Our Gourmet: Dinner at Libby's starts college tour
Libby's Bar & Grill47 Main St., Durham; 868-5542; libbysbarandgrill.com
Serving: Seven days a week, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (bar open until 1 a.m.)
Pricing: Appetizers $6.99-$11.99 ; entrees $12.99-$16.99; sandwiches & burgers: $7.99-$9.99; desserts: $5-$6.
To mark this passage, for our next few turns at the dining table we'll be visiting college towns around the state to sample the local restaurant scene.
Our intention is to skip the pizza-and-beer joints, and instead find places where parents might bring their student when they come for a visit, or where a student might take a date for a slightly more upscale yet still affordable dinner.
To kick off the tour, we visited our dear old alma mater, UNH, and had dinner with TBP and a buddy of his on a cold, snowy night at Libby's Bar & Grill. It wasn't called Libby's back when we were students in Durham, but suffice to say that collegiate eating and drinking has been going on at 47 Main St. for decades.
Libby's handsome facade is hard to miss, with its white trim, gold script-lettered sign and multipane picture windows projecting a fairly classy air. Inside, the decor is more plain, with simple furnishings and minimal decoration. The space is divided in half between bar and grill, with archways on either end of the center wall allowing patrons to move from one side to the other.
The menu isn't fancy, but as we said, it's a step up from a pizza joint. Appetizers are pretty standard pub fare, with nachos, quesadillas, Buffalo wings, potato skins, mozzarella sticks and the like. Entrees are more wide ranging but still familiar, with steak, seafood, and a fair population of Italian extraction.
Our Gourmet: None of the pub-style apps caught my eye, but given the wintry weather outside I opted for a cup of New England clam chowder ($3.99). When it arrived, it was bright white and frothy, looking for all the world like a latte. To say this chowder was thick would be an understatement - literally, the spoon stood straight up in the cup. It was chunky, with lots of potatoes and plenty of minced clam (no whole clams that we saw). Was it homemade? Possibly not, but it was still pretty good. 7/10
The Dining Companion: Leaving the appetizer menu to the boys, I decided to look at the "Soups" category and chose a cup of Chili ($3.99). Packed with meat, beans and chunks of tomato the chili was topped with cheddar jack cheese and served with tortilla chips. The chili itself was quite good, and I almost wished I had ordered the bowl, but the chips were very stale, so leaving some behind was easy. I almost wish they weren't part of the offering. 6/10
TBP and his pal, a bottomless pit in his own right, decided to share a large chicken tenders ($10.99) with honey mustard dipping sauce. The chicken was tender and cooked to the perfect golden brown. There were enough tenders on that plate to feed a "normal" family of four, but though they did offer a sample (one each) to OG and TDC, the boys easily polished off the plate and moved on to the entrees. 9/10
OG: Steak? Nah, let the boys get the beef. Seafood? Maybe. But thinking there must be a reason why almost half the menu is Italian, I decided on the Sausage & Shrimp Fra Diavolo ($16.99, including a house salad). I got a bowl of penne pasta, shrimp and sliced Italian sausage, all tossed with a spicy marinara sauce. Fra Diavolo sauce is supposed to have a spicy kick, and this one did, but the sauce was very thick and applied too heavily, essentially swamping the shrimp and sausage. I dove in and extracted all of the meat and seafood, but then packed up most of the pasta. 6/10
Our TBP ordered the New York Sirloin ($16.99), served with sauteed veggies (green beans) and choice of starch (french fries). Though he ordered the steak cooked medium, it was a fairly thin cut and ended up closer to medium well, leaving him disappointed. His compadre's 38 Special Burger ($10.99, with choice of starch) was a much better choice. Topped with bacon, provolone cheese, barbecue sauce, lettuce, tomato and red onion, it was juicy and delicious. The waffle fries he picked were "bomb" too. On average, the boys' entrees rated 7/10.
TDC: The Pesto Chicken Alfredo ($14.99) immediately drew my eye. A moist and perfectly cooked chicken breast was sliced and served on top of penne pasta tossed with a pesto alfredo sauce. I would definitely recommend this to everyone. I find most alfredos come with the sauce drowning the pasta, but not so here. I think this was actually one of the better balanced alfredos that I've had in a long time. I was also lucky enough to bring half of it home to enjoy it the next day. 9/10
TDC: When you have four people at the table and four desserts on the menu, you just order one of each and hand them out. Unfortunately, I think I ended up with the one I would not have ordered. The Chocolate Lovin' Spoonful ($5.95) was billed as chocolate pudding between two layers of chocolate cake with more chocolate. The pudding was actually a heavy chocolate fondant, which was also the frosting. It was extremely heavy and also dry. If I were only there for coffee and dessert, I might have enjoyed it more (not the dryness) but it was just too much after a pasta dinner. 6/10
OG: I picked the Chocolate Raspberry Mousse ($5.25), which was served in a pint beer glass. Realistically, a cup would probably have been sufficient. Chocolate mousse tends to be light, and I thought the raspberry flavor overpowered it in this dessert. 6/10
The boys got Apple Crisp a la Mode ($5.25) and Peanut Butter Pie ($5.95), both very good. TBP thought there could have been more crumbly topping on the apple crisp, and the other TBP couldn't have been happier with the peanut butter pie. 9/10
Final thoughts: 5/10
Maybe it was the outward appearance that led us to expect more of Libby's than we got. The food was OK, but nothing worth a special trip, and our server, though friendly, didn't seem very well versed in the details of the menu.
Could be that they were off their game because it was a slow night in terrible weather during semester break, but we couldn't help thinking that it should have been better. Libby's gets a passing grade, but it needs to work harder to make the honor roll.
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