Today, we take a look at two establishments.
Bernardin's caused a few raised eyebrows when its sign went up at the former Ratcliffe's on the Green, for two reasons: Some folks gasped at the thought that uber-celeb-chef Eric Ripert was opening an outpost in Charlotte (nope, sorry, that's Le Bernardin). Others gasped at the disappearance of the long-loved Ratcliffe's sign, which hung over previous restaurant incarnations at the space. But chef-owner Freddy Lee has simply opened a contemporary American spot with some Asian influences, not an NYC-style seafood bistro (though he says he worked at Le Bernardin back before Ripert was there). And he's not dissing historical sites - the original Bernardin's, in Winston-Salem, is in the historic Zevely House.
The food: Ostrich, crusted in cumin and served over a scallion-studded wild rice/corncake with braised cabbage, had great meaty flavor, though the cake was tall and bordered on dry. A drizzle of intense cranberry-Madeira sauce managed not to be overkill. Tiny lamb chops showed up with an intriguingly crunchy-outside, sticky-inside rice cake that was the best part of the plate. A two-toned tuna appetizer excelled: one part seared, the other done as tartare, both colorful and vibrant. Dinner far exceeded lunch in quality, so go at night - and save room for unexpected desserts, like a mixed fruit cobbler or simple crème brulee.
The look: The redo of the space is minimalist but significant: Angular, modern light fixtures and white banquettes don't brighten the space as much as let you see its intricacy better, and the little second-story area is more noticeable now, too.
The service: Attentive and earnest, servers show confidence and enthusiasm, though service is a mite slow.
Details: 435 S. Tryon St.; lunch (about $8-$15) weekdays and dinner (about $15-$30) Monday-Saturday; 704-332-3188.
Levant comes to uptown from owner Omar Kweder and the folks who've run Kabob Grill in Dilworth for years: You'd know by that incredibly smooth hummus, if not by the quiet waitstaff, but the décor is a surprise: elaborate, detailed, mother-of-pearl-inlaid mirrors on walls, high-backed elegant chairs and Levantine artifacts displayed carefully. (The Levant is generally defined as the area along the Mediterranean, Turkey to Egypt - so, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and parts of Turkey and Iraq.)
The food: A mixed kabob plate and the five-side vegetable plate are good survey items, but consider the lamb chops: Half a dozen thick, lush chops were marvelous, though also $35. I'd prefer a bit less for less, and the dinner menu overall is a bit pricey.
The lamb burger is a winner, with depth of flavor, and baba ghanouj is a chunky, smoky version that's hearty. Servers keep thin, fresh pita coming to the table, still wrapped in plastic, and portions are generous.
The look: Handsome and evocative. A cool little bar area at the front adds panache.
The service: Quiet, but willing to recommend if you ask, and quick to offer niceties like garlic sauce (yes, you want it).
Details: 501 S. Church St.; lunch ($9-$13) weekdays, dinner ($20-$35) Monday-Saturday; 704-333-0930.