Helen Schwab

Evoke: Surprising restaurant in a Charlotte hotel

Peruvian ceviche.
Peruvian ceviche. HELEN SCHWAB

Calling yourself a “new-age steakhouse” might be the best way to market to Charlotteans, given our proven affinity for the genre.

But it sells Evoke short.

Chef Oscar La Fuente offers crudo (think sashimi, Italian-style), housemade pastas considerably beyond the usual ravioli, plus some off-the-beaten-path sides. And the place, tucked into the massive Le Meridien-ization of what was once The Blake hotel uptown, offers both some interesting drinks and artistic desserts that aren’t all sweetness and light.

Decent espresso, too? It’s a miracle.

But yes, yes: There’s steak. Certified Angus Beef, for those who care. You’ve got two options on the dry-aged New York strip (8 or 16 ounces), plus a bone-in tenderloin, rib-eye, cowboy rib-eye and a porterhouse that clocks in at 40 ounces (and $84), plus a teeny filet and some lamb chops. The one steak we tried emerged cooked to order, seared and bloody and perfect.

Vastly more interesting are (to start with) the crudo. I enjoy the subtlety of a chef who was born in Peru to a German mother and Spanish father serving the Italian version of Japanese sashimi in a hotel with a French name, but you don’t need to appreciate that subtlety: The fish is really good.

Try hamachi (yellowtail, usually); I had it with avocado and crispy shiitakes but the current iteration sports compressed cucumber, Calabrian chile and pickled shallot. Try Peruvian ceviche, served with sweet potato chips (ask for more right away). The new escolar with snap peas, Meyer lemon and coriander oil sounds good, too.

Evoke’s menu is divvied into appetizers and salads, crudo, steaks/chops/entrees, pastas and sides. You’re encouraged to have everything (well, sure), but portions are sufficient (and servers sufficiently gracious) to let two people split four plates. So consider getting crudo, an appetizer or salad, entree and pasta, and just sharing it all.

Among pastas, you’ll be hard-pressed to top the bucatini, with bits of beef tenderloin with pine-nut crust, fortified with Madeira. The pasta’s fine and toothsome and though it’s not the prettiest dish in the place, it’s a standout. (Ravioli with sweet potato, ricotta and bourbon butter were one of the only significant disappointments: oversalted and overcooked. How fortunate they’ve disappeared from the lineup.)

The scallop entree produced fine, fat scallops and the again-too-salty risotto has been replaced in the new menu with cauliflower and cipollini agrodolce (think sweet-and-sour) with Barolo vinegar. Interesting.

Butterscotch budino with a salted caramel top and simple shortbread cookies proved both handsome and hearty; olive oil cake is heralded by servers but arrived dry, not helped enough by infused pears or honey gelato.

But illycaffe in the espresso machines is always welcome, and I’ll try the cheese board next time.

On both my visits, servers wrestled a bit with English and explanations, but were quick to find answers to questions, or fetch a manager (or the chef!) to ease any explanations. That was pretty easy, because on both nights, the place was barely one-third full.

It’s handsome now: plenty of sleek wood and streamlined seating, stylized graphic design artwork, bubble-bulb and bentwood pendant lighting, slatted partitions and a color scheme with a bit of brilliant yellow. Le Meridien’s an international brand, with noticeable European touches (like that uber-cool soundtrack).

This version shares some spaces with the next-door-neighbor Sheraton, which can be a little confusing if you’re trying to get to the restaurant as a local. Pull up to the Le Meridien entrance and be valet-parked, or pull on into the tiny parking station and hope the attendant has his Square so you can charge it. Then park in that nearest lot.

Straightening out such details matter when you’re trying to attract a local market, and Evoke deserves one.

Review

Evoke

Hotel dinners that don’t taste that way.

Food:

Service: 1/2

Atmosphere:

555 S. McDowell St. in Le Meridien hotel; 980-237-5354; www.evokerestaurant.com.

HITS: Crudo, bucatini, nice extras during service.

MISSES: Oversalted ravioli and risotto; servers, though warm, need more coaching.

PRICES: Appetizers and crudo $11-$24; pastas $15-$18; entrees about $24-$52.

HOURS: Dinner 5-10 p.m. nightly; breakfast runs 6-10:30 a.m., lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

INSPECTION SCORE: 93 April 9.

= excellent; = good;= fair;= poor

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