REVIEW: Spring Menu at Washington Duke Inn – Durham

I was privileged to be invited to the first ever “Blogger’s Luncheon” at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club’s Fairview Dining Room a little over two weeks ago. I think it might have been the first blogger event that I have ever attended (I normally try to get all ninja-like while doing reviews) and I am going to be hard pressed to find another one that will be as well prepared, informative and, best of all, delicious.

The ambiance of the luncheon was fantastic. I joined some other food writers on the patio overlooking the practice green of the luscious Robert Trent Jones golf course including Matt Dees of Durham Magazine, Chinmayi Sharma of Duke University’s student paper, The Chronicle, and Don Ball, the Director of Food & Beverage at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club and a true food & beverage professional. The weather was incredible with bright blue skies, a little bit of wind and a fair share of pollen which just happened to coincide with the release of Executive Chef Jason Cunningham’s Spring menu.

We had a lot of great conversation mostly revolving around the restaurant industry, food blogging, ACC basketball and the deliciousness that was being placed in front of us which is pretty much the only reason you are reading this right now so let’s get into it.

Citrus shaved fennel, chick peas, cucumber, tomato, smoked sea salt, avocado mousse, and cumin lime vinaigrette

The first dish was an Ahi Tuna Tartare with citrus shaved fennel, chick peas, cucumber, tomato, smoked sea salt, avocado mousse and a cumin lime vinaigrette. As you can tell, the presentation of this appetizer was beautiful. We received a gelato-sized scoop up rare tuna which extremely tender and, as it should be, the best part of the dish. I didn’t read the menu close enough before my first bite so I was surprised to find out that the green stuff wasn’t wasabi like my mind had prepared my taste buds for. Instead, the avocado mousse (sounds disgusting but, in reality, is outstanding) gave the dish a smooth, mellow coolness that was reminiscent of a Baja taco or something especially when the flavor from the cumin lime vinaigrette kick in.

Soup: Sweet pea soup with marjoram, mascarpone & watermelon radish --- Salad: artesian blend baby lettuce, strawberries, feta, shaved vidalia onions, roasted pecans with a honey poppy seed dressing.

If you have already read Matt Dees’ post about the luncheon on DurhamMag.com, you would know the Cinderella Story of the menu was the Spring Sweet Pea Soup (above; in the cup). Pea soup just sounds kind of boring but Jason worked some magic in the kitchen with marjoram, mascarpone and watermelon radish. He diced the marjoram and watermelon radish (and possibly the mascarpone) into the bottom of the cup and then served it along his Spring Salad (artesian blend baby lettuce, strawberries, feta, shaved Vidalia onion, roasted pecans and a honey poppy seed dressing) which I thought was good even though I despise radicchio or whichever effin’ baby lettuce has that prickly texture that can ruin a salad in my eyes. The wait staff brought out the sweet pea soup in coffee servers and poured the soup over the diced items allowing them to be crisp when you got to them. It was a refreshing soup with a little bit of sweet and a little bit of sour and the added richness from the mascarpone that really took my taste buds on a journey. I so should have snagged a pint of this from the kitchen. It was that good.

The main course was a duo of a Chesapeake Wild Striped Bass (right; with Elodie Farms goat cheese polenta, long stem artichokes, a basil pesto crust, crispy shallots and a roasted tomato caper sauce) and Pan Roasted Rack of Lamb (left; with a fava bean puree, baby squash ratatouille covered in a horseradish infused jus from the lamb).

The bass was delicious but I think that it may have had way too many bold flavors involved. Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed the dish and I love bold flavors but the mixture of acidity from the artichokes paired with the tartness of the goat cheese in the polenta and then the basil pesto crust plus the fried shallots and then add a powerful roasted tomato caper sauce and it just gets to be a lot for your taste buds to handle. I think it may just be too complex and powerful of a dish for a spring menu. If it were toned down a bit, I think it might find a legitimate place on a spring menu especially with the level of perfection that the fish was cooked.

However, the lamb is an entree that definitely belongs on the spring menu. It is on the heartier side because what kind of slab of red meat covered in its own juice isn’t but I’m fine with that because it is the core component of the meal. I am guessing the lamb was a spring lamb (3 to 5-months-old) because the meat was very tender and succulent and I am almost had to put zero effort into cutting through it. I love about anything that has horseradish in it so, needless to say, I was a huge fan of the jus. It wasn’t too potent but gave a nice little bit of zing. The ratatouille was a good side for the lamb although a lot of the taste that you expect from ratatouille was lost when the jus got hold of it. The baby squash and the fava bean puree were the essence of spring for me in this dish because they are both items that tend to yield first from a farmer’s crop. I do feel bad for whoever had to shell all the fava beans for the puree because that is some seriously tedious work.

The plate above has three different samplings from the dessert menu: Pistachio & White Chocolate Cheesecake (with raspberry chambord reduction and pistachio brittle), a taste of Strawberries (strawberry shortcake with lavender, strawberry buttermilk ice cream and a chocolate strawberry cream cookie) and Vanilla Angel Food Cake ( with blackberry coulis, almond chantilly cream and candied basil) all served with a cup of Royal Cup Rainforest Alliance Blend Coffee.

I have written it many times before. I am not a dessert guy. I will on occasion find myself in front of a plate of dessert and feel bad knowing that it would go to waste if I didn’t eat it. Plus, I was hear to taste the menu and I can’t not try something…right? Again, I ate everything on the plate. It would be rude not to. I enjoyed it all but the dessert as a whole that was the clear winner in my mind and won strides in front of the rest was the pistachio & white chocolate cheesecake. It was rich and sweet and might be the single best bite of cheesecake that I’ve ever had…ever. Add a piece of pistachio brittle and fresh raspberries and it is almost perfect. I have to give a nod to the piece of candied basil that was on top of the angel food cake. It kind of blew my mind.

NOTE: The tasting menu that we were served was complimentary. There was no bill or tip afterwards. This in no way affected my review of the food. It was all fantastic & I am trying to put together enough dough to head back over there and try some other items on the menu and definitely snag another slice of the pistachio cheesecake and a bag full of candied basil.

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I am the founding blogger of Eat It, North Carolina. I started Eat It, North Carolina because I am always looking for awesome, local restaurants in different places around North Carolina but have never been able to find one place on the Internet that lists them. I'm a recent graduate from East Carolina University & currently live in Greensboro. I like all types of food but am a sucker for Chinese and greasy spoons.
Charlie Brinson
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