I had high hopes of writing a multi-part, serial story about my trip to North Carolina, starting with the Prologue (the background behind my trip), moving forward to Part One (the hotel where I stayed on the first night), and onward for the next week or so, but as so often happens, my best plans get waylaid because of 1) my injury, 2) enormous time administering the website, and perhaps most of all, 3) my refusal to write poorly – I would rather not write at all, than write poorly.
So, seeing as though three months have passed, it’s pretty obvious that this is one serial that will never be written: I did the very beginning, I’m going to need to summarize the middle, and now I’m going to write the final installment, which should have been about Part Ten.
Anyway, my successful attempt to flee the snowstorm ended up lasting about a week, and during that time, I visited four different 2015 James Beard Semifinalists:
The Chef & The Farmer (Vivian Howard), Kinston, NC – I liked this restaurant so much that I had *four* consecutive meals here. Having purposely over-ordered the first night, knowing that there wouldn’t be much else in Kinston (population 21,667), this was the first time I’d ever had, or even seen, Tom Thumb, and that might be because Chef Howard seems to be its chief proponent – a $13 appetizer, it was such a large amount of rich food that I had it for lunch the following day. Then, I had dinner here again the next night, and over-ordered a second time so I could have lunch the following day again. The closest major city is Raleigh, 80 miles away, and The Chef & The Farmer is absolutely worth the drive from there.
Mateo (Matthew Kelly), Durham, NC – Mateo is a fairly traditional Spanish tapas restaurant, and it’s substantially better than Jaleo – probably the best tapas I’ve had in America with the clear exception of Coqueta in San Francisco, and also possibly my second visit to Amada in Philadelphia. I stuck with several traditional tapas so I could make a fair comparison (patatas bravas, gambas, tortilla Española), and all were very good to excellent; more importantly, there was this:
Nana’s, (Scott Howell), Durham, NC – I was the only person dining at the bar on this evening, and found out that Scott Howell will be opening (if he hasn’t already) a steakhouse. The bread here is excellent, and I would direct diners to any local fish, and anything that says “cast iron roasted” in the menu description. I knew I’d need some bread in the morning, and asked if I could purchase a baguette (they really are good) – the chef was there, and was kind enough to give me one, free of charge, since it was the end of the evening, and I had enjoyed a fairly ample meal. Good, solid Southern cooking and worth your time to visit.
Scratch Bakery (Phoebe Lawless), Durham, NC – Phoebe Lawless is known for her pies and her “donut muffins” (which I thoroughly enjoyed), but I also bought a little something to take home – a souvenir of my trip: a jar of “Bacon Jam.” Well, you can just imagine – it was the only thing in my refrigerator for a couple of months, save for the occasional leftovers and six-pack. And it was just jammed full of bacon, too – with tax and tip, this little jar was something like $14, and it was worth every penny. At one point, I had Nana’s bread, (the fading remnants of) Mateo’s ham, Scratch’s Bacon Jam (unopened), and a half-bottle of Sherry I had purchased, all in a neat little photo – not bad for leftovers!
Well, I had killed two birds with one stone, averting the snowstorm, and dining at four different James Beard semifinalists, all in one week. Where do you go from here other than “back home?” I’ll tell you where: You go to the restaurant of a chef with whom you’ve been talking online for years, but have never met – a courtesy call on my way out of Durham, before heading back to Washington, DC. A quick lunch, and then a long drive in front of me.
Never did I realize that when I checked out of my hotel on that final morning, I had yet to eat the *most amazing meal of my entire trip*.
The name Ricky Moore probably isn’t familiar to many of our readers, but that’s only because enough time has passed where you’ve forgotten: Chef Moore used to head the kitchen at Agraria (now Farmers, Fishers, Bakers) at Washington Harbor.
Ricky moved back down south a few years ago, and even though I’d never met him before, we’ve kept in touch via Facebook. I knew he had a little restaurant in Durham, so I decided to finally pay my respects and say hello on my way back to DC, and headed to his restaurant, Saltbox Seafood Joint, for lunch.
I pulled up into the (snow-covered) gravel parking lot of what can only be called a *dive*. A seafood shanty in the truest sense of the word, in a little shack the size of a frozen custard stand.
I walked up to the ordering window, and there were two gentlemen working inside, one taking orders, and the other cooking – I didn’t know which one Ricky was, so I asked, and then introduced myself – after many years of writing each other on occasion, we finally got a chance to shake hands in person.
Ricky knew I was coming, but it didn’t matter – he didn’t even cook my food; the other gentleman did. There was no special treatment, no extra food, and nothing for free – I was treated like a regular customer, and insisted on paying for everything, figuring I’d have a pleasant meal before beginning my long drive back home from Durham.
The meal I had at Saltbox Seafood Joint was, without question, not only the greatest meal I’ve ever had at a seafood shanty (and I’ve been to some awfully good ones) – no, it was my favorite meal of the entire trip. Yes, this simple little seafood joint made me happier than any of the four James Beard Nominees I tried – you can’t compare the experiences: Saltbox has no wine list, no servers, no AGMs who walk out in the middle of service; it’s just a simple little shack, and it’s serving perhaps the best fried fish I’ve had in my life, chowder like I’ve never experienced before, and *the* best hushpuppies I’ve ever eaten. It was the kind of food that makes you hate the biological fact that you get full, because you want to continue to enjoy it for hours on end, but it’s impossible. For $23, I got enough food for two meals, and this was a feast that I’ll remember for the rest of my life:
Fried Triggerfish Roll ($13)
Hush Honey’s ($4)
The mollusks in the chowder, the honey at the bottom of the hush puppies, the triggerfish that was *so* fresh, and the sauces that were perfection. Does anything more really need to be written to describe what you see here?
Saltbox Seafood Joint: Not just worth a visit if you’re in Durham; worth the drive from Washington, DC. If I had my choice of a last meal between a Michelin 3-star restaurant in Paris and this? You know what? I’d probably take the Michelin 3-star in Paris. But I’d think long and hard before making that choice. This should be a future James Beard Nominee – not for an “America’s Classic,” but for “Best Chef, Southeast.”