In the Bull City, one restaurant has shut down operations to make way for another…and we’re not disappointed about it. The thriving downtown Durham restaurant scene has a new kid on the block – Italian eatery Lucia in Durham’s West Village closed doors this summer to be replaced by Motto Durham, the newest member of the Urban Food Group family. Motto Durham opened the first week of August, and since then we were invited to sample a few of what their kitchen has to offer.
In keeping with the industrial feel of West Village, Motto’s décor bespeaks a modern, yet rustic interior. Clean lines and copper tones, exposed bulb lighting hanging overhead, and an entire wall decorated with wooden pallets fills the large space nicely.
Like the atmosphere of the restaurant interior, the menu is unpretentious with familiar offerings like crab cake and pickle bowls. At the same time, unconventional twists take you by surprise, as seen in their oysters poached in bacon fat, along with their deviled eggs consisting of smoked trout and caviar. In every dish we tried, there was an element of surprise that distinguishes Motto from other “New American” and fusion joints, speaking to the creativity of Chef James Huff and Sous Chef Joe Gardner. And while many of the classic American dishes at Motto are given a modern take, one peek at their menu suggests they’re all about some braising, pickling and smoking, consistent with traditional American cuisine. As a plus, local ingredients are sourced to make up the menu, which will change occasionally.
The brand new corner establishment also has a full bar stocked to the nines. We started the night off with samples of the fig-infused bourbon made in-house. Unbelievably smooth with nearly a syrup-like consistency and just the right touch of sweetness, this was a great way to start off the night. Served with a single sphere of ice in an Old Fashioned glass, it also made for quite the looker.
Throughout the evening, we went with suggestions from our server, Will, who was extremely knowledgeable about what went into each dish and did a wonderful job guiding us through the menu. We were also pressed on time, but he made sure all our dishes came out in a timely manner. What I enjoyed about the menu was its small and large/hot and cold plates structure, which encourages sharing and a better sampling of their dishes across the board. Rather than settling for an entrée each, we began the night with a small plate and a cold plate and then worked towards a larger plate to share.
The first dish we tried was a traditional Ecuadorian shrimp ceviche with house-made plantain chips. This dish was incredibly refreshing. A generous amount of fresh vegetables and salsa fresca made up this classic Latin American dish. In this ceviche, you’ll find sweet corn, tomatoes, onions, avocado, and large, sweet shrimp marinated in orange and lemon juices. The acidity of the juices helped in cutting the fishy taste of the shrimp, and the chunks of fresh corn, tomatoes, and onions did as much and added sweetness to each bite. We were also avid fans of the crispy plantain chips on the side. We ended up using these to dip into the vegetables and pico de gallo. The chips had a subtle, sweet flavor and paired well with the acidity – perfect for summer. This was one of the specials for the evening so for the time being, it is unlisted on the menu, but definitely keep an eye out!
Next up was a hot plate selection: braised pork cheeks with green chili grits, guajillo broth, chicarron, herb and radish salad, and crispy skin. Pork cheeks are my favorite part of the pig – buttery and melt-in-your-mouth good. Yet, when I see pork cheeks or pork belly on a restaurant menu, it almost always is very one-dimensional in flavor (read: salty or drowning in soy sauce). Motto did it justice. Layers of diverse flavors unravel with each forkful – orange zest, bittersweet chocolate, and ancho chili (dried poblano pepper), all enhance the natural sweetness of the pork, while complemented with a velvety bed of grits. The bittersweet chocolate and orange zest give it a smoky and complex flavor, a nice break from the pungent sweet and salty flavors that typically dominate pork dishes in restaurant menus. Sitting atop the pork cheeks is a small salad of sliced radishes and cilantro, finishing off the rich and savory with a bite of bright, crisp freshness. This dish is priced reasonably at $12.
Last, but not least, my absolute favorite of the night: the roasted chicken with grilled peach panzanella. It doesn’t stand out on the menu, but once I had a bite, I was sold. The chicken is brined for 12 hours with whole lemons and salt. Throw in pesto, mint, olives, caramelized onion, cherry tomatoes, fresh chili, whole grain mustard and finally, juicy-sweet local farmers’ market peach panzanella with balsamic vinegar, and you’ve got this stunner of a dish. Who knew pesto and peaches would taste so good together? The grilled peaches and bread in the panzanella were the perfect complement to the pesto and olives. Fresh mint and chili toned down both the sweetness of the peaches and the saltiness of the pesto. Meanwhile, though roasted, the chicken was out of this world juicy, not lacking at all in flavor. While both the pork cheeks and the ceviche were exceptional, Motto hit it out of the ballpark with this dish. They managed to bring together an unlikely medley of summer flavors, brightening up a plain dish of roasted chicken. Not to mention, who wouldn’t like smoky grilled bread to mop up some pesto and tomatoes in olive oil? Talk about comfort food. The roasted chicken is a large plate on the menu and is listed at $25, but prepare yourself for a healthy portion.
By the end of dinner, we left the restaurant completely full, but satisfied. With the Triangle area bursting at the seams with fusion and New American cuisines, it’s refreshing to taste new ingredient combinations that truly work. Dining at Motto is the newest must-do downtown Durham experience I’d recommend to anyone. Safe to say, I’ll be back soon – their blackberry peach cobbler is calling my name!
Note: From time to time we’re invited out to try a restaurant or to taste new menu items. This meal is usually comped, as this one was. We’re under no obligation to write a positive review or any review at all when we’re invited out to try a place. Every review you see on our site will be an honest review of the place whether or not the restaurant provided us with the meal at their cost.
Joanne Wu is an avid foodie and can often be found coffee shop hopping around the Triangle. Coming from a rural Taiwanese background, she loves all things scratch-made in the kitchen and locally sourced. When she’s not dining her way through the Triangle, politics is her other passion. Joanne currently works in downtown Raleigh in State government. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @joannewuu.