Before heading back to Bawlmer, I wanted to see what downtown Raleigh had to offer during the day. Since I am a museum person, museums were the logical option. And Raleigh has a few nice museums in their downtown area, plus a public parking lot that only costs $1 an hour, max of 8 hours. Two of your best options are the state history (which I had no time to check out) and natural history museums. I swear, out of all the state museums I have ever seen, the North Carolina Museum of Natural History is one of the best in terms of its layout, subject matter, location and exhibits. To wit: the massive skeleton of the whale hanging from the ceiling of their North Carolina coastal life exhibit, or the recreation of a woodland mountain habitat that you can see taxidermied animals staring out from! (The Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman also has similar exhibits, but I liked NC's just a wee bit better. Does Maryland have one, or do we just use the Smithsonian as ours?).
Perhaps their keystone exhibit - similar in focus to the Smithsonian's elephant in the rotunda - is the skeleton of Acrocanthosaurus, the celebrated "Terror of the South," having freshly attacked a life-size model of a Brachiosaurus. One mother had to coax her kid into the exhibit (this one under a four-story tall glass rotunda room). Press one little button, and the injuries that felled this most complete specimen of Acrocanthosaurus magically light up!
Of course, I came because they had a special exhibit on Chocolate! They wouldn't let me take any photos, as is the case in so many special exhibitions of stuff.
This was all for the best, as I would never have been able to figure out what to photograph first. So here are the highlights of this very cool exhibit (all text was in English and Spanish):
- life-size model of a cacao tree with dissected model cacao pods
- the ancient history of cacao, highlighting the importance and prestige of drinkable chocolate to the Maya (especially in the first millenium) - that includes replicas of Maya chocolate drinking vessels, and a verybrief introduction to Mayan hieroglyphs (basically, that they represent actual words, which I knew, but hey, not everybody does)
- the more recent history of cacao, including how the Aztecs used the beans as money, how the Spaniards exported it to Europe, how chocolate (as prestigious to Europeans as to Mesoamericans) profitted from the African slave trade, and how it finally became available to the masses.
Afterwards I had a few options for lunch. There was one BBQ place I wanted to check out - where else but in Raleigh can you find both types of North Carolina BBQ, the sparse vinegary whole-hog pork BBQ of the East and the sweet tomato/ketchup based shoulder-only BBQ of the West? But I wanted to walk, and this was not in walking distance. I had choices of sandwiches, burgers, Pan-Asian, Chinese, sushi, Southern, deli, Irish - the choices were dizzying. One place, the Duck & Dumpling, continued to pop up in small adverts everywhere I went (the hotel, the museum, etc). When I found that I was only a few blocks away I hoofed it on over.
Duck & Dumpling is a very sleek, very stylish Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant with snappy service (the regulars next to me got their cashew chicken almost immediately). It has a small yet eclectic menu styled by Chef David Mao. What specifically drew me in was the $12 prix fixe lunch menu. Let me say that again: $12 prix fixe lunch menu. What a great, frugal find for a guy who just wasted $40 on a motel room he didn't even use! I was all up for that.
As with most restaurants in our own Restaurant Week (coming up in early August, by the way), Duck & Dumpling offers three courses (appetizer, mains and dessert), with your choice of one of three to five dishes for each course. For the first course, I could have had a salad with ginger dressing, but the waitress described a most intriguing edamame hummus (probably the first time you have ever seen those two words in the same sentence) with taro chips.
The chef simply made a hummus out of edamame instead of chickpeas. I was too curious to pass this up, and I'm glad I got it. It tasted surprisingly more like hummus than the waitress described it, and it was substantially thick. I've never been that crazy about edamame, but this was good.
For the main course, I ordered the only noodle dish on the prix fixe menu, the cha chiang noodles: a savory dish (Savory noodles? Go fig.) of thick noodles covered in ground pork and finely julienned cucumber slices.
I asked for spicy sriracha sauce on the side. The pork was indeed savory and slightly salty, which I liked, and the cucumber pieces gave a nice, refreshing contrast to all the savoriness. I kept on dipping my chopsticks into the sriracha and mixing it around in the noodles, to slightly spice things up.
I originally wanted flan for dessert, which they had run out of. So instead I ordered a Kahlua chocolate souflée. I waited a while for my dessert when my waitress comes out and tells me the chef just made more flan! But I stuck with the souflée, and it was a good choice.
From every place that I stuck my spoon, piping hot choclate sauce oozed out into the soft, moist cake. It was a delicious way to end my meal, and strangely appropriate considering the Chocolate! exhibit I had just spent half an hour not taking photos of.
The meal came to only $12 plus tax, and the sweet tea (they also offer unsweetened - which I normally order and then dump a whole lot of artificial sweetener into it anyway) was apparently part of the cost. Either that, or they forgot to charge me. Anyway, it was a good way to prepare for the mammoth 5 hour drive back to Baltimore, towards which my GPS sent me via US 1 to I-85, not straight up I-95 as I expected. It was more scenic, I must admit. Plus I got to stop in a Food Lion and buy another six pack of Fat Tire!
And this is what they look like when they're babies. They're baby blues!
Don't look up!
Unsuspecting dinosaur, you have no idea what that Archocanthosaur is gonna do to you...
REALLY don't look up!
Er, don't look down?
for Duck & Dumpling