Sneak Peek at The Durham House
Washington Avenue restaurant trades casual Cajun for refined Southern fare — but keeps prices reasonable
After three months of renovations, The Durham House will debut to the public October 9. Located in the former home of Woodrows Heights (previously Mardi Gras Grill and Floyd's Cajun Kitchen), the restaurant has undergone a transformation from casual Cajun to more refined Southern. (Update: The opened has been changed to October 22.)
The new space features whitewashed walls, corrugated tin accents and popular Edison bulbs. Blackboard walls highlight specials and list where the restaurant's ingredients come from. Of course, the expansive patio remains a major draw; in addition to TVs for watching sports, the patio also features a wall of pots that will supply lettuces and herbs to the kitchen.
"I want to position The Durham House to where it may not be all things to all people, but if you come in with an open mind and you want a good meal and you want to be treated well, we probably have something for you," owner Raj Natarajan, Jr. tells CultureMap.
"We wanted a fine dining restaurant that everyone would feel comfortable in," adds executive chef Don Schoenburg, who's known for the Gastro Punk food truck but brings an extensive resume in fine dining to the project. "A businessman can finish a meeting and they can have a martini or a drink at the bar, and they can sit right next to a line worker. They can both feel just as comfortable here."
Schoenburg explains that he's brought a simple, straightforward philosophy to to his menu. ""My food doesn’t have 50 different preparations," he says. "Everything I do here you could do at your house, probably with the stuff you have in your kitchen right now. I have no special tools. It’s just simple, well-cooked food."
Po boys and fried seafood may be gone, but the menu features plenty of appealing dishes. Gumbo remains, but it's been given a new presentation and benefits from the addition of fresh blue crab. Similarly, Schoenburg has upgraded the restaurant's steak offerings with a smoked, 10-ounce prime ribeye. Served with sweet potato gratin and dutch oven cornbread, the portion makes a sufficient meal and is reasonably priced at $36.
"If we’re going to talk about value for the money, you’re going to get more value for your buck here," Schoenburg says. "Are you going to get a 16-ounce steak here? Never. Because you don’t need a 16-ounce steak. If you get a good steak, 10 ounces is more than you need."
On Saturdays, The Durham House will offer a special "Bayou BBQ" menu of smoked meats and seafood. During the interview, Schoenburg previewed the offering with a plate that included pork shoulder, beef ribs, alligator ribs and boudin noir — all smoked on site. The flavors are milder than Central Texas style barbecue, which allows the flavor of the various meats to come through more clearly.
Natarajan has brought a similar approach to The Durham House's beverage program that features almost 200 spirits on the back bar, 11 craft taps, approximately 20 bottled beers and a full wine list. Local bartender Aaron Lara has crafted the cocktail menu and will train the bar staff. \
The most unusual aspect is a cellar beer program of eight to 12 options that Natarajan has been collecting since 2012. These premium selections will give craft beer fans something they can't find at other bars or may have missed when they were released initially. Similarly, the wine cellar features a few verticals to allow diners to taste how vintages evolve over time. Of course, other selections will appeal to more mainstream tastes.
"The beverage program, just like the food, is still extremely accessible. If someone wants to come in and their favorite beer is Coors Light, I have a lot of beautiful beers that I think they’d enjoy," Natarajan says. "Whether it be the food or the wine or the liquor, there’s a lot of geeky selections . . . We’re training our staff, and we’re really keen to engage everyone."