Home to Bull City Burger and Brewery, Dame's Chicken & Waffles, Dos Perros, Loaf, Pizzeria Toro, Scratch Bakery, Rue Cler and Toast, Durham's downtown offers what might be the Triangle's densest concentration of good eats.
"Good" in this instance not only means "tasty" but also right-thinking, earnest, true. "These mazy streets survived the walpurgisnacht of urban renewal," the communal ethic suggests, "and we'll be damned if Starbucks and Applebee's are going to have the last laugh."
Our role in this moral drama is to eat.
Monuts Donuts is the most recent addition to the neighborhood. Behind its brick storefront on East Parrish Street, Monuts carries on the missionary work that began in 2011, when chef-owner Lindsay Moriarty shelved her twin master's degrees from UNC, outfitted an old tricycle with a retractable counter and began to pedal/peddle her doughnuts at the Durham Farmers' Market.
The doughnuts are yeasted and cake, representing the hemispheres of the American spirit—the former aspirational, the latter having no truck with tomfoolery. Monuts serves no crullers, long Johns, twists, fritters or other gimmicky concessions to the eye. Nor are there even Berliners, which belong to a great tradition of their own. Monuts maintains its concentration, knows its mission; the temptation to skylark is well repressed.
Both yeasted and cake doughnuts have a certain chew and bready weight. They recall a sturdier era, when doughnuts went with black coffee and a cigarette, and adults worked their jaws no less than their backs. Given the modern taste for adult baby food—all these blasted yogurt bars with their Asian tapiocas—Monuts is admirably non-pandering.
The daily menu features four cake doughnuts and four yeasted, with half of these (glazed, apple cider, chocolate chai, coconut dream) permanent fixtures. While Rise Biscuits and Donuts—Monuts' cross-town competitor—turns so many of its doughnuts into carnival floats or Carmen Miranda headpieces, Monuts sticks to glazes and light sprinklings of nuts.
There are standard chocolate and sugar glazes but also an array of experimental topping schemes, including bourbon pumpkin, chocolate elderberry, cocoa cinnamon, ginger berry, "Graceland" (peanut butter, banana, bacon), hibiscus cinnamon, lemon pistachio, salted bourbon, Thai peanut and toasted amaretto.
"Hibiscus cinnamon!" groans Joe Lunchpail. These flavor concepts may sound like boutique B.S.—the very word "concept" is alarming—but they succeed due to nuance and precision. The salted bourbon tastes distinctly of bourbon. When Monuts' alchemists conjure "Thai chili," they conjure exactly that.
My only quibble is that the doughnuts are a tad sweeter than necessary—not as sweet as Rise's glycemic tsunamis, but still sweet. This is less a complaint against Monuts than a fist raised at the modern American palate. My axiom is that sweets should be no sweeter than the berries, coffee and/or liqueur that accompany them. In keeping with this perhaps eccentric stricture, I recommend the apple cider cake doughnut, a lovely version of a classic in which sugar and cinnamon wrestle to a satisfying draw.
Monuts produces a thought-provoking bagel: This nostalgic ex-New Yorker gives it high marks for mouthfeel, that combination of texture, density and chew produced only by special-purpose high-gluten flour. It is identifiably a bagel and not merely circular white bread.
Even so, Monuts' bagel is not a messianic arrival. The crust has an attractive golden blister, but it lacks the slight crispness that lends the New York bagel its textural interest. More problematic still, there's not much flavor. One misses the malty note that defines the bagel at its most authentic.
Monuts' final trick is a rotating array of inventive sandwiches and bread puddings— "curated alternatives," Moriarty calls them. The ham-and-jam—sliced ham, Brie and ginger-fig aioli between slices of glazed doughnut, crisp-grilled and drippy—is a sandwich to trouble one's dreams. The bread puddings, both savory and sweet, are thoughtfully composed and reasonably priced ($4 per weighty bowl), but the "bread"—actually bagel—is too dense for pudding purposes.
New Orleans' impossibly tender bread puddings depend on the creole baguette, with its aerated, low-gluten crumb. Anyone who dallies with bread pudding should hunt for a reasonable facsimile, usually to be found amid the otherwise useless hoagie rolls at the local low-end supermarket.
Monuts' popularity is deserved and deplorable. Lines are long. And slow. And inevitable. The doughnut that beckoned to your soul as you stood in that long, slow, inevitable line? Sold out. It might return, like a comet in some distant future, but what's the chance that its orbit and yours will ever intersect?
The moral: Show up early and often.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Flavor circle."