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Blazing hot

Ralf Schnabel must have an affinity for hot spots. Lava Bistro, Schnabel’s former restaurant in the Shoppes at University Place, has been revamped and transformed into FireWater. Schnabel has been the owner of Lava Bistro for two years and had from the beginning had a vision to change the name, decor and menu, he says. Lava was not his creation, (it has been in that location for about eight years), and he wasn’t satisfied running an operation that wasn’t truly his. He came up with the name FireWater because long ago, his family in Germany distilled a very strong liquor that everyone called firewater, and “we have fire in the kitchen and water (liquor, beer, wine) in the bar.” Schnabel says the main difference between Lava and FireWater in the menu is the value for the money, a larger variety and very high food quality with lower prices to attract more people. Schnabel, born in Venezuela to German parents, took an early interest in the hospitality industry and attended Les Roches Hotel Management School in Switzerland, among the top three food and beverage management schools in the world. He launched three restaurants in Venezuela before moving to Charlotte with his family in 2008.He has changed the interior of the restaurant, giving it a new paint job, tables, chairs, booths and sparkling light fixtures. He has also has semi-enclosed the bar area. In the future, Schnabel says, the lovely outdoor patio overlooking the lake will be set up with comfortable lounge furniture, fire pits and a firewater light effect on the walls. The final step will be converting the upstairs dining area into a lounge after dinner service has ended. Feedback from the patrons has been amazing so far, he says. People love the food, drinks and decor and “they are very happy that we have live music on Thursdays and house DJs on Fridays and Saturdays,” satisfying the late-night clientele. Dishes at FireWater demonstrate Schnabel’s devotion to ultra-fresh tuna, as Schnabel is also the owner and operator of a fleet of fishing vessels in Venezuela. “The sashimi-grade tuna is unloaded in Trinidad, shipped through Miami and is in my restaurant in 48 hours. This is the freshest tuna you can eat in Charlotte,” Schnabel says.The fish is featured in their Tuna Fondue Trio appetizer – a combination of sesame soy mandarin orange, wasabi aioli and lemon garlic tuna served with crispy wontons. This light and satisfying dish tastes simultaneously delicate and rich and is beautifully plated, another FireWater signature. One night, a tuna special is served with tasso cream sauce and a grit cake and spinach accompaniment. The clean and bright flavors of the fish present a wonderful contrast with the rich sauce, buttery grits and earthy greens.Another winning seafood entree is the Pan Seared Scallops. Three fat, perfectly seared scallops are sauced with a mandarin beurre blanc and elegantly presented atop light and airy English pea souffles. Other dinner entrees include Steak Diane, Fettucini a La Pomodoro, Salmon a la Polonaise and Chef Joseph Cornett’s creation and personal favorite, Smithfield Pork Tenderloin – pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon, smoked over hickory wood and served with corn and spiced-ham risotto.Schnabel and Chef Cornett spent several months devising a menu that could provide both top quality and affordable prices. Firewater offers both full dinner entrees and “Bites” – smaller portions still prepared to fine-dining standards. These include Pork, Meatloaf or Chicken Sliders, Carpaccio of beef tenderloin, Baked Brie en Croute and Smoked Tomato Macaroni & Cheese. This last dish is made with goat cheese, spiced cheddar, green onions and bacon lardons. It has remarkably well-balanced flavors and is hearty without being heavy. Special mention should be given to the salads section of the menu – especially the Creamsicle Pear salad. This creation consists of pomegranate-poached pears on a bed of spinach with sweet ’n’ salty pecans, mandarin oranges and a hunk of Gorgonzola blue cheese with a Creamsicle vinaigrette. The dressing really does taste like the ice-cream treat and the salty richness of cheese balances out the sweetness – which includes a surprise praline meringue hiding underneath the greens! It’s a dessert salad. Dessert itself should not be overlooked – executive sous and pastry chef Jonathan Williams has devised some incredible temptations, including an ethereal baumkuchen, or many-layered cake, flavored with orange essence. Schnabel’s dedication to hospitality is evident here – service is uncompromisingly thoughtful and knowledgeable both about the food items and the extensive wine and specialty martinis list. “There is no place like FireWater in the University area,” he says. Want to go?Location: FireWater is at 8708 J.W. Clay Blvd., lakeside near the main bridge at University Place.Reservations accepted: 704-549-0050Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, 11:30 a.m.-midnight Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays, and 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays (a la carte Sunday brunch menu only). Diners can choose from the lunch menu 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and from the full dinner menu 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. A limited Bites menu is offered 10 a.m.-midnight Thursdays-Saturdays.Website: