Home » Restaurants

Magnolia Grill – CLOSED

Posted by MEZ 27 Aug 2009 22 Comments

Magnolia Grill is known as one of the finest dining establishments in Durham. Being as I’ve lived here four years now, I figured I should get around to trying it. Its menu is what I dub New American cuisine, otherwise known as fresh, local ingredients combined in inventive ways to create spins on the basic meat, starch, veggie, and sauce concept. It’s housed in a grey-painted brick building at the far end of Ninth street and is divided into a bar dining area, where reservations are not needed…


…and the main dining room, where they are.


The high square windows managed to give the restaurant a cathedral lighting that felt warm and welcoming. The artwork is also nice, with some large geometric paintings mixed in with more whimsical animal figurines.

We began with a fig salad served on a bed of mixed greens with serrano ham, mascarpone, blue cheese, basil and shaved fennel.


The presentation was lovely and I especially liked the lush creaminess that came from the cheeses. The balsamic vinaigrette was excellent and reminded me how glad I am that I overcame my vinegar aversion a few years ago, though I still won’t touch plain white vinegar with a ten-foot pole. The basil packed a flavor punch that was a bit too strong but the crunch from the Serrano ham was just right. A great dish.

Both the sourdough baguette and the garlic foccacia bread was really, really good. Make sure to try one of each!

For my main course, I had herb-grilled salmon nicoise with a brown butter tapenade vinaigrette, arugula pesto, cranberry potatoes, summer beans, and pickled sultanas.

I have no idea what the pickled items were on top—they weren’t the sultanas because those were the raisins mixed with the other veggies. Whatever they were, I enjoyed eating something pickled that was neither too bitter nor too sweet. The arugula pesto drizzles didn’t add much to the dish but the brown butter sauce, which managed to not taste all that buttery, was great. The salmon tasted good and the vegetables, often my favorite part of a meal, were delicious. With the tapenade mixed in, though, my taste buds were tired by the time I’d finished eating—too much flavor, if that can be a fault!

To end, we shared a hazelnut tart with figs, vanilla brown butter and a white chocolate and fig cream.


Obviously, figs were a big hit this evening. The dessert was divine as the baby figs melted in my mouth but they also added a tiny kick of tartness. The tart was moist and the brown butter sauce worked even better here than on the salmon dish. I also liked how the hazelnut bits and figs seemed casually, yet artfully, tossed around the plate.

Magnolia Grill lived up to my expectations. Other than perhaps trying to do too much with the entree, every dish was well-crafted and satisfying. I look forward to trying it again when the seasons change.

Magnolia Grill
1002 Ninth Street
Ninth Street, Durham


Entrees: $25-$28

Reviewed 8.19.09.


  • walras1 said:

    The “objects” on top of the salmon are caper berries. They riff on capers which are standard on a “salade nicoise” (always in Nice done with tuna).


    MEZ replies on August 28th, 2009 at 12:36 am:

    Thanks for letting me know! I’ve always wanted to try caper berries and now, I have. That, combined with the tapenade sauce, does make the “salmon nicoise” description a lot more understandable.


  • aburtch said:

    Magnolia Grill has the most flavor per bite of any restaurant in the Triangle. The dishes I’ve tried there always have very fresh ingredients and are delicious. It’s probably my favorite “high-end” restaurant and I’d choose it over Four Square any day. The mint ice cream is the best!


  • guest said:

    Always an excellent appetizer or two, desserts rule, but mains are too often sub par. Add bad acoustics and unreasonably early last call for kitchen orders and the picture is not as pretty as it might appear at the first sight.


    MEZ replies on August 28th, 2009 at 12:39 am:

    That’s so interesting–I often find myself wondering why the triangle area doesn’t have any high end dessert places, where the pastry chefs can shine all on their own. Of course, I often wonder why so many ice cream and bakery shops close by 8 or earlier, when I’m not even thinking of my sweet tooth yet…that’s a different question.


    MrsS replies on August 28th, 2009 at 1:36 pm:

    MEZ, I often fantasize about opening a “late night bakery” in Durham that will serve fabulous desserts and pastries until at least midnight for the after-theater crowd. Unfortunately, I’m not a gifted pastry chef, so I must simply wait for someone else to satisfy this need.


    RPP replies on August 28th, 2009 at 8:21 am:

    I agree that the mains are occassionally dissapointing. I usually stick to the pork dishes, which is where I think they really shine.

    If they are still serving the curry butternut squash soup, it is pretty fantastic.


  • TSQ75 said:

    One of the better places in town for pulling up to the bar for drinks and appetizers. the staff at the bar always accomodating and chatty : )


  • bob said:

    for my money i think foursquare is above magnolia grill


  • christopher said:

    I took my parents and grandmother to Magnolia Grill by mistake. I glanced at the menu online and saw dishes were $8-$12; upon arriving I figured out that was the 1st course menu but we were already seated. That was one of the best meals I’ve had. Ever.

    I would have agreed about white vinegar but I learned a bit from ‘Nose to Tail’ that makes it wonderful. Use white vinegar and lemon juice 50/50 and they will balance each other out. It makes a great vinaigrette or mayonnaise.


  • sarah (ghost world) said:

    i found the food at magnolia to be top notch, but wasn’t a fan of the atmosphere! for that reason, i’d pick four square (or bonne soiree) for a more elegant dining experience, even with perhaps slightly less fanfare to the food.

    magnolia’s desserts are amazing, though. i’d like to go there just for a sweet meal sometime!


  • KW said:

    If you’re looking for high-end food without the pretension and astronomical prices that often go with it, this is the place. There’s a reason Gourmet Magazine rated it as the 11th best restaurant in the nation. And there’s a reason that the Barkers both have won James Beard awards. It’s also probably the least expensive of the top 20 restaurants.

    Great food, great service, great desserts, great value and you can walk in most any night without reservations. Do you understand how unbelievably rare that is? Don’t take it for granted, Durham.


  • Genevieve said:

    KW – WITHOUT the pretension? Maybe I just got unlucky when I went there, but hoo boy, check this out:

    About a year ago, my husband and I took my mother to Magnolia. I am the first to admit that I am a picky eater, and do frequently request that certain items be left out of dishes. I have never ever had any sort of problem with this at any restaurant unless the food item is pre-mixed or integral to the dish. For example, asking someone to leave the tomatoes out of salsa would obviously be ridiculous.

    Anyhoo, back to Magnolia: I ordered some sort of tomato salad appetizer that came with goat cheese on it. I love tomatoes but hate goat cheese, so I asked the waiter if they could just not put goat cheese on the salad. The waiter looked concerned and said that he didn’t think the chef could do that. So I figured that it must be pre-chopped or pre-mixed or something figured I’d just pick it out myself. For dinner, I ordered the lamb and asked if it could be cooked medium-well. The waiter said that the chef would only serve it rare because anything else would compromise the integrity of the meat. Look, I know I’m not a gourmand or anything, but rare meat seriously grosses me out. I politely informed the waiter that I really didn’t want my lamb rare and he said he’d go talk to the chef to see what he could do.

    When the appetizers came out, the waiter said: “The chef agreed to cook your meat the way you asked for it, but he refused to send out the tomatoes without the goat cheese. He just wouldn’t do it.” Dude – the goat cheese in question was a tiny drizzle of goat cheese dressing on top of the tomatoes. How difficult would it have been to NOT put it on my tomatoes?!?

    The lamb was cooked according to my request and it tasted fine, compromised integrity and all, but the waiter made it seem like I had asked the chef to make me a bologna sandwich. I wasn’t being rude or pushy in any way.

    I remember the waiter/chef’s condescending, pompus attitude far more than I remember the food (which, incidentally, my husband and mother liked).


    KW replies on September 1st, 2009 at 9:53 am:

    Yeah I guess that’s somewhat pretentious, but probably no more pretentious than any restaurant with chefs that actually put real thought and care into the food they send out. So I would qualify my statement with a “it’s relative”.

    I’ve always felt a relaxed, casual vibe in Magnolia that I don’t find in most high-end places. I also have never asked to alter a dish. If I don’t like the way a dish sounds, I move on down the menu.

    Let me put this question out there though. Who’s more pretentious: A chef that wants to serve the dish the way he/she intended or a person that feels they are entitled to change that chef’s dish?


    Sean Lilly Wilson replies on September 1st, 2009 at 1:37 pm:

    Things may have changed at Mag Grill — heck, it’s only been 15 (!) years since I last worked there.

    If someone ordered a meat (or fish) medium-well or well, our instructions were to politely warn them that this was not the way the chef intended the meat/fish to be cooked. We would then, er, steer them to the preferred doneness. If they insisted, the patrons request was honored, but at an “eat at your own risk” policy.

    Of course, given the normal banter between back- and front-of-the-house, bringing back a ticket with a well-done lamb or steak was often met with rolling eyes and slight derision (all in good fun; typical restaurant stuff).

    Other than allergies or dietary requests, dishes were generally prepared as the chef intended. No substitutions; no dressing on the side. I believe the menu makes this clear.

    This policy was good and bad: it meant that us servers didn’t have to put up with many “let’s see what the kitchen says” (because we knew the answer ahead of time). However, the philosophy made some people unhappy.


    fooddude replies on September 6th, 2009 at 1:10 pm:

    You should eat at home. Or Applebees.


    sara replies on September 7th, 2009 at 12:38 pm:

    This has been a comment / bone of contention with Magnolia Grill on Chowhound as well. I have eaten there seven or eaight times over the last six years and have had some very good meals, excellent desserts and a few duds. I have actively steered away from Magnolia when dining with someone who doesn’t enjoy sauces or complex dishes or when interested in a quieter evening. What they do, they tend to do very well but it isn’t always the right choice for every occasion or every guest. There are so many great restaurants in the area where the dishes are tasty that it seems like a little consumer research ahead of time can make it an excellent night out for everyone.


  • Jonathan said:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I expect nice restaurants to operate on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, at least when it comes to the menu. They’re not short-order cooks; they carefully put together their menus, and their reputations depend on consistent, high-quality preparation of their food on their menu, not my preferences. If I want it my way, right away, I’ll head to Burger King.


  • Genevieve said:

    Woah, nelly, folks. Being a picky eater isn’t a sin. I have finicky taste buds. I wish I didn’t. It’s not like I actively walk into fine dining establishments trying to be a pretentous jerk. But seriously, if I’m paying for the meal, I don’t see the problem with them serving it the way I ask, as long as what I’m asking isn’t unreasonable. I honestly don’t see the problem in asking for my meat to be cooked a little longer or a sauce to be left off.

    Anyhoo, Magnolia doesn’t need my money. Now any time my mom is in town, we take her to Four Square, which gladly leaves goat cheese out of stuff when I ask nicely.


  • justmenosurprises said:

    For the record, I have not been to Magnolia Grill, but I look forward to trying it soon. I do think the ‘issue’ brought up in these posts is a common one when it comes to fine dining and restaurants in general. Unfortunately for a lot of people, including the restaurants, there are completely different perceptions as to the purpose of the dining experience. I think many restaurants/chefs view their menu and food like the program at a classical music concert or high end fashion show. In this light, it WOULD be rude to request the composer to leave out the bassoons and similarly, the designer: no silk. Perhaps the sound of that particular double reed ruins the texture for you, but that’s just not how art works….and I truly believe that is how many chefs view their food/menu…as art. They have a right to, don’t they?

    Conversely, many diners view their dining experience like a custom made gown where they have a certain amount of control over the design and material used. I ALSO think that customers have a right to feel this way.

    So, how do you solve this dilemma? You don’t. Certain restaurants have certain ‘visions’ and if this is a concern for you as a customer then you need to do your homework before you spend more than $15 an entree. If you go to Magnolia Grill’s website you can get feel for how they view themselves and they definitely say “no substitutions” pretty clearly. This should indicate to the potential diner to not ask for alterations to the menu (allergies are a whole different beast). Now, I also will say that not only is it odd that they do not cook their meat to order (pretty standard in the high end food industry – unless prepared in a way where that isn’t possible), but by having this policy about their menu Magnolia Grill probably does offend some customers/scare them off. Clearly they value the integrity of their menu over the opinions of certain patrons. Is that a bad thing? That’s up to the diner to decide.

    What I AM sure of is that customers should not go to places like Magnolia Grill and EXPECT them to have a “we will bend over backwards for you” policy and then get upset when they don’t. It’s not that they’re necessarily mean, just that they might view their work as art.

    Also, sometimes servers are put in awkward situations when the restaurant they work at has a policy that forces them to ‘deny’ customer service. In Genevieve’s case (and you don’t sound that picky), the poor server was probably doing what he/she could to circumvent the kitchen’s wishes to leave the dish as is.

    sorry, blah blah blah…I’ve been in the industry too long and see these “ships passing in the night” on both sides.


  • Vernon Gregory said:

    Excellent Post!!! I really like your post on grills. I will be back to read more, I have bookmarked your site.


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