Scouting: Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina

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Last week Mike and I spent a few days exploring central North Carolina and snooping through the greater Raleigh-Durham area. We scouted old favorite places from Mike’s college days and taking a trip literally down memory lane as we skulked around behind the house he lived in senior year. The verdict, for interested parties: deck appears to be gone, but the ancient hot tub lives on. (eww.)

Much as I loved seeing the locations of epic hibachi dinners of yesteryear, mostly we were finding new places and discovering how much has changed in the region over the past 10+ years. I’m by no means an expert on urban revitalization, but even I could see the signs that both Raleigh and Durham are part of the same trend that has Austin, Nashville, Portland (OR & ME), and of course, Brooklyn, drawing like-minded people together to found businesses, open restaurants, and write a new chapter for these great cities.

Chiefly, of course, I’m most interested in the food culture and North Carolina is well established as an intersection of low-country, Southern cooking and pork-focused barbeque. Before we left I did a ton of research to try to focus our efforts, but with only three days I know we missed some gems!

Dine + Drink:
Beasley’s Chicken + Honey (Downtown Raleigh) Restaurants need focus and if the name alone didn’t clue you in, the menu will. Beasley’s is doing simple, beautifully executed Southern food, with just a slight twist. Like my crispy fried chicken on a fluffy biscuit for instance, which came drizzled with golden honey and topped with a pickled green tomato. The interior reflects that “modern-heritage” vibe too – a little industrial, with just a hint of schoolhouse. Perfect.

Boulted Bread (Raleigh) Taking pride in the craft and highlighting local ingredients in the most delicious way possible were my takeaways from Boulted Bread. Oh, and the amazing chocolate-raspberry pull apart, which was a revelation. The space is 25% café with straightforward coffee and gorgeous pastries, 75% working bakery providing bread to local restaurants. If there are samples on the counter – try them! Then buy a loaf once you realize how good that Seeded Levain is and tell your friends.

Foster’s Market (Durham) This market is of the old guard specialty food shops - think Oakville Grocery, Barefoot Contessa, TASTE. Mike remembered it from his college days and it came to our rescue when we had concert tickets and traffic estimates were dire. The new plan: arrive early and tailgate. After much contemplation of the menu we made our selection of “fancy” sandwiches, picked out a cold six-pack of microbrew, a cookie or two (the gingersnaps are extraordinary), and sat in the stadium parking lot for an impromptu picnic.

Fullsteam Brewery (Durham) You’ve heard of “farm-to-table,” well this brewery is “plow-to-pint” and is highlighting North Carolina produced ingredients in their beers. It serves a dual purpose: crafting distinctive Southern-style brews and contributing to the economic well-being of the region. They’ve created a fun atmosphere in what appears to be a converted mechanic shop and we were easily talked into staying for their Thursday night trivia competition. I’m not much of a beer drinker, but their El Toro Shandy hit the spot and Mike took a shine to the El Toro and the Cack-A-Lacky.

Pizzeria Toro (Downtown Durham) Fresh, ingredient-centered dishes, thoughtfully combined and judiciously prepared – no over-wrought plates here – just as a pizzeria should be. Start with the suppli al telefono (miniature arancini) and kale salad for sure - we had to negotiate last bites. Then see if you can choose just one of the perfectly crispy wood-fired pizzas. We finally settled on the soft-egg with arugula, and I loved the peppery leaves with the rich, salty parmesan.

Durham

Stay + Visit:
21C Museum Hotel (Downtown Durham) Durham has some lovely architecture and I was impressed by the city’s efforts to repurpose and preserve historic office buildings and manufacturing facilities. Case in point: this hotel house in the Hill Building, where many of the original fixtures have been preserved including the original bank vault, lobby letterbox, and floors. The hotel has several galleries of contemporary art and was the perfect home-base for our explorations.

Hillsborough, N.C. – This town is so charming and appears to be carpeted with historic homes. I swear every lawn had a white-painted shingle detailing a past resident of significance. We would have spent more time here, but a torrential storm dampened our enthusiasm for exploration (pun 1,000% intended) and instead we camped out at Cup-A-Joe and had one of the best chocolate chip cookies ever. So, it wasn’t a total loss! I’d love to go back for a visit to Ayr Mount and hopefully dinner at Panciuto.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens – After wandering the Duke University grounds, getting our requisite gear from the campus store, and marveling at the massive amount of construction underway a visit somewhere more peaceful was in order. A lovely combination of manicured, formal gardens and more naturalistic green spaces it was fascinating for a novice gardener to see how the two types were seamlessly intertwined. A great place to stroll the paths or stretch out on the lawn with a good book.

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Napa Anniversary Trip

   Napa Valley, California  | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Napa Valley, California | Image: Laura Messersmith

Today Mike and I are celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary – five years ago at this moment I was sitting down to a beautiful breakfast in the dining room of the Fontainebleu Inn giddy with excitement and nerves for the day to come. I can’t actually remember what I ate but I think crispy potatoes were involved, maybe waffles? Let’s hope it was waffles.

After a day filled with joy and lots of dancing we re-packed our bags and flew to San Francisco for a honeymoon trip in Napa. It worked out beautifully that we were in Northern California earlier this month and had a chance to revisit one of my favorite places in the world for an anniversary trip.

There were a handful of spots that stood out five years ago and we found some new places on this trip that have become new favorites. If you have a chance to go I highly recommend putting at least a few of these on your itinerary.

   Napa Valley, California  | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Napa Valley, California | Image: Laura Messersmith

  Frog's Leap   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Frog's Leap | Image: Laura Messersmith

Sip:
Frog’s Leap – We had fond memories of sipping wine on the back porch here and had to come back. FL takes a lot of pride in growing grapes and making wine with great respect for the environment, and that feeling of communing with the valley carries through to the tasting experience. A perfect spot to relax, watch the bees buzz, and let the magic of Napa fall over you.

Paraduxx – A new find on this trip and we absolutely fell in love with the wines as evidenced by how difficult it was to choose which ones to bring home. A laid back vibe with really warm, friendly guidance from the tasting room hosts. Who doesn’t want to try a glass (or six) while surrounded by rustling vineyards?

Tamber Bey – The excellent wine and location on Sundance Ranch make Tamber Bey unique, as do the pairings: specially prepared miniature cookies. The combinations are developed by local pastry chef Michelle Romaine and it’s amazing to see in action the way a chardonnay is transformed by lemony shortbread spiked with pink peppercorn. But, I bet I had you at cookies, right?

  Tamber Bey   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Tamber Bey | Image: Laura Messersmith

  Gott's Roadside (aka Taylor's Refresher)   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Gott's Roadside (aka Taylor's Refresher) | Image: Laura Messersmith

Dine:
Ad Hoc – This was the first place we had dinner on our honeymoon and the memory of that fried chicken has lived on in our dreams. Definitely an auspicious beginning. The atmosphere is casual, but don’t be fooled – this is a Thomas Keller restaurant and the cooking is top-notch. Ice cream sandwiches for dessert don’t hurt anything either!

Gott’s Roadside (neé Taylor’s Refresher) – Classic roadside food of the type popularized by In N Out and Shake Shack on their respective coasts. We kept it old-school with a cheeseburgers and diet coke. The grassy backyard dotted with red picnic tables and shaded by umbrellas combined with the mid-century vibe make it easy to pretend you’ve been transported into a Beach Boys song.

Oakville Grocery – Another re-visit, but when the food is this good it’s hard to blame us. We made this our lunch stop on the biking day and I was grateful for the miles covered when it came time to choose a sandwich. So many great combinations and delicious treats it’s hard to decide where to start, so here’s a hint: roast turkey with apple jam and pickled red onions.

The Restaurant at Meadowood – Probably the most elegant, beautifully prepared and presented meal I’ve ever eaten. The entire tasting menu is full of whimsical touches and the experience feels like an adventure – who knows what delicious and inventive bite will arrive next? I really can’t overstate the attention to detail in every dish and in the service. Definitely a place for a very special occasion.

  Oakville Grocery   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Oakville Grocery | Image: Laura Messersmith

  Solage Calistoga   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Solage Calistoga | Image: Laura Messersmith

Stay & Do:
Solage – Is it possible for Napa (a little oasis in and of itself) to be more tranquil? Somehow this boutique hotel in Calistoga manages to distill that peace and amplify it with carefully appointed rooms in a gorgeous setting. Case in point: real milk in the fridge to go with a freshly brewed pot of coffee, from actual grounds. In a world where shelf stable creamers and pods seem standard this alone wins my devotion. I wish we had more time to sample the spa and make better use of the pool, but all the more reason to go back!

Napa Valley Bike Tours – There's an almost 0% chance that I'm going to hit the gym while I'm on vacation. A little ambient exercise is more my speed - a long walk, or in this case a bike ride fit the bill. The valley is easy to navigate, so we did a self-guided tour and NVBT makes it simple and stress-free with helpful maps, wine pick-ups, and great recommendations. It's also a cool way to stop and smell the roses along the way, see the valley from a different perspective.

  Solage Calistoga  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Solage Calistoga | Image: Laura Messersmith

Scouting: Artisanal Bread Class @ ICC

  Focaccia with Rosemary  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Focaccia with Rosemary | Image: Laura Messersmith

If you had told me a few weeks ago that I could shape a pain aux chocolate, bake brioche, or braid challah I wouldn’t have believed you. I used to actively avoid recipes that called for yeast - proofing, folding, shaping - these were all totally foreign to me and really intimidating. Sadness, right? Because bread is sooo good -#ilovecarbs - and even better when you can choose your own adventure with the ingredients.

So, I signed up for the Artisanal Bread class at the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute) in Soho and spent 5 days in the bread kitchen with the talented and encouraging Chef Johnson Yu learning the ins and outs of flour, water, yeast, and salt and how variations in ratios, fermentation time, shaping, and additional ingredients like eggs, olive oil, and whole grains can result in an amazing variety of delicious bread.

    M uesli Br ö tchen dough  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

 Muesli Brötchen dough | Image: Laura Messersmith

In addition to using giant mixers and scaling - baker speak for measuring by weight - massive quantities of ingredients we also practiced the traditional shapes for bread: batard-shaped multi-grain loaves of pain aux cereal; thumb folded and lengthened baguettes; rolled round, hand-sized muesli brötchen, which loosely translates to “buns with fruit and nuts in them.” We braided that challah I mentioned, twisted soft pretzels, and rolled loops of dough into bagels.

  Croissant in Progress   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Croissant in Progress | Image: Laura Messersmith

  Croissants  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Croissants | Image: Laura Messersmith

I got used to working with a kitchen towel at my waist; a thin dusting of flour on my hands (my notebook from class still has a light coating between the pages.) I learned that there’s something really satisfying about working with bread – the rhythm of timing, the focused mindlessness of portioning and shaping – and something even better about eating a slice that bears your invisible fingerprints. Or visible fingerprints, as in the case of the dimpled focaccia with rosemary.

  Walnut Raisin Bread  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Walnut Raisin Bread | Image: Laura Messersmith

We now have a plastic bin functioning as make-shift bread freezer on our fire escape thanks to the frigid temperatures in New York, and it’s full to the brim with tightly plastic-wrapped and carefully labeled loaves. One of each kind we made, evidence of the week’s efforts, ready to be defrosted and served – inspiration for future baking endeavors.

International Culinary Center | 462 Broadway; New York, New York 10013 | 888.324.2433

Scouting: SP Nuts & Candy Co.

  SP Nuts & Candy Co.  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

SP Nuts & Candy Co. | Image: Laura Messersmith

My trip to Tribeca to visit SP Nuts & Candy Co. was inspired in a round about fashion. I was watching that old Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks classic You’ve Got Mail engaging in one of my favorite past times: trying to spot the locations used in Manhattan-centric films. In this case, the scene takes place as Meg walks up Broadway passes a shop called (appropriately) the “Broadway Nut Shop.”

My eagle eye noticed a sign for W80th in the background and yet I couldn’t recall ever seeing this store on a stretch of pavement I know well, which led me to Google which led me to these two links: RIP Broadway Nut Shop on Chowhound and a piece on the New York Times entitled Plenty of Nuts for Sale, but the Roasters Are Vanishing.

  SP Nuts & Candy Co.   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

SP Nuts & Candy Co. | Image: Laura Messersmith

I had no idea that in the early 20th Century people would regularly shop for roasted nuts in the same way they might visit a butcher or baker, or that there was a whole category of shops that have nearly disappeared from the modern street. The Times article mentioned SP Nuts as one of (if not the only) holdout in Manhattan that still roasts some of their stock on site.

I knew I had to visit and see this piece of Old New York for myself. What I found was a bright, well organized shop with a rows of nuts, legumes, candy, dried fruit, and chocolates contained in clear glass jars with a vintage roaster turning away in the front window. The sign declares "We Are Nuts About Nuts" and it's clear that their customers are too. One of the shop assistants, Gustavo, explained that many of SP’s customers come in just after Noon because the almonds and cashews will be freshly roasted and still warm. Luckily I was there at this magic hour and Gustavo was kind enough to offer a taste test. Now I understand why folks arrive right on time – a freshly roasted cashew is delicious!

  SP Nuts & Candy Co.   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

SP Nuts & Candy Co. | Image: Laura Messersmith

  SP Nuts & Candy Co.   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

SP Nuts & Candy Co. | Image: Laura Messersmith

I had a recipe in mind, so I had to skip the house specialties and bring home a bag of pecans instead to whip up a batch of for Sugar and Spice Candied Pecans, but my visit to SP Nuts has me pondering ways to incorporate almonds, cashews and pistachios. And, you can bet that I’ll definitely show up at Noon!

SP Nuts & Candy Co. | 166 Church St; New York, NY | Mon – Fri 9:00 am – 7:00 pm; Sat 10:00 am – 6:00 pm