First Bites is a look at restaurants that have opened recently, not a full-fledged review.
The food: Specifically seafood destinations are something readers often ask about, and uptown’s never been the most promising place to look. So there’s a built-in audience for this new entry from the Crepe Cellar/Growlers Pourhouse people, located in the Hearst Tower. Add the fact that there’s a “house oyster” (called the Sea Level) and you know there’s some interesting stuff afoot.
(Quick note: It’s a farmed, triploid oyster, which means in brief that it doesn’t go in and out of season, but is not “genetically modified.” It’s the same oyster Paul Manley brought to Growlers a few years ago, farmed now exclusively in Sea Level, N.C.)
Joining a handful of other, rotating oyster choices, which run $1.75 to $2.50 apiece, are about a dozen starters – tacos, fried things (corn fritters, tempura shrimp, oysters) and idiosyncrasies like squid chow chow.
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A pork belly steamed bun paired two lengths of well-crisped belly with pickled carrot, while half a dozen oysters arrived numbered, for maximum learning opportunity. (Our server described each variety well, from brininess to size; the person who delivered the plate couldn’t remember which number was which, but found out quickly.)
Five sandwiches range from po boy to seafood sausage to lobster roll, and the fresh catch might offer drum, striped bass and, a little oddly, risotto with smoked trout. A catfish Reuben was surprisingly good, really echoing the spirit of the original, with good, sturdy fries, too. Two nice hunks of perfectly tender drum arrived atop chunked, roasted beet and sweet potato.
Drinks include a short but well-rounded craft beer and cocktail list, including a fine Corpse Reviver No. 2 and something called a Krampus that sounded better than it either looked or tasted, to me (Glenlivet, glass-smoked sage, burnt sugar simple syrup and an allspice reduction: I think you’d really need to smoke the sage tableside – and by that, I mean either diner or server would need to). But three thumbs up for that name.
The look: Rustic elegance is probably the proper decor term – wood floors and beams and brick, with lots of lighting variation, including iron-and-seeded-glass pendants, plus curvy cross-back chairs and banquettes and generous bar space. We sat in an awkward space behind a serving station, so servers bustled constantly. Other seating areas are a little tight, but not so constantly stirring. Plain bar-towel style napkins and glass and silverware with a hearty weight help the no-nonsense feel.
The service: In jeans (uniformly) and a variety of shirts (lavender to flannel), ours presented a warm and efficient front, getting dishes and answers, when requested, with frankness. (“Nope, we’re out of that, and when we’re out, we’re out. Everything’s really fresh.”)
The details: Dinner mains about $11 to $35; lunch is scheduled to start Feb. 29. 129 E. Fifth St., but you can’t get there from there right now. (Paul Manley says adding a new entrance to the 46-story Hearst Tower turned out to be “arduous” but that the oyster wall an artist is constructing there, along with the patio, will be really cool.) Enter from the front of the Hearst Tower in the interim, expected to be about two weeks. (Park in the Hearst Tower’s parking and the restaurant will validate.) 704-412-2616; http://sealevelnc.com.