Even the most ardent fans of chef Phoebe Lawless – owner of Durham’s Scratch Bakery – might not be aware that she has been cooking professionally for more than 20 years. She earned her culinary chops at the Black Dog Cafe, a popular City Market spot in the ’90s, and later cooked at the acclaimed Deluxe in Wilmington.
Lawless is best known, however, for her more recent accomplishments as a baker and pastry chef. After working for eight years under James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Karen Barker, she struck out on her own, first selling pies at the Durham Farmers Market, then opening Scratch Bakery in downtown Durham in 2010. She garnered five James Beard Award nominations of her own along the way.
It should come as no surprise, then, that desserts are given pride of place on the main menu at The Lakewood, the full-service restaurant and bar that Lawless opened in May. For some, that will no doubt present a temptation to heed that old dictum about the uncertainty of life and eat dessert first.
Yield to that temptation and you might start your meal with, say, an inspired blue cheese brûlée with sweet potato butter, pickled cherries and Scratch-baked (in both senses of the word) rye crisps. Or you could celebrate October with a nod to the State Fair: apple scrap funnel cake with sesame caramel ripple ice cream.
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Then again, if you’re familiar with Lawless’ textbook flaky pie crusts, I’m guessing you’ll find it impossible to resist the siren call of her double crust muscadine pie, which she’s serving with a couple of scoops of crème fraîche ice cream on a plate scattered with candied pecans.
Iron-willed souls who choose to save dessert for its traditional place at the end of the meal can (and most definitely should) still start with a sampling of Lawless’s celebrated baking skills. Sure, her sampler of house-baked breads – recently, crusty City Wheat, classic mini-baguette and a delightful cornmeal riff on Sally Lunn buns, served with kimchi butter – will set you back $7. It’s worth every penny.
Lawless aptly describes The Lakewood’s offering as “American craft cookery,” which translates to a multicultural mix that embraces everything from shrimp toast to a vegetarian riff on the old Southern classic Country Captain featuring cornmeal-breaded fried ricotta dumplings.
The menu changes nominally every month, but in reality evolves with the local harvest and Lawless’s inspiration. The togarashi-spiced grilled okra that delighted back in the summer, when the pods were still small and tender, has made way for a more traditional Southern okra stew. And if the Country Captain is still on the menu when you get there, by all means snap it up – though the dish she’s thinking of replacing it with, poached ricotta dumplings (gnudi) with old-fashioned Southern sour corn and mountain-foraged mushrooms, sounds like ample consolation.
Grits soufflé with charred chicken liver mousse, framed in a wreath of earthy-sweet onion jam, has been so popular that it’s pretty much earned a permanent spot on the list of options under the Small Plates heading. Deservedly so.
NOLA bbq Pamlico shrimp has earned the same status on the Large Plates list – that is, according to Lawless, “as long as we can get those big beautiful brown shrimp.” Grab it while you can, and plan on using the grilled baguette that comes with it to sop up every last drop of that rich Cajun-spiced sauce.
Pan-seared North Carolina fish (depending on the catch, anything from striped bass to sheepshead to the red snapper I enjoyed recently), served over a warm, colorful salad of tasso ham, toasted cornbread cubes and seasonal vegetables, is another keeper.
Those who prefer their protein on the hoof won’t be disappointed in the bavette steak, expertly grilled to order and served with addictive pan-seared lemon gnocchi, long-cooked broccoli (aka smothered broccoli – and yes, it’s supposed to be that soft), and a silky olive oil hollandaise. Or with the Iowa chop – a thick, center-cut pork chop from Firsthand Foods, served with sweet potato puree and barbecue peppers.
For all her obvious talents, Phoebe Lawless doesn’t take herself too seriously. She serves a folksy take on beef tartare with homemade chowchow, a raw egg, a smear of yellow mustard sauce and Ritz crackers. Drop in for brunch and you can order a baloney sandwich. Mind you, the baloney is made by local barbecue and charcuterie artisan, The Pig.
Kitchen miscues are rare and minor, but the front of the house still has some wrinkles to iron out. Service can vary widely depending on the experience and training of the server you get. The bar offering is first-rate, but execution is inconsistent. The same cocktail, ordered on two separate occasions, was served in two different (and quite different in size) glasses.
Given Lawless’ background, it seems especially fitting that The Lakewood is located in a building that once was home to the Davis Baking Company for more than 60 years. Preserving period details, including crown molding and a tin ceiling, and hanging a mix of contemporary art and enlargements of old color slides of her grandparents’ cottage on Lake Erie on the plaster walls, she has created a well-suited backdrop for the food she serves. Food, you might say, that’s refreshingly inventive without ever losing sight of its American roots.
2022 Chapel Hill Road, Durham
Cuisine: contemporary American
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: casual mix of contemporary and vintage
Noise level: moderate
Recommended: bread sampler, grits soufflé, ricotta dumplings, NOLA bbq shrimp, bavette steak, Iowa chop, desserts.
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Monday, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; rooftop patio; limited parking on street; see website for details on parking in nearby Shops at Lakewood lot.
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.