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Disappointing Magnolia Grill dinner


scottie
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My SO and I were back in the Triangle last week, and it fell to me to choose the dinner destinations. I've been wanting to try Magnolia Grill since forever. So we went there. And you know what? It wasn't all that great.

Granted, we dined there on the Thursday before Duke's parents' weekend, so it was pretty packed with parents and students, but I don't think that should be an excuse. Ben Barker was present that night, so I have to imagine that our food was prepared to his standards.

Here's what we had. Couldn't find a menu, so no fancy descriptions:

me: seared scallops

Duck breast

Apple sorbet with blue cheese and pecans, served with blue cheese shortbread

him: foie gras

Filet

can't remember the dessert

My scallops were oversalted and not nearly as good as some I made at home a couple of months ago. My duck was tough and was served medium, not medium rare as I had requested. My dessert was pretty good. I really wanted to try the desserts, as Karen Barker is so famous for them, and this one was good. But not outstanding.

My boyfriend's foie gras was good. His filet was just fine. All I remember about his dessert is that it wasn't very exciting.

We had a nice Californian Pinot Noir- Napa, not Russian River. That was pretty good. The service was good, too. But the food just didn't warrant all the rave reviews we've read and heard about Magnolia Grill.

I guess we've been spoiled by New York City. I've been here since June, and we have had many, many fine meals in that time. Even our neighborhood bistro consistently turns out more creative and more flavorful food than the rather pedestrian and uninspired fare we received at Magnolia.

I would give it one more chance, but there are plenty of places in the Triangle where I know I can expect a creative, well-prepared meal for the same price or less, without having to wrestle for reservations.

So my question is: Has anyone else had a disappointing experience there? Does everyone believe Magnolia deserves all the hype? Am I just spoiled? Opinions, please.

P.S. The best meal we had during our visit was at Tolero's Taqueria in Carrboro. Yum!

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I guess we've been spoiled by New York City.

This is the story of my life.

Magnolia is a good, but not great restaurant. Undoubtedly, I can't compare with the big boys in the big cities, but that's been discussed ad nauseum. As others have also noted, Magnolia does some pretty creative New Southern cuisine but seems to put too much on one plate. The flavors get muddled instead of highlighted; instead of flavors singing vibrantly, they hum a satisfying tune (that was a whole lot of trite, Frank Bruni-esque metaphor).

In general, it's one of the best in the area but no better than Nana's or the other big names around here.

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My SO and I were back in the Triangle last week, and it fell to me to choose the dinner destinations. I've been wanting to try Magnolia Grill since forever. So we went there. And you know what? It wasn't all that great.

Granted, we dined there on the Thursday before Duke's parents' weekend, so it was pretty packed with parents and students, but I don't think that should be an excuse. Ben Barker was present that night, so I have to imagine that our food was prepared to his standards.

So my question is: Has anyone else had a disappointing experience there? Does everyone believe Magnolia deserves all the hype? Am I just spoiled? Opinions, please.

I have had one meal at Magnolia, and it was close to as you described: good, but not memorable. I owe it at least two more visits, but my wife is harder to convince.

As for being there on a crowded night, you're right, it shouldn't be an excuse, but service and food quality are more likely to suffer on nights where the restaurant is SRO. When I try a new restaurant, I like to go on the slower nights (Tu-Wed) rather than on nights I know it will be packed, with a waiting list, and servers might be getting pressure to turn tables more quickly.

I have had some excellent meals at Vin Rouge. But I have yet to go there on a Friday or Saturday.

Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit. -Oscar Wilde
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I've eaten at Magnolia Grill a number of times and I've had some great experiences. I've also had some miserable experiences. The difference has always been the food; the service has always been at least "good enough" and sometimes is impecible. So, about the food.

Appetizers and Desserts are have always been the shining star of Magnolia for me. Appetizer flavors have always been well thought out and the combination of ingrediants has always worked very well together. I think it's a good sign when I'm looking over the starters and thinking, "Jeez, how am I going to decide which of these to get."

Desserts have also been a high spot for me. Maybe I've been lucky and I've eaten there when Karen, or Phoebe, or whoever is baking now, is really spot on. But maybe, I've always ordered smartly. I tend to know what's in season, and I mean, really, Really, in season, and that's what I order. So, two months ago it was fig crepes with goat cheese and honey. Pure heaven. I'm sure the blueberry cobbler was good, but we were a bit past blueberry season so I didn't get it. So, appetizers and desserts. You'll notice that I haven't discussed mains.

Mains is where Magnolia lets me down, consistantly. The course is generally good, but it just isn't what it should be. Either the concept is solid but the flavors just don't come together, or the concept is a little shaky. Osso Bucco with shrimp jumbalaya? Uh, good maybe, odd, definitely. That's not to say I haven't ever had good mains at Magnolia, just that they're much more inconsistant than the starters and desserts.

I don't encounter these same problems eating at Nana's, or Four Square, or even Vin Rouge, but I also don't think they experiment as much (that's not good or bad, just an observation). Sometimes the experiment doesn't work, but other times it does and again, it's heaven.

I think that people who complain about being able to get better meals in "real cities" even in neighborhood bistros aren't comparing apples with apples. It's much easier to be impressed with a local bar when they turn out good, creative food. I'm always happy with the Federal for instance. At the same time, they aren't trying to create new cuisine, no matter how creative they get.

And to sum up my long winded response to "have you ever been disappointed" is to say that this whole discussion could be applied to any restaurant that's ever acheived a modicum of fame. I had the chance to eat at Chez Pannise earlier this year and was resoundly disappointed. I've eaten better at my local bistro in a real city, Durham.

Bryan C. Andregg

"Give us an old, black man singing the blues and some beer. I'll provide the BBQ."

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I would give it one more chance, but there are plenty of places in the Triangle where I know I can expect a creative, well-prepared meal for the same price or less, without having to wrestle for reservations.

P.S. The best meal we had during our visit was at Tolero's Taqueria in Carrboro. Yum!

So, I added a whole bunch more about this the other day, but somehow didn't post it. My point was something about provincial establishments being held to the same standards as the "big boys in the big leagues"- should they or shouldn't they? I think that's an endless debate, and one that applies to many more arts and crafts than cooking.

Anyhoo, I quoted myself here because I believe there are plenty of reliable, quality establishments in the Triangle (well, Chapel Hill mostly because that's where I lived) where I can always expect good, creative food: Acme, Crook's Corner, Elaine's, Lantern, Fearrington House of course. The cuisine at these places would be considered creative and consistent whether they were in Los Angeles or Nebraska. So I don't think excuses should be made for Magnolia Grill's less stellar efforts, just because they happen to be in Durham and not New York.

New York has a hell of a lot of crappy restaurants, too.

The Triangle is a great region for gourmands. It has a whole lot to offer, chiefly because of the wonderful produce from local farms, plus the seafood from the coast. Also, there are a lot of people in the area who care greatly about good food. This area is on the forefront of American regional cuisine, and I think it will only get better. But we can't afford to be lazy about it, because the "big boys in the big leagues" WILL hold these establishments to their standards of excellence.

Perhaps the day will come when people like myself won't have to move to New York City to get the culinary training one needs to achieve success in this country, because the names in North Carolina will carry as much weight and national recognition as those in New York. That means that folks in the provinces have to work twice as hard to achieve the same respect- not rest on their laurels because their backwater locale makes it easy for them to be regionally successful with lower standards.

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  • 2 weeks later...

At the risk of highjacking the thread, I wanted to comment on something Brian mentioned regarding the Apps being better than the entrees. I tend to find that is pretty often the case with places that serve particularly inventive cuisine. That is, in fact, why those who take things to the next level like T Keller of French Laundry, and D Kinch of Manresa like tasting menus. Truly avant garde cuisine simply doesn't lend itself well to large portions because the novelty wears off after a few bites. Honestly, that is my fundamental issue with that type of cuisine. Long on whimsy and short on true satisfaction. Like a drug, the first taste is extraordinary, but you find yourself longing for that feeling again, needing an entirely new dish to find it. A well made cassoulet, on the other hand, like a good bottle of wine is tasty all the way until you scrape the last bits of duck fat soaked bread crumbs off the edge of your bowl.

Last summer I was lucky enough to experience a 30 some-odd course meal at Manresa and found the experience to be remarkable indeed. That said, I found myself eating roasted chicken and mayo about a week later wondering which, if any, of the dishes I ate there were any better than the chicken and mayo I was currently enjoying.

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At the risk of highjacking the thread, I wanted to comment on something Brian mentioned regarding the Apps being better than the entrees.  I tend to find that is pretty often the case with places that serve particularly inventive cuisine.  That is, in fact, why those who take things to the next level like T Keller of French Laundry, and D Kinch of Manresa like tasting menus.  Truly avant garde cuisine simply doesn't lend itself well to large portions because the novelty wears off after a few bites.  Honestly, that is my fundamental issue with that type of cuisine.  Long on whimsy and short on true satisfaction.  Like a drug, the first taste is extraordinary, but you find yourself longing for that feeling again, needing an entirely new dish to find it.  A well made cassoulet, on the other hand, like a good bottle of wine is tasty all the way until you scrape the last bits of duck fat soaked bread crumbs off the edge of your bowl.

Last summer I was lucky enough to experience a 30 some-odd course meal at Manresa and found the experience to be remarkable indeed.  That said, I found myself eating roasted chicken and mayo about a week later wondering which, if any, of the dishes I ate there were any better than the chicken and mayo I was currently enjoying.

Great comment, detlefchef. I started a new discussion about this very topic that can be found here.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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My husband and I ate at Magnolia Grill on Friday night. It's one of the few places that I know going in that I will order dessert, because they're always good. I had the best coconut cake I've ever eaten. The recipe isn't in either of the Barkers' cookbooks, so I guess I'll have to try to wheedle it out of them.

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I haven't been to Magnolia Grill, but here's a coconut cake thread.

The recipe for the famous Peninsula Grill cake is here. I don't know if it's been adapted, since this is an Epicurious recipe.

Coconut cake thread

The first time I made the cake, I modified it after reading that some of the reviewers thought the cake was too heavy. I reduced the amount of cake (scaled down the recipe by about 1/4) b/c I thought that perhaps the "less cake/more filling" ratio would take away some of the heaviness.

The second time I made the cake, I followed the Epicurious recipe (except I didn't cover the cake with as much coconut), and I used an Italian meringue icing (birthday girl's request).

Of the two versions, I much preferred the one I modified (less cake).

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It's funny how some of the area restaurants work out. Magnolia Grill's savory items are usually quite complex and sometimes challenge the diner, but their (I mean Karen Barker's) desserts are for the most part fairly simple items. They're not necessarily meant to be thought provoking or unusual, but they are clean, honest and tasty.

Enoteca Vin, on the other hand, has a straightforward approach with their apps and main courses, totally ingredient driven. Their desserts, however, deviate from that approach and appear to be intellectual exercises of gastronomy. They just don't satisfy me like the rest of the meal. Maybe we should have Karen Barker start working for Vin!

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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That's a good point. I liked the desserts we got when last at Vin, but they are less comforting and more challenging.

Oh, I got so excited about the coconut cake that I forgot about the other dessert we got: Coca-Cola Cake with salty peanut ice cream. Like the traditional peanuts in your co-cola! The cake was a very rich devils food type and was a perfect match with the ice cream.

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