American Cafe and Lounge is an inexpensive hotel restaurant from a fine-dining chef, and as such, its got some real pros. And a few cons.
Tucked into the back side of the Clarion near Carowinds (and the intersections of I-77, U.S. 21 and S.C. 51), the restaurant sports a menu that ranges wide: fried pickles to fish and chips to fettuccine alla panna, wings to wedge salad to well, of course, the obligatory steaks, but also housemade mozzarella and a family meatball recipe.
You may know chef Luca Annunziata from Passion8 Bistro, another rather unlikely venture in Fort Mill though that one combines his Italian roots and broad cooking background with primarily local ingredients. There he does a changing-nightly menu that emphasizes the Slow Food concept. And its not cheap; entrees hover in the $30 range. (Newcomer foodies might have seen him and his crew reach the semifinal round of the Fire in the City cooking competition.)
Here, hes combining big portions and dishes that can appeal to just about anyone.
Even so, I didnt expect an $8 wedge salad to be an entire head of iceberg lettuce, nor a sizable bowl of linguine, marinara and meatballs to cost $6. (That was a nightly special; its usually $11.) A bowl of shrimp and grits had half a dozen fat shrimp, nicely cooked, along with both okra and chorizo; was one of the best dishes we had; and rang up at $13.
Housemade mozzarella, sliced thick and alternated with tomatoes, then drizzled with pesto, strips of roasted red pepper and lots of balsamic reduction, is a pretty dish, though its awfully late to have a dish featuring tomatoes still on the menu (and the tomatoes were, predictably, not great). Nix the tomatoes and its strong.
Similarly, the meatballs (Lucas moms recipe) proved tender and homey, and the marinara simple and good, but the linguine wasnt as vibrant. Better was a chicken parmigiana: hefty and peasant-y and delicious.
Grilled salmon was fine, atop mashed redskins with an extremely mild white-wine/garlic sauce, though it had clearly been waiting for my companions entree (the plate was beyond hot). Skirt steak with chimichurri was bolder, and nicely cooked.
The only true dud was an apple strudel served cold and stiff; I wish Id chosen the flavored creme brulee or pot de creme we were offered instead, since all are made in-house.
Servers couldnt be warmer, if a little casual. One night we listened to line cooks chat about their favorite dishes with customers, and how much they appreciate Annunziatas teaching and leadership. Thats not something you hear every day.
Annunziata and his wife, Jessica, plan to move Passion8 to Elizabeth in May 2014, which will, she has said, afford him the opportunity to really stretch out, culinarily speaking. Im looking forward to that. At American Cafe, you wont find boundaries pushed; youll find basics, and lots of them.