Welcome to EAT THIS CITY, your tour of the best restaurants in one of our favorite cities, as chosen by a world-class chef.
This week, we’re jetting off to Durham, North Carolina! Home to the Bull Durham Blues Festival, the American Dance Festival, and the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, this is a city with an abiding love for the arts — the culinary arts very much included. Here to guide us on our tour of the city’s delectable delights is Executive Chef Josh Munchel of Counting House.
Located within 21c Museum Hotel Durham, Counting House puts modern spins on regional classics, utilizing local, seasonal ingredients. Chef Munchel, previously of Cincinnati’s Metropole, was instrumental in garnering the restaurant a place on Bon Appetit’s list of Best New Restaurants 2013. He brings the same passion and commitment to excellence at Counting House.
Is your appetite whet? Then let’s take a look at Chef Josh Munchel’s fifteen can’t miss food experiences in Durham!
This is one of the best wood burning pizzas I’ve had. They get the right amount of char on the crust every time. My favorite pies are the Hog Island Clam and the Sweet fennel Sausage. The reason the clam is so good is they cook the clams in the shell on the pie the juices soak up a good amount of smoke and there is nothing to hide behind. This pie is five things: the dough, clams, a light sprinkle of grana Padano cheese, crushed pepper, and the smoke.
This place is a little too close to my house. What I love about it is that it’s also a grocery store. They make the tortillas in house and breads for tortas. It is as close to Mexico I think you can get in Durham. They have a salsa bar and house made horchata that is outstanding.
Nazara Indian is a contemporary Indian bistro that reminds me of a place I worked in Cincinnati. They do a chaat of the day that is always on point the Zafrni Goat Curry is so warm and fresh with the slices of ginger that must be put in at the last minute to keep their crunch and clean heat.
This is Puerto Rican-inspired soul food. The empanadas and tostones are always good but to get a real taste of what they are doing I recommend the County Cuban. It has ham, Swiss cheese, eastern Carolina Q, and a mustard-based sauce sandwiched in between two hoecakes.
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Their crème brûlée doughnut is heaven. It has the crunchy burnt sugar on the top and the crème custard is stuffed in the yeasted dough.
It was ONE Restaurant in Chapel Hill. Kim Floresca and Daniel Ryan are a step above the rest; I can’t wait to see what they do next. Now I have to say Herons at the Umstead Hotel is as good as it gets. They are what hospitality means. My wife and I dined there for our anniversary; we’d just found out she was pregnant.
Being a cook, I love to do the tasting menu whenever one is offered. I had put in the notes that Theresa (my wife) was expecting and therefore if the kitchen could stay away from anything pregnant women should not eat that would be great. The dinner was absolutely fantastic; what set it apart was at the end, they brought out a gift for Theresa and our baby to be. Totally above and beyond.
They have a daily-changing board of fresh-caught fish. Get there early; once it’s gone, it’s gone. Chef Ricky has really mastered the art of simple, fresh cooking, and I can never get enough. He cooks out of a literal shed with picnic tables all around. The path up to the ordering window is paved with oyster shells. Get the “Hush-Honeys”® and, if available, the crab grits.
I love to go and see what is growing, bring it to Counting House, and do vegetarian features . We have a section on our menu strictly for the veggies. This section never stays the same during peak growing seasons.
Scratch. I love to have a mid-week brunch here; they have the best biscuit sandwich in town. They have great coffee and a strong pie game.
ICONIC FOOD OF THE CITY
Crooks Corner is not Durham but is definitely iconic. This is, to my knowledge, why you can now get shrimp and grits at almost any self-proclaimed southern restaurant.
ODD CULINARY EXPERIENCE
This is not odd; it is fun as hell! The local brewery, Ponysaurus, does this grill-out where they supply everything for a grilling party: mixed sausages, burgers, sides, buns, hot coals and the cleanup. It is everything you want a grill-out to be without all the prep or clean up.
Waffle House pecan waffle, eggs crispy over easy, bacon, white toast, large hashbrowns smothered, covered, chunked, peppered, topped, then I add Heinz 57 and Tabasco.
Dain’s Place. The condiments are in six packs, the bar cabinets are covered with pennies; every time I go in I find a new toy or something I didn’t see before. The beer list is great but the food is the perfect cure. Order the Reuben and tots on fire — I top the tots with yellow mustard; it adds a nice acid to the sweet chili.
Rose’s Meat Market and Sweet Shop
It is always special when I have the time to cook for my wife. Rose’s is such a great butcher & sweet shop. I love to grill at home and they have some great charcuterie we can snack on while the coals get hot. They source all of their proteins from local farms. Katie’s pastries are the best way to end a home-cooked meal. I always try and get there around late afternoon. The sun is coming through the window in just the right area to hit on her super rich double chocolate cookie; it is like they came right out of the oven. I will usually get two so I can eat one while it is still warm.
RESTAURANT RUN BY A FRIEND
My dude Matt Kelly kills it! Mateo is one of the most fun and well-executed places to eat in the country. But you don’t need to take my word for it. Alton Brown said it himself when he was here during his tour. Matt is a true friend and mentor. I always love our conversations late night over beers.
Thank you, Chef Munchel, for taking us on a culinary tour of Durham!
Stay tuned for more EAT THIS CITY — where each week we’ll feature a premier chef in a different city sharing their insider eating tips! Missed a week? Check out Baltimore,Monterey, Vail, Lexington, Bentonville, San Antonio, Warsaw, Kansas City, NYC, Washington DC, New Orleans, Cleveland, Miami, Seattle, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Sydney, Portland, Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Providence, Memphis, Orange County, Boston, and Detroit.
See you next week!