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An Inconsistent Truth

Can Duro survive its growing pains?

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The same holds true for a restaurant. Limani's variety and quality of fresh fish won it a spot on Style's list of 50 best restaurants earlier this year. It changed to Duro in late April, and though it has the same management, little else is similar.

Named for a type of Italian flour, Duro promises "a unique pasta experience." Instead, what I got on three visits was a sample of growing pains.

One problem may be that only two days elapsed between the closing of Limani and the opening of Duro. That may have been long enough to make a few cosmetic changes — yellow walls and red drop lights — but not enough time to test new recipes, especially when chef-owner Matthew J. Tlusty no longer does the cooking.

Tlusty acknowledges the problems, along with the frustration that comes with enough staff turnover in the kitchen and 56-seat dining room to earn a personal relationship with Craigslist for new hires.

So why did such an accomplished chef turn the cooking over to novices? Well, for one, his health had taken a beating from long hours behind the stove, and second, because he loves teaching.

An initial visit ended abruptly when no one bothered to bring a menu after several minutes. I returned eight days later and stayed, which proved to be a mistake.

Both the second visit, and a subsequent visit after a three-week reprieve, began well, however, thanks to interesting appetizers ($7 to $9). Calamari Limani-style was a tangy platter of squid sautéed with red wine, onions, capers and olives on a bed of olive-oil-toasted bread. The crab starter also was innovative — loads of lump meat atop a scoop of grain-mustard potato salad and a side of rosemary-tossed fried potatoes.

My introduction to the homemade pasta was good, too — little purses stuffed with pear bits, fontina and mascarpone cheese in a Parmesan cream sauce.

Then the trouble began. Our party of four waited 45 minutes for the entrees and then, remarkably, a dish of tiger shrimp arrived undercooked. It takes hands as fast as an Iron Chef's to pull shrimp from boiling water too soon, but someone in Duro's kitchen managed the feat.

Meanwhile, as we were stranded with a basket of toasted bread that smelled and tasted of charcoal, only a second round of wine and good conversation staved off another walkout. Based on comments by diners at nearby tables, our experience was not unique.

Entrees ($17 to $21) were hit-and-miss. Nearly all included some form of pasta, although, as a slogan at the front of the restaurant advertises, Duro is "not an Italian restaurant."

An aged rib steak resembling strips of London broil was seared in a cast-iron skillet and served with wide ribbons of pasta, roasted shallots and shiitake mushrooms in a demi-cream sauce. It was juicy, cooked as ordered to a pinkish medium-rare.

But braised lamb shanks with mint were dry, and rosemary fettuccine seemed an ill-suited accompaniment. One of two soft-shell crabs, resting on dry rice noodles, was so squishy it was barely edible.

A better combination were plate-filling squares of lasagna layered with salmon, scallops, fontina cheese and spinach, bathed in a tomato broth.

A pan-seared escolar, a white fish from Australia, provoked a flashback to the glory days of Limani. Both the fish and a three-onion risotto were perfectly textured and flavorful.

Duro offers three desserts and, in a bit of pretentiousness, all are "flown in from Italy." The tiramisu was moist enough but hardly worth the trans-Atlantic trip.

So why did Tlusty, an experienced, Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, tamper with a formula that made Limani a gourmet's destination in Carytown for six years?

He blames the increasing cost of fresh and often scarce fish, which has outpaced the number of customers willing to pay for it, along with rising gas prices and the arrival two years ago of Can Can, the popular 200-seat French bistro across the street.

Tlusty said it took a year to fine-tune Limani; for Duro the goal is six months. The question is, will a fickle dining public, offered ever more options, wait that long? S



Duro ($$$)
3123 W. Cary St.
353-7117

Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m. S



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