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Can't Go Home Again 

Familiar dishes are reinvented, not revisited

When Asheville native Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can't Go Home Again, he meant it. In an earlier novel, he had written a thinly veiled and damn-ing depiction of the residents of his hometown. Trashing a place always makes it harder to return.

Time also makes it hard to return, and not all returns to the past have pleasant results. Such is frequently the case for restaurants. While it's true that some kitchens excel in mining for memories, the truth is that before the 1990s, the decade America found its collective culinary soul, there just wasn't much to brag about in most American kitchens. Think about it. What was so special about the 1980s? Towering architectural wonders and flourless chocolate cakes? How memorable are quiche and fondue from the 1970s, or Monte Cristo sandwiches and Bananas Foster from the 1950s? Or sardines from the Great Depression?

So the announcement of a "Goin' Home menu" in the middle of spanking new center city Charlotte was curious. Last summer, restaurateur Ralph Meranto, who owns Carolina Restaurant Concepts, opened Harry & Jean's Passionate American Food in the spot formerly occupied by the easily forgettable Tony's Oyster Bar. Meranto, however, had the foresight to knock out a wall and put the entrance on Tryon. This is his second Harry & Jean's. The first opened two years ago in Rock Hill.

The interior of Harry & Jean's is straight out of Disney World's Main Street USA: crown molding, columns, flocked-like wallpaper, sheers and pull-back curtains, and small area rugs on hardwood floors. Glass shelving in the dining room holds an odd assortment of antiques. The bar's soft seating is traditional in style and a front dining room is just that: a dining room with long table and lowered chandelier. A 90-seat back dining room is separated from the large bar area with a series of French doors. The main dining area, in shades of muted green, contains large semi-circular booths.

Hostesses wear long flowing black dresses, yet the menu cites prices to the hundredth of the cent: $6.99, $19.99. Things just don't gel, and it's this dichotomy that strikes you. The setting is formal, and then the server informs you that the wines are "listed from sweet to dry." There are no vintages listed on the wine list, and rarely have I seen prices of $19.99 on a wine list. And you'll quite likely pour your own wine. According to one server, "If you don't like alcohol, we have sweet tea. That's what most people get anyway."

But everyone wants to go home again, if only for dinner. Small black and white photos of Meranto's ancestors accent the "down home menu." In charge of the kitchen is Chef Kevin Mabry, a graduate of the Restaurant School in Philadelphia. Entree dishes include smothered chicken, cranberries and pork tenderloin, rack of lamb, lasagna and chicken alfredo, while starters offer artichoke dip and mustard beer-battered calamari.

Prices range from $10 for lemon chicken and artichoke to $24 for a strip (choice grade) steak (blue cheese or bourbon butter sauce is an additional buck). Lunch entree prices range from $8 to $20 and sandwiches are $6 to $9 served with seasoned fries (not made in house).

The starters were unimpressive. The crabcake twosome appetizer, paired with a remoulade, was adequate. But the "Brie Stuffed Ciabatta" was a skimpy layer of brie flecked with basil and tomatoes and served cold. This was less appealing.

The blue cheese wedge salad, on the other hand, was nicely slathered with chunky blue cheese dressing while the plate was surrounded with thinly sliced red onion and bacon bits. The Caesar, though not as bright, was nice as well.

I'm unsure why someone thought Romano cheese grits were such a good idea that not only would they be used on the shrimp entree, they would be offered as a choice for a side as well. The Romano simply hijacks the taste of the grits, so the base of their Shrimp and Grits is disorientated. Add to this a Gran Marnier sauce and the whole dish falls apart. The Chicken Cordon Blue was also not the traditional "down home" classic 1970s dish. My dining companion noted that the ham was used as a garnish and the pairing of the overbearing potato pancakes turned the plate monotonous.

Desserts seem to be on sugar overload. The unwieldy apple crisp was overindulged with whipped cream, vanilla ice cream (they advertised using Edy's) and a rich caramel sauce.

The lunch menu fares better, and the salads are particularly good. The char-grilled chicken over fresh greens with the housemade blue cheese is quite flavorful.

Service can be a problem. The timing of one dinner was off: Before we had finished our salads, the entrees were brought and put off to the side.

Some kitchens when they revisit the past stay true to the original. Here, the kitchen seems intent on reinventing. In the past, American food was simple -- that was its beauty. Although these dishes can be deftly finessed, it is this simplicity that folks want to revisit. Unfortunately, on the whole, these dishes are not located here.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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