Downtown Durham, what will become of you?
Over the past 15 years, the city's center has transformed from a sketchy place to get knocked in the head, to hipster central where a 17th-floor hotel suite goes for $1,100 a night. A knock in the head is extra.
Now that Blue Coffee Cafe has been temporarily exiled from downtown, only Ninth Street Bakery—where a steaming bowl of dal and brown rice, plus a salad, is $7.50—has a substantive lunch for under 10 bucks. Dinner and drinks for two? Bring a Benjamin, but don't expect much change. The cocktail scene? Plan to spend $11 a drink at Alley 26, Bar Virgile and the Counting House.
Dashi, a much-anticipated ramen shop and Japanese pub on East Chapel Hill Street, opened last month, during this auspicious, albeit uneasy time in Durham's renewal. The buzz about Dashi generated long lines and 30-to-45-minute waits. But the phenomenon of upscale eateries, high-end condos and too-cool-for-school hotels chafes skeptics who, anxious about gentrification, have lost their appetite for construction.
At 1 o'clock on a Thursday afteroon Dashi was nearly full, but I was immediately seated at a table, as every bar seat was taken. The cozy, bustling downstairs reminded me of a classic New York City bar: dark in the back, light near the front, with walls of brick and wood (American walnut as I later learned).
The lunch menu is ramen and only ramen. The vegetarian version, which fills a bowl nearly the size of a child's batting helmet, is $12. With pork, chicken or fish, it's $13–$14. I know what you're thinking: Fourteen bucks for noodles? Now this ramen is handmade—not those 17-cent packages of starch bombs crowding the kitchen counters of many grad students. Shiitakes run $9.99 a pound; bamboo and nori don't grow on trees (bamboo is a grass), but yes, I get your point.
I lingered over my steaming soup, slurping slivers of scallions and seaweed, using chopsticks to gather my ramen and to poke at the shiitake caps that bobbed like lifeboats in a sea of rich vegetable broth. Scrumptious and filling, yes. Worth $12? The Magic 8 Ball says "Ask again later."
My cheerful and attentive waitress, dressed in classic black and white, brought my check. A couple at an adjacent table finished their meal when I did. But their waitress offered them dessert, a selection of Parlour ice cream. Was my waitress a Dessert nazi? ("No dessert for you!") What if I had stepped onto East Chapel Hill Street and been hit by the No. 4 bus without eating dessert?
"Great place," the woman at the very special dessert table told her companion. "But you're right, the food isn't extraordinary."
The Grumpy Cat felt tempted to agree.
Last December, after nine years, I and my fellow regulars mourned when Blue Coffee Cafe was ousted from its storefront in the old Jack Tar motel. In preparation for a rebirth into a swanky boutique hotel, the Jack Tar has been purged of squatters and tenants and scrappy businesses.
Three weeks ago, Blue Coffee, known as the home of the $5 breakfast, reopened in the midst of a snowstorm at the first of its two new locations: the N.C. Mutual Life building at Duke and Chapel Hill streets. On May 1, a second shop is scheduled to open downtown at 107 N. Church St., near Main.
When it was constructed 50 years ago, the N.C. Mutual Life building ranked as the largest African-American-owned building in America. Like many structures from the mid-1960s, its Brutalist architecture boasts imposing columns of concrete. Inside, the signage fonts, plastic plants and furniture look commandeered from offices, circa 1965.
Here, Congressman G.K. Butterfield, the VA, N.C. Mutual Life and Duke University have offices, a built-in clientele that Blue Coffee owner Gwen Mathews gambled on to get her through the lean times before she could open on Church.
To find Blue Coffee, take the elevator to the concourse level and follow the scent of chicken and dumplings. About 40 tables are sprawled in the spacious dining area, a former cafeteria that is lit by fluorescents and has a communal coat closet and a steel conveyor belt that takes your empty plates and trays through a tunnel to the kitchen.
At 11:40, only one person was in line, being helped by a charming server wearing latex gloves. I ordered the vegetable plate, which comes with four sides, but the portions were so large I chose only three: Perky green stalks of buttered broccoli, a mound of creamy mashed potatoes and a brick-sized serving of baked macaroni and cheese. With bottled water and a 15 percent March Madness discount, the bill came to $5.47. That leaves plenty of money for a heart surgeon.
By noon, the office workers had been freed from their cubicles and a long line had formed. The room volume increased to a low hum. I felt comfy, happy, full.
This is very Japanese," my husband said, as we crunched on the best popcorn we'd ever eaten, sprinkled with nori flakes, salt and black sesame seeds. "Even popcorn is an art."
On a warm Tuesday evening, we headed to Dashi's upstairs pub, which serves small plates—think Japanese tapas—snacks and drinks, such as shochu, sake, wine, beer and Japanese whisky. We went early, 5:30, just a half hour after opening, and scored a prime seat by a partially open window with a view of the street life below.
A look around revealed exposed beams original to the building—it was a printing company and then an investment brokerage— wooden tables and two bars with vintage light fixtures.
While Dashi's lunchtime ramen is satisfying, the small plates are an addiction. Mainline the mushroom tempura ($9), with local oyster mushrooms fried in featherweight batter and sprinkled with pine nuts. Pop grilled Brussels sprouts and bonito flakes (after I told our waitress I was vegetarian, she offered the dish without them) and a skewer of grilled shiitake mushrooms ($5 each; three to a serving). Snort a line of thinly sliced beets with ponzu (a citrus-based sauce) and togarashi (Japanese chilis) ($8) or inhale the miso soup with huge cubes of tofu ($5).
The alcohol selection is extensive. I ordered a glass of 12-year Hibiki whisky, neat. At $12 it was the cheapest of the bunch, but this is not rotgut. Even with a bold nose, this premium blend was remarkably smooth, closer to Macallan Scotch than Maker's Mark bourbon. (Note: This is not available at ABC stores, and takes months for it to arrive from the Eastern Hemisphere.)
To answer your question, yes, the ramen is a bit overpriced, although commensurate with other trendy lunch spots. The prices of the small plates and alcohol also fall in line with restaurants whose clientele either wants to splurge or has disposable income.
There is room in my life for both Dashi and Blue Coffee. Likewise, if downtown Durham wants to maintain the diversity that has made it a destination for displaced Yankees and West Coast refugees, there must be room for both chi chi cuisine and home cooking. When I want a Japanese whisky and black sesame nori popcorn, I'm glad I can get it. But sometimes nothing tastes better than a mound of mashed potatoes.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Opposites attract."