Downtown Durham is in a constant state of flux these days, and the same is true for the restaurants in the area. New restaurants open, old restaurants move or expand, some close, and others just shift direction…which was the case for Lucia, an Italian restaurant owned by Urban Restaurant Group that took over the space when Pop’s closed.
Many people may not even realize that a significant change has occurred here and that a new restaurant concept called Motto opened just a few short weeks ago in its place. The refresh has been kept a bit on the down low as the kitchen and staff, many of whom came onboard from the recently closed Four Square restaurant, perfect the menu (which will have quite a few seasonal changes), and make improvements to the interior.
There are lots of mottos for this new restaurant. The food, which is served tapas style, is regionally inspired and locally sourced from the South. What we enjoyed most about Motto was that the dishes didn’t shy away from flavor and creativity, and as seafood lovers, there were plenty of great options from oysters to crab to mussels and scallops. The flavor profiles gave a nod to the South with vinegar-based sauces, smokey flavors, and pickled plates, and there was even some Spanish and Southwestern flair in dishes that incorporated things like chilies, corn, and chorizo.
Enjoy our menu preview below and keep in mind that Chef James Huff and team plan to make seasonal changes, along with adding woodfired pizza to the list and, in time, an oyster bar.
Not only were the Harker’s Island raw oysters and mignonette sauces (jalepeno, apple cider vinegar and horseradish cocktail sauce) wonderful, but the poached oysters pictured above were an instant favorite…maybe because they’re poached in bacon fat, atop crab meat and corn and topped with spicy hollandaise.
Another fun starter is their pickled plates. From what we understand, they have an obsession with pickling and I’m not complaining. It was my first time eating pickled watermelon rinds and I loved that it was a perfect way to make use of this underutilized piece of the fruit.
The shellfish campechana below was filled with all kinds of goodies from the sea like oysters, shrimp and blue crab and was refreshingly mixed with ranchero salsa and avocado.
Moving on to more of the hot dishes, we tried the melt-in-your-mouth braised pork cheeks. You’ll notice the grits are not your typical kind – they are made from green chilies in guajillo broth. So different!
Also, mixed in with a chilie broth were the mussels below. We’re fans of dishes that have a kick, so we were soaking up the broth, which also had charred tomatillo, chorizo sofrito and mezcal mixed in.
Larger plates include perfectly cooked scallops on a bed of fresh veggies like eggplant, peppers, onion, corn and olives. And this moist roasted chicken was infused with flavor and balanced with a little sweet and a little salty from the kalamata olives and grilled peach panzeanella. ‘Tis the season for this sweet fruit; I could eat it on just about everything!
Motto is bravely forging a new path for itself downtown, taking some of the old and renewing it, whether that’s the space itself, the staff coming from Four Square and Lucia, or the menu which is full of fun surprises.Photos: Tommie Watson Photography