North Carolina’s seafood culture exists in relative silence. Compared to its more popular regional spins on barbecue, the marine bounties from the state aren’t given much of the spotlight (with the exception of Saltbox Seafood Joint, chronicled on PBS). Saint James is trying to change this. With a menu encompassing a vast spectrum of fish, shellfish and oyster varieties, the ethos of the restaurant is rooted in providing quality seafood from local sources. I believe it achieves this with grace and impeccable finesse.
Although it initially opened in 2018 as part of Chef Matt Kelly’s group of restaurants (Mateo, Mother’s & Sons, etc.), Saint James was forced to closed down in 2019 after an explosion in the Brightleaf District impacted the structural integrity of nearby buildings. Afterward, the fate of Saint James was unknown.
After months of speculation, it was announced that the restaurant would once again open its doors in January 2020. While the wait was long, the restaurant would finally be resurrected with an upgraded space and a revamped menu. This, however, brought about a question: Would it ever be the same?
I entered Saint James with an open mind, relatively clueless to the world of seafood beyond shrimp and tilapia. Through the ambient lighting and beautifully upgraded and modern sea-themed décor, the kitchen shines in a small opening behind the bar, giving a glimpse of the cooks working in a bright space. When I sat, I looked over the menu and decided to step out of my comfort zone and try an oyster and a main course. Being too overwhelmed with all the decisions, I let my waiter decide for me and waited in eager anticipation for my first experience with an oyster.
Appropriately named “Salutation,” it arrived upon a bed of ice with a lemon wedge beside it. After removing it from its shell with a fork, my first taste was one of salinity and sliminess, but then a smooth and balanced splash of the essence of the sea. It was an impressive introduction, and with an ever-changing selection available, it’s likely that you won’t ever get bored of their daily offerings. Yet this was merely tasty by means of proper selection. How good were the chefs when it came to cooking, and how might their skills in the kitchen change my perception of seafood?
As my waiter placed a plate of wild striped bass in front of me, I could see just how meticulous they must’ve been in their preparation. With a glow not unlike a roasted chicken, rice appearing vaguely reminiscent of arroz con gandules and collards in the middle of the plate shielding the fish from the rice, this was a masterclass in the art of plating and presentation.
One bite and you knew the chef had succeeded in their pursuit of excellence. The bass, flaky and succulent, was buttery, crisped at the skin and had only a hint of the piscine flavor so prominent in other fish; the pickled peppers on top only accentuated this flavor even more. The collards could rival those of any BBQ joint — refined and with a well-defined flavor that made its presence clear but didn’t overwhelm any of the other components of the dish.
The tasso rice, however, may have been the star of the dish. Rarely does an accompaniment shine so brightly, but this had such a multidimensional appeal that it deserves a section of its own. The rice held a subtle porkiness, and through an unexpectedly harmonious synergy with the bass managed to connect both land and sea in an amicable relationship between the two often separated flavor profiles.
The hot sauce butter beneath it all was truly the icing on this sea cake, with the butteriness shining brightly and the hot sauce just decipherable enough to leave a lingering spice on your tastebuds. Finishing the dish was like closing a good book — so much information was contained within, and though you know the tale has reached its end, you’re confident you’ll be back for more. Not for what you had last time, but to see how else they can interpret seafood and present it so eloquently to you.
If its downfall was any indication of its future, then its reincarnation was, above all, like the rise of a phoenix. You’d never expect to find a seafood concept as excellent as this in a place like Durham. But, then again, we’re among the best places for foodies in the South. It was only a matter of time before its existence was known throughout the Triangle.
Whether you’re a seafood lover or a novice, Saint James will be sure to satisfy and will indubitably leave you impressed. Seize the opportunity to visit as soon as you can — with flavors as good as this, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not trying them out.
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