As a housewarming gift our awesome Realtors gave us a gift certificate to Magnolia Grill, a converted grocery store on the corner of 9th and Knox streets in the heart of Durham.  After heading over on a Monday only to find they were closed, we were finally able to make use of our gift last Tuesday.

Upon entering the place is very unassuming with simple tables and chairs set up with a main dining room to the right and a raised bar area to the left.  Behind the dining room is what looks like a more private reserved room and behind the bar is an open view of the kitchen.  We sat closest to the kitchen in the bar area and had a great view of seeing the final prep of all the dishes being served.

I could go into further detail about the decor or our service or whatever (which were all fine) but really its all about the food.  As a starter I was instantly drawn to the yellowfin tuna ceviche with coconut & lime, guacamole, roasted pepper & chipotle salsa, pink grapefruit, and charred tomato sauce.  I’d always wanted to try ceviche, but hadn’t found a place around that serves it.  While this wasn’t a traditional simpler ceviche of a white fish with some lime, avocado, peppers and olive oil, it still had all the standard flavors you’d expect in a modern interpretation.  The tuna was exceptional with a smooth texture and fresh non-fishy taste considering it wasn’t cooked.  The flavors were balanced perfectly between the acidity of the lime and grapefruit,  the sweetness of the avocado and coconut, and the lingering spiciness from the chipotle.  The pumpkin seeds sprinkled around were a nice little touch of earthiness and crunch as well.  Score: 4.5/5.

For my main course I had the grilled cervena venison in pomegranate molasses jus with chestnut relish, braised escarole and roasted parsnips, and truffled potato puree.   It had been awhile since I’d had venison, so I looked forward to revisiting this country staple in a more refined preparation.  It came out a little more rare than I normally like, but it was still very well prepared.  The flavor was mild and not too gamey.  The pomegranate jus was perfectly sweet to go along with the venison, almost like sweetened cranberries (I love craisins).  The potatoes were silky smooth and had a wonderful “like grandma used to make” quality to them.  I don’t know exactly what it is that made them taste that way, but it took  me back to summer’s in Illinois at my grandparents house as a child.  The escarole and parsnips were cooked to perfection with just enough bite but had a little bit too much pepper, and I like pepper.  Score: 4/5.

Since the portions were sized for normal human beings, we had room for dessert.  We’d seen it walking by all night so by the time our waitress came out with the dessert menu we already knew what we wanted.  Brown sugar candied grapefruit waffles with salted caramel ice cream…good choice.  The ice cream had a really rich caramel flavor and barely even needed the little bit of caramel drizzle.  The waffles cut this richness with their infusion of grapefruit.  I don’t know how they managed it but they made grapefruit flavored waffles that were light and fluffy and basically fantastic.   While the dessert wasn’t huge, I’d recommend splitting it.  The two scoops of the super rich ice cream is too rich for one person that doesn’t have the sweetest of sweet tooth.  Sharing the dessert with Nikki was the perfect end to a delicious meal.  Score: 4/5.

Overall I give Magnolia Grill a 4/5.  The food was excellently prepared and succeeded in pairing traditional southern cooking with some international flair.   Though they may try to pitch themselves as a relaxed gathering place, its menu and prices are more suited for special occasions.  If you want to spend a couple of hours (I never saw a server walking briskly) eating dinner and don’t mind spending that amount of time with the people you’re eating with, then I’d recommend Magnolia Grill.  I imagine it becoming a special place for Nikki and I to go to celebrate buying our house in Durham and starting our new life together.

What other places in Durham do you guys recommend?  We’re always on the lookout for the next great meal.