Dishing With Brandon Carr of Motto

Dishing With Brandon Carr of Motto

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After Four Square Restaurant owners Shane Ingram and Elizabeth Woodhouse decided to close the business and retire, Brandon Carr – manager of the fine dining establishment since its opening day 16 years ago – was looking for something new. Meanwhile the owners of Italian restaurant Lucia, Kevin and Stacey Jennings, heard about Four Square’s closing.

Brandon Carr. Photo by Sarah Arneson
Photo by Sarah Arneson.

Knowing they wanted to rebrand Lucia’s concept, they reached out to Brandon, who started his new position in July at the restaurant, now named Motto, working alongside Chef James Huff, who recently moved here from Washington, D.C. We chatted with Brandon about transitions: his own from Four Square to Motto, the shift in concept and the changing nature of Motto’s new menu.

Describe the difference between Lucia and Motto.

The obvious difference is that Lucia was an Italian restaurant, and we are not. The menu itself will kind of be in a constant flux; it’s going to be seasonally influenced and locally sourced, not necessarily from Durham County or North Carolina, but regionally. We’re not trying be a Southern or French restaurant; it’s whatever Chef wants to bring in. We source the best ingredients we can and let the kitchen’s execution allow the ingredients to really shine for themselves.

What led to the decision to rebrand?

The restaurant community in Durham is really thriving, but all these restaurants that I really like going to – Pizzeria Toro, M Sushi, Mateo Tapas – they all seem fairly niche. If you go to Toro, you’re going for pizza. If you go to M Sushi, you’re going for sushi. We’re not trying to pigeon-hole ourselves. If people are saying, “Oh, what do you want for dinner?” [We want them to say,] “Let’s just go to Motto, I know there will be something there we’ll like.”

You worked at Four Square for a long time. What’s this switch to Motto been like for you?

As a concept, we’re more casual than we were at Four Square. When [the owners] were looking to open Four Square, they thought the area in general was underserved in the fine dining side of things, but the scene’s changed so much in the past 16 years. I don’t know if that’s true anymore.

A trifecta of oysters (clockwise from left): bacon fat-poached oysters with crab and corn ragout; N.C. oysters on the half shell with cocktail sauce, eastern barbecue mignonette and jalapeño mignonette; and oysters Rockefeller. Photo by Sarah Arneson
A trifecta of oysters (clockwise from left): bacon fat-poached oysters with crab and corn ragout; N.C. oysters on the half shell with cocktail sauce, eastern barbecue mignonette and jalapeño mignonette; and oysters Rockefeller. Photo by Sarah Arneson.

That seems to be the trend in restaurants these days – away from fine dining to a more casual style. Do you have an opinion on that?

I think the focus is going to be on the ingredients that you’re using and the execution. Even in a casual concept, if you’re getting the best ingredients and the chef is working with the cooks to make sure they are used correctly, in a sense, that’s still fine dining. It just doesn’t happen to be on a white tablecloth with a fancy place setting.

As a front-of-the-house guy, what’s your secret to keeping everything running smoothly? 

I don’t know if it’s a secret. Getting the food out of the kitchen, well-prepared food: That’s what people are really coming out for. And just making sure the staff is trained; we go through pretty extensive staff tastings.

What do you hope people come away with after a dinner at Motto?

A good experience, good time. And a desire to come back.


Try It at Home: The Motto

2 oz. TOPO Organic Carolina Whiskey (unaged) and 1 oz. Krupnikas liqueur from The Brothers Vilgalys Spirits Company, on the rocks. “Or in Motto’s case, on one big, round rock,” Brandon says.

The Motto. Photo by Sarah Arneson
Photo by Sarah Arneson.
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Laura Zolman Kirk
Associate Editor Laura Zolman Kirk is a Kentuckian turned North Carolinian who can't get enough of this buzzing community.