George's Garage turns 13 this year, which in restaurant years makes it eligible for an AARP card. There's a biological reason this Ninth Street landmark has made it to its 13th birthday when so many others haven't: adaptation and diversity.
The Durham restaurant evolves through the course of the day, from bakery to deli to market to happy hour joint to white-tablecloth dining to sometime-nightclub. The place hardly ever closes, and the bartenders mopping up at 2 a.m. sometimes bump into the guys turning on the ovens at 4 a.m. (a real-life In the Night Kitchen, "where the bakers...bake till the dawn so we can have cake in the morn"). Like its workaholic namesake, George's Garage is a flurry of hospitality nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with more than 70 employees.
Owner Giorgios "George" Bakatsias, the Triangle's prolific restauranteur, explains his original concept. "It's a garage of ideas, an American piazza. Where in Europe everything is outside, here I converted everything inside, where you can go every day and do something different. [It was the] first time we'd done food by the pound. We had this central bakery to produce the breads for all the restaurants, and then the market with all the fresh foods." (The Giorgios Hospitality Group owns eight restaurants and bars in Durham and Chapel Hill, among them Bin 54, Parizade and Vin Rouge, along with a busy catering company.)
Bakatsias, 51, opened his first restaurant at 21. After navigating countless interviews over three decades, he's a practiced conversationalist and naturally speaks in sound bites. He believes that "fish left naked, left alone, is better" and that the best food "nourishes your body but also feeds your soul." A good listener will also catch such mantras as "If I can only hire better people than myself, then I'll be OK" and "I like when the peasant ingredient and the refined skill of today come together."
Ever the gastro-philosopher, Bakatsias values "the clarity of ingredient versus the ego of a chef. I like that clarity of concepts are coming back.... [Take] Robert—he's not looking for a big ego trip, he just loves to cook."
"Robert" is Robert Casper, executive chef at George's Garage, who wrote its first menu and is now back after opening a few restaurants in Florida. He speaks in a deliberate manner with a soothing cadence. He's a gentlemanly sort of person, someone you'd expect to be an antiques dealer or country lawyer. And if you've got an hour or two, he loves to tell a story.
Casper has lived the good life, culinarily speaking. Though born in Albemarle, Casper "didn't stay very long, been all over." He studied at Le Cordon Bleu in London, then arrived in California just as the cuisine scene was revving up, working most notably with Bradley Ogden and Jan Birnbaum in San Francisco.
Today, "I see all my friends on TV," Casper says with a grin—but not a hint of envy. North Carolina has brought a certain celebrity of its own. He ran the kitchen at the exclusive Roaring Gap Club in the northwestern N.C. mountains for several years.
"I met some wonderful people: the Haneses, the Reynolds, the Bethunes," he says. "I had creativity there. I changed the menu every day—a limited menu, ran about seven entrees, about that many appetizers. I just smoked 'em, blew them away."
In his laconic storytelling style, Casper remembers one particular weekend.
"Philip Hanes—you know, the underwear people? Well, he had an addiction for mushrooms, that's his passion. I would go out to his farm and we'd go morel hunting or chanterelle hunting.... One evening, his secretary called and said that Philip wanted to know if I could fix dinner for seven or eight of his guests the next day. I said, Sure. He said, He's going to send you a bag of mushrooms and he wants you to do whatever you can do with them. So about 4:30 that afternoon there was a helicopter that landed out on the croquet green with a bag of mushrooms. I did a seven-course dinner with it."
Casper still drives out and bow-hunts in the mountains. It was one of the conditions of his contract at Roaring Gap that he could hunt on the land. And he can tell you more than you'd ever want to know about skinning and hanging a deer (14 days at 36 degrees is apparently the way to go). But Casper's favorite subject is a good fish.
Bakatsias teases his friend: "Robert is in love with his fish room. He spends more time back there than anywhere else."
And it shows. George's Garage is revered for its fresh fish, which is why chef Alfonso Sama at Carmen's Cuban Café, featured in last month's Food Chain, eats there when he's on Ninth Street. "I go there for seafood," says Sama, who is also a sushi eater. He recommends the angel-hair pasta with jumbo shrimp, feta and spinach. It's casual yet satisfying, the kind of dish you imagine you should be able to replicate at home but never quite master.
Casper's scallops with lemon thyme risotto are also very good, as is Bakatsias' favorite dish on the menu, seared ahi tuna with white beans and roasted mushroom ragú. Or you couldn't go wrong sharing a table full of appetizers, like the Prince Edward Island mussels in saffron tomato broth, the fried calamari with pico de gallo and tartar sauce, or the 95 percent crabmeat crabcake. Why not throw in some glazed oysters stuffed with spinach and bacon, while you're there?
"In Greece, of course, we honor and respect the fish," explains Bakatsias, who as a child emigrated to the United States from the northern Greek village of Karista. "We sit down around the table and talk about who caught the fish, and with a spear, and what area, what region, and the character, the psyche, the whole energy of the fish."
Many restaurants offer mouthwatering seafood, but how many of them also have a top-notch sushi bar? "In the beginning," remembers Bakatsias, "[George's Garage] was just a huge blackboard: Here is the fish, here is where it was caught, when it came in. Everything was coming in [as a] whole fish. Robert, an amazing talent, likes whole fish; he doesn't like fish that's already butchered. So that was the idea, to have a non- traditional space for sushi."
Alex Pak is now the head sushi chef, one of four. When I dined at the bar anonymously one Sunday evening, I found him generous with his cuts and happy to educate. When I complimented the spicy tuna interior of the red dragon roll, Pak offered to make me "a real firebomb," concocted on the spot with roe, cucumber, and Sriracha chile sauce. When I confessed an ignorance of escolar, he humbly offered some escolar sashimi and explained that it was nicknamed "butterfish" for its creamy consistency and high oil content (it's decadent, like toro but milder, though I've since read it's advisable to eat it in moderation so the oils don't disrupt your digestion).
George's Garage is very near Duke's campus and medical center, a fact that has not escaped Bakatsias' attention. In Duke, he's found an insatiable (and well-funded) populace with a refined sushi palate. "They know their sushi. If a Duke student walks in here, they've been around the block in New York and L.A. eating sushi." The chefs are busy: This translates to high turnover and fresh product.
But you don't have to wear Duke blue to appreciate George's sushi. With the sushi bar open seven days a week for both lunch and dinner, it's worth a drive from Raleigh or Chapel Hill. If you sit at the funky concrete bar, you'll have to overlook the plastic soy-sauce bowls and badly typeset brochure that serves as a menu. Here's why: Though the sushi list is not as exhaustive as most all-Japanese restaurants (limited sashimi options, no Japanese beers and only one cold sake), the fish is outstanding. The tuna, which some restaurants treat as the hot dog of Japan (filling but tasteless), was magnificent on two different nights, both as sashimi and blackened in tataki fashion; the yellowtail was perfectly milky and marbled; and the salmon was as cold and clean as if it had just been plucked from an Alaskan river.
I, a woman who once had a line item in Quicken for "sushi budget" and deleted it only because I didn't want to know any more, feel confident in proclaiming George's Garage my new favorite sushi bar in the Triangle. It is a most unexpected but lovely find, like a blind date that ends in marriage.
(Another reason to go now: In honor of the restaurant's birthday, every department is offering "retro special" promotions. Tuesdays, the sushi rolls are half-off; Wednesdays, the bar has $4 martinis; Thursdays are 50 percent off wine; and every day, desserts are a user-friendly $3-$5.)
These days, Bakatsias travels constantly as a consultant to new restaurants, helping refine their concept and direction. Not that he's abandoning his empire here ("If I go back to Raleigh or Cary, it would be with a smaller boutique place. Maybe next year?"), but it's certainly telling that within a one-hour conversation he mentions Cuba, France, Greece, Morocco, New Zealand and Spain. "I fell in love with the food business in Paris. But the greatest inspiration for food is the love that my mother generated always. She cooked always from the garden. We were self-sufficient there, in Greece where I grew up; you don't go to the grocery store, you have everything—the vegetables, the cow, the fish and meat, you grow yourself. It was perfectly organic and natural. That's the way we grew up. . . . It has nothing to do with trained cooking or anything."
And thus it seems appropriate that he should pick the restaurant he did for the next link in the Food Chain (this is your hint). But to be fair, first we must give honorable mention to a previous pick. Without knowing the Food Chain list, Bakatsias instantly named Fins, now reopened on Davie Street, as his favorite spot in the Triangle. But of course Fins is disqualified; we can't have a food circle, after all.
Join us next month for Bakatsias' fantastic find. You won't be disappointed.