I had two formative dining experiences at Nana’s during its original twenty-six-year run.
The first occurred in 2000, a celebration dinner for when my father received a medical school alumni award from Duke. It was a big enough deal that I flew in from Los Angeles for the weekend. I was neither a professional food writer nor a particularly capable person, so I can’t recall what I ate, but I remember thinking it was incredibly good. Like, world-class good, especially from the perspective of a college sophomore who’d been getting most of his calories from frozen taquitos and marijuana.
Seven years later—now firmly ensconced in Durham—an oenologically informed friend invited me to Nana’s to celebrate his own impending medical school graduation. It was the first time I’d ever tasted the pairing of foie gras and the dessert wine Sauternes, a combination that remains divinely ordained, regardless of your feelings toward force-fed goose liver. It was the first salvo in one of the coziest, loudest, most purely spirited meals of my life.
And then I forgot about Nana’s, a symptom of living in a city that was changing at a breakneck pace, a change spearheaded by an innovative and passionate group of food-and-drink-and-nightlife people. In the twelve years since that foie-and-botrytis-fueled night, dining out in Durham has been irrevocably transformed, and it became no longer necessary or particularly desirable to rub elbows with a bunch of expense-account Baby Boomers just to get a good meal.
The perpetually lauded Magnolia Grill was the first to go in 2012. A few years later, Four Square shuttered its stuffy urban manor house. When Nana’s closed in the summer of 2018, it seemed like the death knell for fine dining in Durham—or at least our version of fine dining, an old-school, service-driven approach subsidized by Duke and biotech’s insatiable lust for well-sauced meats and oak-and-tannin red wines.
Of this now-broken triumvirate, Nana’s always seemed like the friendliest and most approachable, a humble neighborhood restaurant at heart, just fancied up and augmented by a kickass beverage program and the considerable talent and dedication of chef Scott Howell and his staff.
And so, even though I hadn’t been in years, I was sad when Nana’s closed, although I thought I understood why.
And then—et voila—it reopened! I was thrilled to be given another chance to darken its doors.
Now that I have, I find that its place in the fabric of things is no longer so simple to define.
Walking into Nana’s feels good. There’s a sense of coming in from the cold, even on a leaden summer evening. The dining room—except for a slight darkening of the palette—is exactly the same, down to the artwork on the walls, bizarrely charming high-contrast photos of abandoned amusement parks. Plus, the place is packed, no mean feat for that most unsexy of reservation times, 8:00 p.m. on a Wednesday.
My wife and I are shown to our table, an enormous glacial moraine of white tablecloth, where we await the rest of our party. We’re slightly late, and our friends are even later. (It’s important to remember that Nana’s, and indeed the whole of Rockwood Shopping Center, is prone to comically awful flooding.)
We settle in. The cocktail list is brief and not particularly lively, but my Manhattan is deeply satisfying, served in a martini glass the size of a wok. It’s boozy, spicy, and elevated by top-shelf vermouth.
My wife’s seltzer water, on the other hand, is less majestic. Maybe Nana’s has San Pellegrino in the back somewhere, but we were not presented with the option. Further, why would you serve sparkling water in what is clearly a freebie pint glass from a beer distributor? It’s a minor complaint, but a glaring one at a restaurant meant to represent an elegant and detail-oriented form of dining.
Our guests arrive, old friends whom we don’t see often enough, plus their son, freshly evacuated from the coast in anticipation of a looming hurricane. It’s a reunion of sorts, and it’s great fun, despite the lingering bummer of a sweaty Dogfish Head advertisement on the table.
Our guests pick wines from Nana’s excellent list. An admixture of stone-cold classics peppered with left-field selections, the list pulls off the impressive feat of showcasing domestic wineries without being a steakhouse retread. I almost never want pinot noir from California, but Nana’s has some killers. We pick one, it arrives with a flourish of glassware, and like the expanding cheerful warmth of my Manhattan, it feels right.
Our dishes begin to arrive, and they do their best to keep the evening chugging along. Okra fried to a cornmeal-encrusted snap rest atop paperback-thick slices of tomato—a tomato that appears to be of the bloodless, store-bought variety, but turns out to be crisp, tangy, and exquisitely dressed.
That singing tomato acidity needs a counterpoint, and the ravioli provides a potent juxtaposition: hearty little pillows, their edges precisely al dente, resting in a pork and oyster bolognese that’s earthy, sweet, and luscious. This is the Nana’s I remember, and it’s a moment of innovation on a menu that can best be described as staid.
The meal progresses, and the illusion starts to fade.
The chicken liver pate is, well, fine. Perfectly nice, actually, when smeared on some crusty bread with mustard and pickled onion. But head down the road in at least three different directions and you’ll find chefs turning chicken livers into ethereal clouds of face-melting brilliance. Nana’s take seems like the hotel version, colorless and batch-made.
Then there’s the risotto. Nana’s is famous for risotto, to the point that the wall above the host station features an INDY award for “Best Risotto in the Triangle,” which was apparently a thing once. The risotto that hits our table is claggy and depressing, the texture of melted chalk.
Entreés next. It’s hard to reconcile a stapler-sized chunk of halibut so perfectly cooked yet so devastatingly boring, perched halfheartedly among roasted vegetables that belong on a plate at a political fundraiser in a Sheraton somewhere. The fish has capers on it, easily the most vibrant aspect of the dish.
A pork chop—once again kingly, succulent, expertly cooked—rests next to an enormous pile of mediocre succotash. Every restaurant should stop with the succotash, especially Nana’s, since it has been reduced to serving it in portions that require actual digging.
By my recollection, Nana’s is the only restaurant outside of Tuscany that I’ve visited in the last ten years to have either the cojones or the total lack of awareness to serve veal. Either way, I almost applaud this retrograde power move. It’s veal. With a potato-and-leek gratin. In a foie-gras reduction. It tastes unsurprisingly delicious, and eating it makes me feel legitimately transgressive.
There is one out-of-nowhere surprise on this fixedly dated menu—the tuna. Seared tuna with a raw center stopped being cool somewhere around 1998, but Nana’s preparation recalls what was so glamorous about it in the first place. It’s marvelous, warmly seasoned, hearty yet refreshing. It’s even better when paired with a bite of the accompanying eggplant, a sweetly caramelized wonder.
Here is the fulcrum of the evening. Nana’s is an old-school restaurant, serving old-school food. Everything comes in a sauce, or a jus, or a reduction. Everything looks like cruise ship food. Sometimes it does impeccable justice to brass-plated classics, and sometimes it falls back on the stultifying history of banquet dining. Sometimes I crave the former, but the latter seems slightly futile, especially in a town where curry udon and almejas pequeñas and octopus with fregola sarda and grilled pork heart salad and on and on are so wonderfully and extravagantly available.
We order desserts, one of which happens to be the creme brûlée. It’s not infused with lavender, or fish sauce, or Sichuan peppercorns. It’s not served in a cut-glass coupe. It’s not topped with paw-paw or bonito or ants. It’s creme brûlée, and it’s the best fucking creme brûlée in the world.
After a brief nine months away, Nana’s has reemerged into a restaurant scene that has largely passed it by. But like a good creme brûlée, it’s still nice to know that it’s there.
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