Chef Shane Ingram continues to clear the bar at Four Square
By Greg Cox
Review originally published 3/25/2016
From time to time, I take a break from checking out new restaurants, and pay return visits to ones I haven’t reviewed in a while. This time around, I go for seconds at a couple of venerable local landmarks that make their elegant homes in restored mansions.
Other than a fresh coat of paint every few years, little has changed about the 1908 Bartlett Mangum house since the husband-and-wife team of Shane Ingram and Elizabeth Woodhouse restored its Neoclassical Revival splendor and opened the doors in 1999.
Soaring two-story Doric columns and rocking chairs on a wraparound porch announce the owners’ delicately balanced aim of making a meal here memorable but not stuffy. Inside, the mood is reinforced by the homelike scale of tastefully appointed dining rooms with period details including fireplaces repurposed as decorative displays of framed photographs and fresh flowers in cut glass vases.
Set against this comfortingly enduring backdrop, chef Ingram delivers a change of scenery in the form of an all-new menu every two months. Drawing heavily on local produce (supplemented by herbs from the restaurant property and the owners’ home garden), Ingram prides himself on rarely repeating a dish. Even for a chef whose resume includes the likes of Emeril’s, Charlie Trotter’s and The Inn at Little Washington (where he and Woodhouse met), that’s a setting a high bar for creativity. And it gets higher with every passing year. As a recent sampling of the March-April menu demonstrates, Ingram continues to clear the bar with only a rare stumble.
Creamy tomato and pork neck soup is a combination as soul-satisfying as it is surprising. Another surprising – and surprisingly harmonious – starter pairs date-walnut bread pudding and double cream Camembert from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia, with a tart cherry compote playing brassy high notes in the background.
Poached lobster tail, served over black beans and garnished with a dainty scalloped-edge butter cracker, is a visually striking presentation, but as a whole is dominated by the cumin-scented beans.
My only quibble with the poached duck egg and broccoli rabe wonton presentation, on the other hand, is that it doesn’t come with a spoon to scoop up every drop of the roasted long chile and charred onion-crab broth.
Working with a similarly broad palette of flavors – and a seemingly endless supply of inspiration – Ingram offers an entree selection that covers the spectrum from supremely delicate coconut milk-poached steelhead salmon to rustic tamarind and brown sugar-glazed venison chop. All in the space of just seven listings, where you’ll also find an exemplary crisp-skinned half chicken served over creamy cheese grits, and an unimpeachably fresh barbecue-spiced swordfish steak paired with a whimsical “octopus hushpuppy” that turns out to be an actual baby octopus fried in cornmeal batter.
By and large, desserts live up to the high standard set by the savory courses. Apple cinnamon monkey bread will scratch the sweet-tooth itch nicely, as will butterscotch pudding with chocolate shortbread, peanuts and a maple-cider gastrique. But it’s the Winter Citrus presentation – a kaleidoscope of grapefruit curd and jalapeÒo pound cake cubes, spangled with strips of preserved lemon and fresh seasonal citrus sections – that still has my mouth watering.
Four Square’s excellent wine list is thoughtfully sorted by flavor profile, with some two dozen wines available by the glass and a commendable half-bottle selection. In the unlikely event that your server isn’t able to help you make a selection, maitre d’hotel Brandon Carr is certainly up to the task. A former wine distributor who is in charge of the beverage program in addition to heading up one of the area’s most polished wait staffs, Carr has been with Four Square since it first opened its doors.
Sometimes, it turns out, lack of change can be a good thing.
2701 Chapel Hill Road, Durham
Last review: (2009)