First Bites: Passion8, Dogwood in Charlotte

Two new places from longtime area restaurateurs have opened recently. Let’s take a peek.

Passion8 is a relocation, but also a re-imagining of the Italian-esque bistro Luca and Jessica Annunziata opened in Fort Mill, S.C., eight years ago. There, chef Luca became known for menu-by-market and the breadth of his influences. Here, in a bigger space, the menu’s pitched a little higher.

The food: You don’t see scialatelli on Charlotte menus much (OK, ever: think cubic noodles), or scallion foam, or sage fluid gel. So obviously the kitchen is playing with ideas. For my money, the classics fared best in an early visit. The chicken liver pate on the cheese and charcuterie plate was the best I’ve had, maybe ever, and lamb terrine with pistachio was lovely, while one night’s short rib (not on the current menu) also excelled (though $37 is still too high). Sliced pork, on the other hand, was oddly bland, and a pappardelle dish with tomato and pancetta lost me with little mounds of foam, dissonant in such a heartily textured (and flavored) dish. Don’t miss the S.C. Reaper Cider among signature cocktails: George Dickel Rye, cider made in-house, herbs and spices and just a touch of syrup made with the uber-hot Reaper pepper. And check the list of farms Passion8 pulls from: It’s a good one.

The look: The space – on the marvelous Elizabeth Avenue stretch that starts with Cuisine Malaya and ends in Viva Chicken and houses this, Earl’s Grocery, Customshop, Carpe Diem and more – differs greatly from the original location, using simple lines, earthy colors and primarily stone, brick and wood. It’s smartly segmented; partial walls and curtaining help the dining room feel secluded but not isolated, and add flexibility.

The service: Servers ooze enthusiasm and know their stuff. I’d suggest dialing back on the specificity on dish details unless the table requests them, as I watched a few diners grow confused by all the info.

Details: Dinner only 5-10 Monday-Saturday; entrees about $20-$37. 1523 Elizabeth Ave., 704-910-3161; www.thepassion8.com.

Dogwood Southern Table and Bar is a new concept from Jon and Kim Dressler, who won fans with their first Dressler’s in Huntersville and opened a second in Midtown at the Metropolitan. Those hark more to his background with Morton’s: a great steak and a few twists, though mostly pretty straightforward. Here, he and chef Scott Hollingsworth push a local agenda; the website’s home page is a map of the Carolinas farms they’re using.

The food: Our server trumpeted scallops and grouper, while another claimed the Heritage Farms pork rib appetizer drove a vegan to recant, so how could we do otherwise? Scallops proved terrific, perfectly cooked with a bit of sear and chunks of tender turnip and acorn squash, plus some arugula pesto (four big ones go for $28, which strikes me a bit high). The ribs had gone a little past perfectly juicy, but seasoning was very good, and the grouper was fine, but definitely petite for $30. Sides include gnudi (think more delicate gnocchi) with bleu, apple and country ham, worth noting.

The look: Handsome, simple, farm-ish (witness tools and photos on the walls) – but also nicely varied in area and seating. There’s a long bar from which you can watch the kitchen, a lounge with TV and fireplace, and a sprawling dining area with both banquette and chairs. Note details like reclaimed wood and bricks, and twigs-in-rainy-glass dividers.

The service: First thing you’ll notice is the tablet you get instead of a wine/drinks menu; you can click around for details, bookmark ones you’re considering and call up your final few, or even email yourself ones that interest you. Great concept, assuming it always works. Second thing: The casual warmth from just about everyone. Dressler, who tours the room chatting, has a knack for creating a welcoming and comfortable environment.

Details: Lunch/brunch (about $6-$18) 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. daily; dinner (entrees $18-$30) 5-9 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, to 10 Thursday, to 11 Friday-Saturday. 4905 Ashley Park Lane (near SouthPark); 704-910-4919; dogwoodsoutherntable.com.