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Ben and Karen Barker

Magnolia Grill in Durham, NC


Magnolia Grill does not look the way I imagined it would. For a nationally recognized bastion of New Southern cuisine, the restaurant seems positively... spare. In fact, it more closely resembles an immaculate meat-n-three joint. (It was a health food store before Magnolia Grill opened in 1986.)

Not that it doesn't radiate welcome. Art depicting women carrying food on their heads enlivens a neutral wall, and a swathe of dark, African cloth overlays the banquette underneath. The dining room is packed. And from the well-grooved rhythm in the open kitchen and the hustling tenor of the servers, you sense that packed is status quo in this place.

Perhaps it's just that I've been fantasizing about this meal for many years.

When I worked as a pastry chef, Karen Barker was held as an industry paradigm for her intensely seasonal but unfussy approach to desserts. I found her recipe for pie dough — using half butter, half vegetable shortening — in a newspaper article and made it a permanent part of my repertoire. This is my first chance to dine at the restaurant she owns and operates with her husband, Ben. I bring a party of five with me, and I intend to try every dessert available.

But first, there are Ben Barker's savory dishes to devour. Consider a few mouth-filling descriptions from the menu: cornmeal-crusted Carolina catfish on lump crab and green tomato slaw, with smoked tomato soup and lemon aioli; pan-seared foie gras on Vidalia onion marmalade with marinated gold beets, mache and pomegranate molasses glaze; slow-cooked pork osso buco in cider-mustard jus with Creole red beans, mustard greens with pickled spring onions, green beans and cucumbers.

It sounds overly busy. ("Ben's food has actually gotten simpler over the years," Karen quips when I meet her the next day.) But Barker's gift is knowing how to soulfully harmonize his creations. That pork ossu buco, for example? The cider-mustard jus brings an acidic splash to the tender meat. Creole red beans, seasoned with andouille and brown sugar, add a spicy-sweet element. Mustard greens sneak in a bitter zap. And just when too many flavors start to overwhelm, a bite of cucumber refreshes the palate and brings your taste buds back to center. Symphonic.

Now for dessert. Karen and Ben met at the Culinary Institute of America (she's from Brooklyn, he's from North Carolina), and though at the time the CIA didn't offer a degree in pastry, it's where Karen gravitated when she began cooking professionally.

It's the middle of spring, so her offerings teeter between wintery comfort and summery effervescence. Fans of her Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Cake with cocoa fudge sauce are myriad, but I prefer fruit desserts, so I gravitate toward her tart, pudding-like lemon custard cake with strawberries and whipped cream.

She puts sherry in her crme caramel and pairs it with crispy vanilla bean shortbread and honeyed almonds. A white chocolate ice cream float fizzes with raspberry-rhubarb soda. She serves homemade vanilla wafers on the side. I love the old-fashioned whimsy of her sweets. And for all their Southern overtones, they aren't in any way cloying with sugar.

Karen works at the restaurant during the day, so I swing by the morning after my meal to find her arranging flowers for the tables. She's wearing her trademark chef overalls and greets me with a toothy grin. She takes me on a tour of the kitchen and we talk shop. "I constantly fall back on old favorites," she says as we watch her assistants roll out the famous pie dough. "I don't feel like I have to reinvent the wheel."

As I'm about to inquire about the best barbecue in the area, Ben walks through the door. They confer and point me in the direction of Allen & Son in Chapel Hill (where I soon have some of the most succulent ribs I've ever gnawed).

Karen scrutinizes me for a minute before I leave. "You miss cooking, don't you?" she asks.

I nod. But I only really miss it when I taste desserts as memorable as hers.

Magnolia Grill, 1002 Ninth St., Durham, NC. 919-286-3609. Dinner: Tues.-Thurs., 6-9:30pm.; Fri.-Sat., 6-10pm. Entree range: $21-$29. Major credit cards. Lot/street parking.

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