern craft cocktail curve.
Back when other bars were promoting appletinis as the height of spirits sophistication, Healy was making his own bitters and tonic. He was a leader in the revival of old school cocktails (including the first Sazerac that I ever came across in a local bar), and he used his extensive knowledge of the classic cocktail repertoire as a foundation for creating his own concoctions – always respecting the time-tested tenets of keeping all elements of a drink in balance.
You might say that Healy’s decision to expand Alley Twenty Six into the neighboring space and add a restaurant to his bar called for the most complex and delicately balanced recipe he’s ever attempted. His fans won’t be surprised that the blend he came up with goes down easy.
The presentation and garnish, so to speak, were a given. Because the dining room and kitchen are located in the new space, Healy was able to leave the casually elegant bar undisturbed, from its burnished wood bar and rich brown leather-upholstered stools to its cozy sofa grouping in the front window. The decor of the dining room with its open kitchen (and a second, smaller bar) is a harmonious blend of oval mirrors on French rosé walls, hardwood floors stained the color of Amaretto, a sparkling glass display case of liquor bottles, and a garnish of mint green dining chairs.
The tricky part of the recipe was incorporating a food menu that would measure up to the liquid offering at one of the area’s premier bars without upstaging it. Healy found the key ingredient for meeting that challenge in the form of chef Carrie Schleiffer, who most recently dazzled with her food-and-beverage balancing act at Bar Virgile, and before that at the gastropub G2B.
Schleiffer’s menu leans to small plates with assertive flavors that stand up to their potent beverage counterparts.
Her twist on the chicken-and-waffle theme pairs a chicken-fried confit duck leg with a spiced waffle and a schmear of chicken liver and foie gras mousseline. The mousseline takes a star turn in another offering, where it’s served with rounds of toasted baguette on a board garnished with pickled cherries and Dijon mustard. Five-spice barbecue spare ribs are slathered in a sticky, finger-licking soy-ginger-garlic sauce. Cornmeal-crusted fried oysters come with a spicy remoulade, house-made pickles and a charred lemon half.
There are just enough pickles on that plate to make you want more, an itch you can scratch by ordering the “jar of pickles” listed under the Snacks heading. Just what pickles the half-pint canning jar contains will depend on the market and the chef’s whim. A recent order produced a Technicolor tangle of beets, cornichons, carrots and turmeric-tinged cauliflower.
The Snacks section is a small trove of shareable nibbles, including marinated olives, maple bacon pecans, and a pretty presentation of deviled eggs, each garnished with a sprinkle of smoked paprika and a single edible flower petal. A decidedly more rustic but equally rewarding variation on the egg theme is the deep-fried Scotch egg, whose yolk oozes out onto the plate when you break through the crispy “shell” of panko-crusted sausage.
Among the handful of entree offerings, the pan-seared bass, served with sautéed shiitakes and broccolini in a ginger white wine cream sauce that will make you want to lick the plate, is most definitely a keeper. So are house-made pappardelle in a voluptuous hazelnut cream sauce. Same goes for the burger, juicy and so fat it’s almost round (the optional foie gras is worth the splurge). And the chef’s spicy riff on a lobster roll, loaded with plump nuggets of butter-poached lobster tossed in mayo amped up with hot sauce.
In fact, given Schleiffer’s near flawless track record, I’ll go out on a limb and say you probably won’t go wrong with the only entree I haven’t yet sampled, the recently added bone-in pork chop with duck fat potatoes.
Your well-trained server will happily suggest food-and-beverage pairings, whether your preferred poison is cocktail, beer or wine (a short but well-chosen list that reflects Healy’s other former role as sommelier at Crook’s). If you’re there for the cocktails that are the bar’s original claim to fame, though, you’d be well-advised to check out the Pairings menu that Healy and Schleiffer recently put their heads together to assemble. They have a few pleasant surprises in store for you.
Who’d have thought, for instance, to pair the fried oysters with a cocktail called the How Leeward (pineapple-infused scotch, Montenegro amaro, drunken pineapple syrup, lemon and soda)? It certainly would never have occurred to me, but I’m here to tell you that it’s a winning combination.
The dessert offering is, as you might expect, short and sweet. The chocolate pecan pie won’t let chocoholics down, but the gin and tonic sorbet “sundae” is downright inspired. The sorbet, made by The Parlour just down the street, is available with a variety of “toppings,” including a splash of Zaya rum (the most dessert-like), or Conniption American dry gin (for the G&T fan), or Pimm’s (the lightest). There’s also a virgin presentation topped with a generous squirt of syrup that Schleiffer makes by reducing Shannon’s tonic with juniper and coriander.
Whichever you choose, you’ll end the meal on a note that truly captures the, um, spirit of Alley Twenty Six.
Alley Twenty Six
320 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham
Cuisine: contemporary American
Atmosphere: casually elegant
Noise level: moderate
Recommended: foie gras mousseline, jar of pickles, duck and waffle, pan-seared black bass, burger, gin & tonic sorbet “sundae”
Open: Dinner nightly (bar opens at 4 p.m., restaurant at 5:30 p.m.)
Reservations: accepted for parties of 10 or more; not accepted on weekends
Other: full bar; get a sitter; modest vegetarian selection; parking on street and in the Chapel Hill Street Garage Deck.
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.