When a chef takes over at an established restaurant, and the concept remains essentially the same, it’s worth checking in to see how it’s going. When a chef is given freer rein by a new owner, ditto. So these Charlotte places have different tastes than when they began. Let’s take a look:
Halcyon, at the Mint Museum uptown, continues its original rustic focus with James Stouffer (formerly kitchen manager) at the helm. The menu’s been pared back since my last visit, when it was produced by Marc Jacksina, and there’s more on the current lineup that requires less precision in preparation (of course, that’s also a seasonal manifestation): Flavor-melding things, from caponata (the Italian eggplant melange) to sausages, roasted proteins to bacon-spiked fare.
The editing made for a more reliably executed outcome, in our case: an enormous “snack board” of eggplant, farro tabouleh, and picholine olives, with toasts and crackery slabs of flatbread; handsomely rare slices of duck breast with a bursting boudin blanc made with foie gras that managed to be light and rich at the same time; a whole branzino with potatoes and very mild herb aioli.
But the flavors overall, as in that aioli, have been pulled back significantly as well. Even the seasonings are ratcheted back. I’m missing some bite. Cocktails continue to impress, with Cardinal gin steeped with Earl Grey, for example.
Cantina 1511’s Vincent Giancarlo, meanwhile, has done significant revamping since ownership of the two restaurants (Dilworth, StoneCrest) changed. Note the platos antojitos, which vary routinely and are based on street fare, and the cholula-sauce-brined blood orange duck breast, for examples. I’m a fan of the Negra-Modelo-cooked beef short rib; it’s also got Arbol chiles in the mix, cutting the lushness just enough to be interesting.
Chicken, from Springer Mountain (in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and notably humane raisers), comes marinated with lime juice, grilled with a three-chile aioli and blanketed with the mild Oaxaca cheese and some pickled peppers – a fine and simple changeup.
There’s still a long list of burritos and fajitas and chimichangas and the like, but look in the Comida Mexicana category if you’re seeking the twists (and find the “Chef’s Secret Value Menu” online). Chips are still uneven, but the salsa’s improved ...
McNinch House now has Will Parham heading the kitchen, with former chef Chris Coleman’s move to the Dunhill Hotel. McNinch, a circa-1892 Queen Anne-style house uptown, has served by-reservation-only multi-course meals since 1989, first with owner Ellen Davis doing the dishing. Rosemary-and-Dijon-crusted lamb chops have been on the menu always, and I’m delighted to report they remain exquisite, now over a creamy risotto studded with oyster mushrooms.
Also fine were a seasonal rack of venison (think port and roasted cruciferous vegetables) and a first plate’s lump crab salad – though I wasn’t such a fan of the too-pale-and-buttery crab cake that accompanied it (and for these prices, aioli should be spelled correctly). Also welcome: the choice of cheese for dessert.
Diners get a menu (originally, you chose an entree when making your reservation and were surprised by the rest of the meal), but you order either a “grand” (seven courses for $99) or “premier” (five for $79) meal, and specify your choices from the lineup. You may also opt for wine pairings, priced accordingly, but the by-the-glass and bottle selection is abundant, too, with plenty of range in price in the latter.
One other option is the nine-course chef’s tasting menu, for $125.
The menu is conservative, simple, classic, suiting the historic house’s demeanor (especially now, in its Victorian Christmas sparkles) and setting, amid a little gated garden in beautifully lit Fourth Ward. Now, as before, don’t go for “wow” (and don’t go if you’re seeking derring-do); go for a sigh of contented ease.
500 S. Tryon St.; 704-910-0865; www.halcyonflavors.com. 1511 East Blvd., 704-331-9222; and 7708 Rea Road, 704-752-9797; cantina15eleven.com. 511 N. Church St.; 704-332-6159; www.mcninchhouserestaurant.com
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