Triangular Eating, Global Province Letter, 20 November 2014

Bristol Surprise.  Decades ago we took a leisurely journey around the United States, making our way across the northern states, then cutting a swath back from California through the southwestern states so as to avoid the chill of early fall. We worked out way back up north, stealing one night across the border from Bristol, Tennessee into Bristol, Virginia.

The challenge in that early but very dark evening was to find some place to eat. We tried a cafeteria but the vegetables in the steam table looked so gruesome that we knew we had to move on. Better not to eat at all we thought. As we escaped, we noticed across two parking lots a neon sign that simply said Food. We headed there and had a meal of fish and meat and such that was fit for a prince. It seems two fellas had come down from the East and opened a secret gourmet restaurant in Bristol of all places. 'Twas a delight. We wonder now whether that restaurant has survived.

Deeply Average.  There is no such gem to be discovered in the Research Triangle of North Carolina. The weak infrastructure of the area does not support an adequate grade school system, decent back highways, cultural institutions with any depth, or wonderfully flavorful food. The most important university is North Carolina State, not the renowned Duke or UNC, but this is an engineering school, which tells us how to do things but not how to generate excellence.

This taste for the average shows up in the local media, which raves about modest restaurants. When out-of-towners write about local food, they fall for mediocre affairs pushed by local stringers. Hence, the late Johnny Apple of the New York Times, who took up food as a second calling after writing about politics for a number of years, waxed purple and pink about Magnolia Grill (now closed), which was neither good nor bad. It could turn out all right if you ordered the kitchen to leave off gravies, sauces, and other unnecessary ingredients: its waiters were tolerable but suffered from an excess of attitude. Apple couldn't rave enough about this okay establishment: "The parade of clear, punchy flavors is complemented by a highly individual wine list, featuring not only the usual suspects from France and California but also what it calls ''more hip varietals…" etc, etc.

Year in and year out, the best restaurant in the region is Nana's, also in Durham, where one is spared the torrent of words and unbearable hyperbole that cover up less than sublime fare at other venues.. Nana's is American Continental, which means reasonably spare well-cooked food brought to the table by polite servers and capped by a decent price.

The best restaurants in North Carolina are located in the west, particularly in Asheville. The reader can find reviews of a few on the Global Province.

Cutting It All Down to Size.  Our Triangle restaurant directory covers many of the best and leaves out many of the old chestnuts that are simply not worth the time and trouble. Go to this Best of Triangle entry to pare down the list yet further. We feature the few best and also the few good buys.

By the way, steak houses in the region do a land office business. We have tried them all and there's not a real winner in the bunch. Oddly enough this often happens in regions where the cattle run deep. Neither Dallas, nor Houston, nor San Antonio have particularly good steaks, even with the vast herds of beef cattle in Texas.

Takayama.  We recently had supreme meat, meat that melts in your mouth, in Takayama, a Japan Alps town that seems undistinguished on the surface. Tagami Katsunori, chef and owner, can cook up a storm. His Le Midi Restaurant is as good as it gets. He did lots of his training in France, and it shows. We've only had one meal there, but arguably it is the best meal we have ever had in Japan. You just don't know where great food is going to crop up.

If Bristol can sort of do it and if Takayama can really do it, the Research Triangle, particularly Durham, cannot be far behind. The most promising new restaurants in the area are the work of émigrés--Mexican, Thai, Moroccan, Peruvian. An interesting Japanese restaurant is to open soon in Durham. Greatness will come when some outlandish person comes from the ends of the earth to Durham, having worked for a few years in France or Italy. He or she will have triangulated perhaps between a hamlet in Asia, a provincial restaurant near the coast of France, and the Triangle.

P.S. We have yet to figure out why the Research Triangle, now the growth region of North Carolina, evades greatness and sticks to the average. A bright woman venture capitalist in the area talked about start-ups with us once. She said, "We can churn out two or even three base hits. But we never produced homers." Decades ago, the state had a rash of good politicians, as talented and worthy as any in the nation. But this has all disappeared, and one cannot believe the nonentities who populate all the top offices in the state. Economically the state should be growing a lot faster, but mediocrity has inflicted inertia in too many quarters.


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