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Against the Tide 

Overpriced wine list and inconsistent entrées make for uneven Currents

How much should a bottle of wine cost at a restaurant? I remember having a conversation with legendary winemaker Heidi Barrett several years ago about one of her creations, a Screaming Eagle cab, that sold at an area restaurant for $2,000+. She laughed and noted that she couldn't afford that. Who can? And to be fair to that restaurant, which has since closed, the markup on that bottle was about 100 percent, which is more than reasonable by industry standards.

However, excessive markup on wines is irksome. It's like the continual upward nudge of gas prices. What's a fair markup for wine? Two hundred percent? Three hundred percent? When it reaches 400 percent on a wine list I have to question what's going on. I would also expect the restaurant to have a rather elaborate cellar that holds the wine at just the right temperature, Riedel stemware and a snooty sommelier to justify that kind of markup (if anything could justify it).

What really annoys me about unwarranted wine markups is that diners -- like me and you -- are getting ripped off. Should we pay $70 for a $15 bottle of wine? Isn't $45 reasonable? After all, the restaurant employees are not out stomping those grapes.

Wine lists that are excessive should print a miniaturized version of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" beside each overpriced wine just as Thai restaurants put the little chili to indicate heat. In other words, caveat emptor.

Which brings me to Currents Coastal Cuisine, a restaurant that opened near the intersection of Providence Road and I-485 in south Charlotte. Currents' 45-seat rooftop patio is crowded on most nights. Up there the crowd downs mixed drinks, beer and appetizers -- although desserts can be served there as well. The 120-seat main dining area downstairs is more subdued with some of the store front windows occluded to spare the diners a parking lot view, but then why not give the diners something substantial to look at? Art, perhaps?

Choosing a wine was difficult since I wasn't willing to pay the excessive markups. Some of the standouts on Currents' wine list were a Flowers Chardonnay for $97, which I've seen around town for $60, and a Chalk Hill Chard for $72, which I've seen for $40. Many of my neighboring tables ordered ice tea, beer or mixed drinks -- not a bad idea.

Currents is locally owned by partners Jimmy Le, Raymond Tom, General Manager Mark Mueller and Executive Chef William Pickett. Le also owns some Wok restaurants in town, but for the other partners, Currents is their first ownership venture. (Tom grew up in a restaurant family that had a few Chinese restaurants.) Mueller, Tom and Le have been friends since South Meck High School and Mueller and Pickett met on the restaurant circuit in Charleston, SC. Pickett attended ("Didn't finish," he said) Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, but left school in order to work full time in kitchens there. He counts James Burns at J. Bistro in Mount Pleasant as his culinary mentor. Pickett, a South Carolina native, has been in Charlotte for six years running the kitchen at a locally owned steak house.

Chef Pickett describes his menu as "low country with Mediterranean mixed in." On the menu is an "off the line" matrix ($14 through market price) with a selection of five fish that can be grilled, steamed or baked, along with a choice of four sauces and four sides. In addition to seafood, the menu offers a few opulent numbers: a rack of lamb ($28), a Delmonico steak ($28) and a low key Southern fried chicken breast ($13).

The best dishes are found on the appetizer "Heading Out" roster. The densely flavored pickled shrimp, served in a mason jar, takes you back to grandma's porch (if you grew up in the South). My favorite dish, and perfect foil for a summer's night, was a perfectly balanced Louis salad: ice-cold iceberg lettuce lavished with crab, flecks of hard boiled eggs, bacon, tomatoes and capers. Yum.

The more ambitious (not from the matrix) entrees were a mixed bag of fussiness and pretension. The sautéed grouper was flavored with smoked salt and paired with a cooked-to-death succotash. This dish reminded me why people hate limas and black-eyed peas: If they're cooked to mush they taste horrific and make all their neighboring food taste bad, too. Better was the lobster tail popover, which looked cute but could have done with some crunchiness and without the similarly textured pairings of spinach and mashed potatoes.

We ended with a chocolate banana cream pie that had the obligatory gooeyness. While some of Currents' desserts are made in house, others are made per Chef Pickett's recipes at Queen City in Mooresville.

Overall -- especially when considering the service problems ("Did I tell you I'm new?" "Yes, right after you dropped the butter.") -- Currents may take time to grow into a solid neighborhood restaurant. But a Louis salad on the roof is always an option.

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments, or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing, or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136, or e-mail tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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