Venue Review: Alivia's Durham Bistro
When Fergus Bradley and Jason Sholtz opened Alivia's Durham Bistro in February, I was eager to check the place out. Bradley and Sholtz also own the enormously successful Federal, after all, and their new restaurant promised to be a more ambitious undertaking. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say that Alivia's is unlike anything else in the Triangle: It's a combination coffeehouse/bar/bistro in a converted bicycle shop, which, when two large garage doors are rolled up, morphs into one big sidewalk patio.
To oversee the kitchen, the partners hired chef Matt Hardner, who had previously worked at Elaine's and Lantern. Hardner's opening menu included temptations such as lobster medallion "BLT" on brioche, braised pork belly, and steamed black grouper with lemon cream sauce.
Did I say I was eager? I was champing at the bit, even tempted to bend my rule about allowing a new restaurant a month to get on its feet before paying it a visit. But my calendar was full, and it was nearly three months before I pulled up a chair at Alivia's. The seasonally changing menu had evolved from winter to spring, and most of the dishes I'd salivated over were no longer offered.
Still, as it happens, my timing was fortunate. Soon after the restaurant opened, I began hearing reports of inconsistent food (oversalting was a common thread) and slow, snarky service. The complaints had diminished by the time my wife and I paid our first visit, but I must admit my eagerness had become tempered by a certain amount of wariness.
I breathed a tentative sigh of relief when our waiter turned out to be welcoming and attentive. OK, I may have winced a bit when my wife ordered the leek, Vidalia onion and chanterelle tart -- the same tart about which I'd heard mixed reviews. I didn't warn her (yes, I'm a cad, but I was curious), and in this case her ignorance truly proved to be bliss. The tart was first-rate, with one of the best French pastry crusts I've tasted in recent memory. My trout cakes, an appetizer special, were also quite good if not as memorable. Serves me right, I know.
Encouraged by the appetizers, I ordered the grilled trout (which one foodie had described as undercooked) for my entree. I landed a beautifully cooked, plate-spanning filet so fresh-tasting I even ate the grill-striped skin. The presentation was marred only by the accompanying saffron risotto cakes, which tasted as if someone had forgotten to salt them. I could only guess that the kitchen was aware of the oversalting complaints and had overcompensated. Meanwhile, my wife again fared even better than I did with an impeccably moist, crisp-skinned pan-roasted chicken breast, with earthy celery root mashers and roasted cremini mushrooms.
Evidently, I'd worked off my bad karma by dessert time. While my wife raved about her tropical fruit crumble, served warm with a pineapple and macadamia nut sherbet (pastry chef Rosa Perry, formerly of Nana's, makes everything from scratch), I was every bit as delighted with my lemon polenta pound cake.
A subsequent visit proved similarly rewarding. Highlights included a salad of crisp whole heart of romaine leaves topped with crisp-fried tatters of pancetta and a warm poached egg; a New York strip steak -- grilled spot-on rare as I'd ordered it -- and spangled with green peppercorns in a translucent "au poivre jus"; and a brace of soft shell crabs in a flawless tempura crust served on a kaleidoscope of julienne carrots and daikon and emerald green tat soi leaves; and an oh-so-rich chocolate mousse cake with candied Italian cherries and walnut brittle. Service was every bit as friendly as the first visit and more knowledgeable.
Not everything was perfect. Pork bone soup was mildly disappointing; nothing wrong with it per se, just not as rustically porky as the name implies. And black-eyed pea croquettes, though flavorful, came off as dense and dry.
That problem may be solved next week, when the croquettes are slated to be replaced by succotash croquettes on the new summer menu. Given all the improvements Alivia's has made so far, I'm betting the change will be an improvement.