For Elizabeth Murray, leading the kitchen at Sierra Mar, a restaurant inside a five-star hotel hanging on a cliff over the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, California, was a major career milestone. So is moving back to her native North Carolina to take the reins at Littler, a cozy bistro in Durham.
“I was gone for over twenty years, chomping at the bit of life,” says Murray, who grew up in Blowing Rock. “It’s really good to be back, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like coming home. Being here is just another part of the adventure.”
Littler opened in 2017 to rave reviews, but like just about every other restaurant, it shut down due to COVID in the spring of 2020. After a two-year hiatus, it reopened in March, booking up weeks in advance almost immediately as locals flock to taste the seasonal dishes created by Murray and her team, which includes executive pastry chef Tanya Matta, previously of the Grey in Savannah. “We have something to say culinarily that’s different,” Murray says.
That includes combining what she’s learned from cooking in kitchens in California, New York, Italy, Denmark, and England, with ingredients sourced from North Carolina. “Before we opened, I had a purveyor come in who showed me bacon, pork jus, and pork skins that just blew my face off,” she says. “We’re in pork country here, so we want to celebrate the area.”
That pork comes in all forms, including Murray’s collard green and bacon fritters, which she plates over a pool of gruyere fondue beside a pickled fennel salad. “Fritters and hushpuppies seem so simple, but they’re such a nuanced thing,” she says. For Murray, it always comes back to the ingredients. “An aggressively-smoked, thick piece of bacon really makes it.”