Tony and I love venturing out to Durham. I feel like every time I head there, I find a place that I just fall in love with instantly. It’s nice to be pleasantly surprised and eating at the Federal (914 West Main Street, Durham, NC 27701) was no different. When I walked in, I almost walked back out. It looked like a nice bar to hang out at,and I loved the retro beer signs, but I thought it was just a normal bar and grill type setting. “Sorry Tony, it’s just a bar…” but I trailed off when something on the special board caught my eye. Osso Bucco? Sautéed root veggie? What had we stumbled upon?
The Federal’s initial appearance hides a really sophisticated and eclectic menu. You have standard pub fare like nachos and burgers (the meat is ground fresh on premises), but you’ll also find carnitas and chicken liver pate for starters. Tony is a liver fiend, so we couldn’t pass that up. I’m less enthusiastic about pate, texture is really big with me and while I love seared liver, anything in a paste hits my gag reflex. However, I am very happy to report that I enjoyed Federal’s pate, and I was surprised at the amount we received. Plan on splitting this with 4 people, it was a bit too much for the both of us and we could have used more toast points, but the pate was flavorful and a little spicy. I’m still not a huge fan, but making pate an enjoyable experience for me is a magic feat that the Federal was able to pull off. On the same plate were homemade bread and butter pickles, which are not typically a favorite of mine, but these were crunchy, tart, and not overpoweringly sweet. The Federal was able to change my mind on two formerly hated items, so I have to tip my hat to them there.
For dinner, we had to try two of the day’s specials; Mussels with Duck chorizo and a dish of Saffron Risotto with leeks and broccoli rabe. Tony’s mussels were an immediate hit, I love the mix of the steamed mussels, the spicy chorizo and the broth of white wine and garlic. Plus, the mussels were steamed perfectly, so they weren’t rubbery or tough, just perfect little seafood morsels of goodness. Combined with a pint of a good local brew, which the Federal has in spades, and the ACC tournament playing, I could see myself being here every day eating this and being very happy.
The Saffron Risotto was good, but not nearly as crowd-pleasing as the mussels. The risotto’s texture was perfect, it has the great balance of creamy smoothness without being a pile of mush. I love leeks in everything and these just melted in my mouth. The broccoli rabe wasn’t overpowering like I was afraid it would be and added a nice bite to the creaminess of the risotto. My one complaint was that the risotto itself was underseasoned, I couldn’t get much of the saffron flavor. I had to do the cardinal sin of using the salt shaker to season it more. I was still happy overall though, but man, I could have gone with a second plate of those mussels.
As the weather gets warmer, I know the Federal is going to be a hot spot for everyone to hang out, as they have an awesome little porch area up front. If it looks crowded, just grab a beer and wait it out, as this place has some of the best gastropub food around. Lesson learned by me, don’t judge a book by its cover, I’ll be looking for ironic Blatz signs any time I want some good food.