In retrospect, I should have picked up on the hint that fried oysters are priced by the half dozen at Triangle Seafood, the restaurant and seafood market that opened last December in Brightleaf Square. As it happened, I didn’t suspect anything out of the ordinary until my entree order of a dozen arrived.
They were huge, for starters, and exceptionally fresh. Cooked just to the point of barely setting in a light cornmeal breading subtly seasoned with Old Bay, these were the best fried oysters I’d had in recent memory. No way, I thought, are these the pre-shucked Select grade that’s the norm in seafood restaurants.
Sure enough, general manager Juliana Phillips confirmed that oysters are shucked in-house for fried oysters – a rare practice, even in restaurants with a raw bar. In my experience, fried is typically treated as a poor cousin to raw or steamed in those places.
Half the credit for these magnificent specimens goes to resident fishmonger Mark Ivey, whose daily seafood deliveries are also available for cook-it-yourself types in the market at the back of the restaurant. The other half goes to veteran chef Dionisio Erazo, who comes to Durham from New York by way of Charlotte.
The pair team up to deliver some pretty fine seafood on the plate, as I discovered over the course of two visits – one on a weekend and the other midweek (pretty much de rigueur when reviewing a seafood restaurant, where freshness is paramount). Oysters on the half shell are as excellent as the fried ones, irreproachably fresh and properly shucked without spilling any of that precious briny liquor. The selection is limited – only one or two varieties are usually on offer – but, judging by the beautiful bivalves I scored, the common Gulf oysters that are the default here are anything but common.
Steamed clams – Little Neck or Middle Neck, usually, depending on the market – are also on point. Peruvian-inspired shrimp ceviche – marinated in lime and tomato juice and garnished with pickled onion and crunchy kernels of toasted corn – is tasty, too, though in my opinion the dish would be improved by keeping the shrimp whole rather than chopping them into half-inch pieces.
When it comes to entrees, take your cue from those daily deliveries and check the chalkboard just outside the restaurant’s entrance, where the feature might be North Carolina flounder, swordfish or the grilled whole red snapper I landed one night. I could also have opted to have the fish fried or baked, according to our eager-to-please (but somewhat inexperienced) server.
If the fresh catch doesn’t float your boat, you can always dip a line into the waters of the regular menu, which offers a varied selection of entrees and house-made pastas. The list includes the obligatory non-seafood options (grilled rib-eye, roast chicken), but the bulk of the offering is devoted to an eclectic seafood selection that runs the gamut from New England shrimp boil to pan-seared scallops with saffron risotto.
Salmon, that overworked restaurant menu mainstay, gets a refreshing twist: grilled to order (ask for medium-rare and that’s precisely what you’ll get), and served over an Asian-inspired salad of cucumber, tomato and sweet chile oil-infused noodles.
A separate section is devoted to fried seafood – half a dozen options, from N.C. catfish to beer-battered cod. This is the spot where you’ll want to cast your net for those fried oysters (which, by the way, will set you back $9 per half dozen, an eminently reasonably price, given their quality and the fact that they come with fries and creamy, coarse-cut slaw).
Lighter appetites can chart their course to the section labeled “Rolls, Tacos and Sliders,” where the selection includes “catch of the day” fish tacos (grilled or fried) and a trio of seafood sliders: salmon patty, Cajun fried shrimp and seared tuna. The lobster roll is respectable, though a New Englander would take issue with the proportion of lobster to mayo and bun.
Kitchen miscues are infrequent and generally minor – a side of sautéed kale that gets an overzealous shake of salt, say, or a doughy underside of crust on a peach cobbler (though the homemade ice cream in the à la mode version is worthy in its own right). I’m told the chef has adjusted the size of the crab cakes, whose spherical shape makes getting the interior completely warm without burning the panko crust a challenge. Further tweaking is needed.
The dining room is an open and contemporary space with muted earth tones – ivory upholstery, canvas drapes evoking ships’ sails – softening the effect of the rough brick walls, concrete floors and timeworn wood pillars inherited from the building’s original incarnation as a tobacco warehouse. In fair weather, the tree-shaded courtyard patio is an enticing option. It’s a popular spot on weekends, though, so you might want to consider arriving early. That way, you’ll also be sure they still have plenty of oysters on hand.
905-18A W. Main St., Durham; 919-956-7360
Atmosphere: open and contemporary
Noise level: moderate
Service: eager to please, variably experienced
Recommended: oysters (raw, steamed, fried), clams, grilled salmon, fresh catch
Open: lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; minimal vegetarian selection; patio; parking validated for the lot across Gregson Street
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.