ahh, the old blank screen on a Saturday morning with my coffee. This is my favorite time to start writing. I’m going to share my experience from last Thursday night with you. First, though, I want to take a moment to thank my friends who have given me such great feedback on this blog. In addition to continuing getting to know the finest food and drink in the Triangle, you’ll also get to know a manifold group of my friends who will join me on these epicurean adventures, from the wild to the wise. After all, this blog is aptly titled “Come-Eat-With-Me”. You’re up next, Christina. 😉 Ok. Let’s get down to brass tax.
Saint James Seafood Restaurant and Raw Bar is located in Brightleaf District, Durham. This stunning restaurant was opened this winter by Chef Matt Kelly, who we also love for opening Mateo Bar de Tapas in Durham several years ago. I can say with conviction that there is not another restaurant like Saint James in the Triangle. Bravo, Chef. You have outdone yourself again. When you walk in and notice the big porthole windows, it kind of feels like you are inside a cruise ship. It is over the top nautical, which I find super fun. I realize the brightening of the photos didn’t transfer to this site, so you’ll just have to go check it out for yourself.
Mr. Bill Jackson joined me on this particular adventure. Bill, a North Carolina native, is a commercial developer and serial entrepreneur, best known for developing strings of hotels from Virginia through the Carolinas, and with investor partners, he has owned a number of development sites including Kidd’s Hill and Kidd’s Hill Plaza next to Crabtree Valley Mall. Bill is a sharp-witted, no nonsense tycoon who I am lucky to have as a mentor, but more so, a friend for the past six years. Bill is as passionate of a foodie as I am, and our favorite thing to do together is visit new restaurants in the Triangle, and then carefully anatomize our experience. We have shared indescribably wonderful meals together. There was one in particular… I nearly cried on our way home from Durham it was so unforgettable. I won’t name the restaurant at this time, because they never lived up to that night again. I guess we were lucky to have that one experience, knowing now that it cannot be replicated. Anyway, we take this very seriously, and I was so excited to bring Bill to Saint James. We started out with the lobster roll– a New England delicacy and really a succulent little sandwich that beckons for summer. This lobster roll is served on brioche with the traditional chilled lobster salad, with a bowl of “lobster dip”, which is more of a broth which balanced the buttery brioche and lobster flawlessly. Brilliant. If you have never had a New England lobster roll, this is a fine start. Just look at it below. It’s nothing short of sexy. Most lobster roll aficionados would recommend a summer wheat ale as a pairing, but since it is February, and we are wine snobs, we paired with wine. Bill became the proud owner of Westgate Wine a few years ago, so he’s always got something interesting on hand. He brought a 2016 Chenin Blanc of Rickety Bridge, a boutique South African wine, to begin our dinner. We didn’t know it, but this wine would be made for this first course. Delicate lemon peel, honey and peaches on the nose, and aromatic white flower bouquet. The finish was long lasting, bright and creamy. If I am being totally honest, this wine completely seduced the lobster roll and the Oysters Ashworth. Go check out the wine store sometime if you are in the Westgate Rd neck of the woods near the Angus Barn. The oysters were baked with bacon and spinach, and iced with hollandaise–also perfect with this wine. Full disclosure: my stomach wasn’t feeling exactly right as we were driving to Durham, and I was treading lightly with eating anything too rich. By the end of the first course, I was feeling pretty confident that I needed to be careful what I ate. Turns out I wasn’t sick and was fine, but next time, I am getting the Key West smoked fish dip with fried saltine crackers, and the Lobster Newburg. I also want to try one of Matt’s raw towers. Le sigh… so many things to eat, so few days in the week… There’s also an entire list of boat drinks that I haven’t ventured yet. There are many trips to Saint James in my future.
So, the “unagi” style hamachi had been catching my eye on the menu. Why would I order unagi hamachi while feeling nauseous? Because life is more fun when you take risks. This was a winning move that I didn’t regret. This dish was, hands down, my favorite of the night. I am fairly certain it was Bill’s, too. Unagi is freshwater eel, and when the quality is high, unagi is my favorite sushi hand roll. However, this dish had no eel. Hamachi is Japanese amberjack or yellowtail, and this amberjack was prepared Kabayaki style. This is how unagi is prepared. It’s a cooking style in which a fish is filleted, deboned, butterflied, skewered, grilled, and then brushed with a special tare, a sweet soy sauce. It was served with avocado cream, crispy rice, flash pickled cucumber, and mayo. This dish is what I consider a life changing experience. I probably dropped at least 4 or 5 f-bombs while eating it–i just couldn’t get over how perfect it was. When I took a bite of all these things together, it instantly carried me to Hatteras, where my family fishes in a blue marlin tournament every June. We usually have a lot of grilled mahi left over from fish that we catch and grill, and my mom and my aunt will make fish salad with it. It’s the perfect pool snack to go with your gin and tonic. This was the second dish that we ate at Saint James that transported me to sweet, sweet summertime. We both lost our minds over the hamachi. It was beautifully balanced, cleverly deconstructed, and nothing short of genius. We also had the BBQ shrimp with the second course. They were deliciously spicy, laced with rosemary, hot sauce, and just enough shaved garlic and Worcestershire. The shrimp were awesome, but they can’t help it that we ordered them with the hamachi. Unagi style Hamachi stole the show.
At this point, we really struggled to figure out what we would eat next. We ended up landing on a pan-roasted black bass with smoked mussels, butter beans, chorizo, stewed tomato, and citrus. We had an Oregonian Pinot Noir with this course, which stood up to the smokiness well, and lent the right amount of structure. This was our least favorite dish of the evening. We both agreed the stewed tomato was a little overpowering, although it did work well with the smoked mussels and chorizo. Here’s my beef with this dish: they were not butterbeans. They were baby lima beans–the green kind. When I hear butterbean, I think of the large, slow cooked, white beans. I actually think white butterbeans would be better in this dish. The fish was cooked perfectly.
I haven’t pointed out the service at Saint James, but is it exactly what I would expect: excellent. In my opinion, this is as important as the food. We were about ready to call it a night, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what we saw when we first walked in. The staff was carrying at least a dozen of these banana cream pie looking desserts out while we were waiting for our table. Bill doesn’t really care for dessert, but after careful scrutiny between that and key lime, we went for it. OK, this was the third time I had a flashback to a summer memory with this menu. So, most Southerners will tell you that banana pudding is made with meringue. This one was made with whipped cream, but what really stood out was the homemade baba au rhum “donut” which served as the cake-y part that most people will use vanilla wafers for. This was not a normal donut. It was light, and it melted in your mouth. The pudding was not overly sweet, and the bananas used in it were not overly ripe. A slightly green banana tastes very different from a super ripe banana with black spots, the sugars are lower–and this dessert used bananas on the younger side of the ripeness spectrum. We really ended on a high note with this. It was light and airy, and there is something about a banana dessert that I am obsessed with. I am not sure this meal could have ended any more perfectly. This was my second visit to Saint James, and I feel like I am just starting to scratch its surface. Next time, I am going to sit upstairs and order the tower, but not without a boat drink first. Be sure to make a reservation when you go–this place is no secret.