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First Bite: The Mandrake

The food: The Mandrake used to be 3 Trade, which took over from Threes, which succeeded what was originally Press, a wine-centric spot with accompanying foods that opened back in 2008. Its new subtitle is “small plates + wine” and its food and service show it’s still trying to figure out what to do with itself.

For example: We had a gorgeous plate of duck, its medium-rare, thick slices glazed with honey and soy in a nice, subtle preparation. But beside it on the plate was an oily, dull spring roll, and bok choy cooked significantly too far, to complete limpness.

Similarly, two chunks of salmon, nicely prepared, arrived atop a mound of pickly slices of small cucumber, dotted with goat cheese and pomegranate seeds. That pickling was so loud, you couldn’t hear a single other flavor.

Still, for $16 each, the proteins alone were worth the bill – both were billed as tapas but were more generous (in protein serving) than half the entrees you see around town. I just wish I’d ordered sides separately.

An ahi tuna salad fared best of what we tried: Pretty tuna (and lots of it) atop frisee with a few strands of pickled red onion and mandarin oranges, for $14.

Starters include several variations on hummus (the white bean and artichoke was fine, and came with lots of warm pita triangles), “buttered crab fritters” (think spheroid crab cake centers with lots of breading), cheeses and charcuterie and more; there’s also a quartet of mini sandwiches (and yes, they’re small), some thin-crust flatbreads, a handful of sushi rolls and – surprisingly – several vegetable sides out of the ordinary, such as roasted red beets and broccolini. Much to work on here.

The look: The lighting’s low and the music on our visit the sort of electronica that has minimal lyrics (I’m not sure the website’s video should have as its only audible lyric: “No use crying forever”). Some bright red wall sculpture and glowing pendants lighten the tiny space, along with some TV screens and chalkboards listing available brews. Sit at the wood tabletops along the perimeter’s cream-colored wall and you get nice street views.

The service: Ours was brightly enthusiastic, and servers worked together on a slow night. Ours knew enough about preparations to answer questions and checked in regularly but not intrusively. It’s a casual but warm attitude.

Details: 333 W. Trade St. 704-370-3006; www.themandrakeclt.com.

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