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Seeking a fresh take in dining? Seek Fork!

So if you name a restaurant Fork! – complete with punctuation – what’s your point?

That it’s an energetic place? A little irreverent? Focused on the most elemental aspects of eating?

Here’s what I think: Tim Groody, who pushed what’s now commonly known as farm-to-fork dining before practically anyone else in Charlotte, finally has his own place, in Cornelius. And it’s SO farm-to-fork, he doesn’t even need the “farm-to-”.

And if that’s Tim Groody’s point, he’s earned it. (I’ll give him the first three, too.)

This menu is an exercise in framing the fresh: A menu of staples is joined by a daily lineup stuffed to the gills with – well, gills: fresh fish, but also a revelatory range of produce. A single night’s bounty: kale, spaghetti squash and guajillo posole (a Mexican soup with hominy); country ham and Chianti-braised red cabbage; gold turnip, chard and white sweet potato hash; sesame broccoli, baby bok choi and turnips; risotto with baby carrot and turnip greens.

And those are just the “extras,” designed as share-able sides to entrees such as pan-roasted duck breast or butter-and-herb-roasted North Carolina monkfish. (That’s why servingware is oversized; the better to create a DIY plate.) “Bites” are the day’s first courses, from herb gnudi (like a dumpling) stuffed with creamy ricotta and served with smoked bacon jus and kohlrabi, to duck tenderloin and cured foie gras with spinach and Marcona almonds.

Dishes arrive glistening, bright, vivid to the eye and tongue; they’re simple, but evocative, and beautifully executed. Olive-oil mashed potatoes loll in a golden-green swirl. Salmon, a fish that rarely hits the table with both a perfect bit of crustiness and tender, unctuous interior, does so here, drizzled with an intense shiitake syrup. Dumplings with smoked pork sport tiny pearls of soy sauce. Cauliflower is roasted to its rustic, lush best.

Both the first plates and sides hover in the $5 range, with a la carte mains $14 to $20 or so.

Food prepared this well would cost more in Charlotte; diners who cherish the craftsmanship will be both surprised and pleased. Local beer and bottled crafts are well-chosen, as is a wine list with more range than you’d expect.

Since arriving in Charlotte in the late ’90s to open uptown’s first seafood restaurant (LaVecchia’s), fresh from a gig with Ben Barker in Durham and not too far from stints with rock stars Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Groody has made area produce and product, turned out with a chef’s eye, his quiet mission.

Listen to Sammy Koenigsberg of New Town Farms: “We started our farm in 1990 and tried to work with Charlotte restaurants in the early ’90s ... (Chefs we approached) all had the same reaction: ‘Why would I pay more for this when I can get it cheaper from Sysco?’

“Tim was the first chef to really start buying from all the local farmers. ... I have thought that some of us may not still be here were it not for his efforts and weekly support in those pioneering days.”

And he’s sought out the local throughout his nearly two decades here, from Sonoma and Town and their incarnations, to corporate cheffing for Frank Scibelli to Davidson’s Flatiron Kitchen. “He was and remains committed and consistent in his beliefs about cooking with local, fresh and well farmed ingredients,” says Koenigsberg. “When the bandwagon of the local food movement came through town, he quietly kept practicing what he had always done, while many jumped on the bandwagon and have come and gone.”

Now Groody is practicing for himself: This restaurant, in the former Creole House, is his own place, with partner Melanie McIntosh and his sister and brother-in-law. So things like food costs and what sells and what the market will support (factors in his prior marketability as a chef, as for all chefs) are closer than ever.

Servers are earnest, enthusiastic and well-coached on the menu, and keep close eyes on diners. That’s reasonably easy: The dining areas, dotted with big forks, wine bottles and art and vineyard maps, tend to the small. Hardwood floors warm the place, and colors are earthy neutrals, except for the primary-bright wine bottles in a chandelier that casts a great ceiling shadow but could be dialed way down in brightness. Sound bounces around the wood chairs and tables when it’s busy, but seating is reasonably spaced to help.

The standing menu here lists farms and their owners’ names, a reminder that labeling isn’t the whole job. Groody, who once told me the art of being a chef wasn’t too far from that of being a farmer (“We just continue what they started with a seed”), adds at the end of the farm list: “We hope you enjoy their hard work!”

The exclamation point’s there, but it’s the work – all of it, and the realization that it’s shared – that makes it matter.

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