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Charlotte's Brontë 

A novel concept comes to SouthPark

A few months ago, I asked a Charlotte restaurateur if someone reading a hardback novel in the bar area at night would seem out of place. He replied he had never seen anyone engage in that kind of pursuit in his bar area. On the other hand, people in Seattle commonly read books - paperback or hardcover - in public. Seattle cab drivers catch a chapter or two between fares; people sit in bar lounge areas and read books; even baristas read during lulls.

In Charlotte's area bookstores, it is common to find espresso, juices, croissants and muffins for those who like to browse and graze. But a glass of wine in a book store? Until now, drinking while reading was unusual. However, last month Brontë, A Novel Bistro opened in the 32,000-square-foot Cincinnati-based Joseph-Beth Booksellers at SouthPark Mall. This is the chain's seventh restaurant location, eighth bookstore and the first in the Carolinas. What's unusual about this restaurant is just that: Bront Bistro is a full-service restaurant and wine bar located in a bookstore.

For those who delight in perusing literature, cookbooks, magazines and newspapers, Joseph-Beth is filled with comfortable seating and gas-lit stone fireplaces throughout the shop. Many people, though, haul their newly found reading into Bront Bistro.

At first glance, Bront appears the typical bookstore operation snack/espresso bar since the pastries are sequestered in the glass case in the front. But then you notice a long open bar counter wrapping around the front of the dining room filled with comfortable booths, including a large one for groups in a room happily appointed in mellow colors and stone.

What's different about the approach of this restaurant is Roger Ranalli, who heads Joseph-Beth Booksellers Café Operations, derives many of the dishes featured in Bront Bistro from the cookbooks lining the nearby shelves. In the Ohio stores, the menu changes monthly to feature the cookbook of the month. Many of the items on the main menu are from renowned and/or media chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and Rachael Ray. On the Charlotte menu, for example, is a wild mushroom polenta by Frank Stitts, chef and owner of the Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, AL.

Wine is sold by the bottle from the retail section with a $10 corkage fee if served in the bistro, but other bottles and glasses are offered from the list. The roster offers several choices in each varietal and is rather basic. However, it can be expensive, considering the hefty markup when you add the corkage fee (which is about half the cost of a bottle).

Since the menu follows the current trends in food, many of the items have a Southwest and Latino influence: Southwestern crab cakes, chili-rubbed grilled shrimp and quesadillas. Sandwiches include a blackened chicken, grilled Cuban, cornmeal-crusted catfish with remoulade, and an $8.50 burger which the menu claims "Jane Eyre couldn't handle." Entrée prices are not shy and range from $7.95 for quiche to $15.95 for a New York Strip with mashed potatoes.

Currently in the kitchen is a Johnson & Wales University student, but he's not in their culinary program. While the simple appetizers, sandwiches and salads are fairly well rendered, the entrees would benefit from the skills of a trained line cook. But even though some of the dishes are not up to snuff, the ambience of Bront has the calming effect of Lexapro while the cheerful, solicitous wait staff melts any residual aggravation. In fact, you want to like your meal as much as you like the welcoming staff.

We started with two small but loosely formed, tasty crab cakes paired with a small baby spinach salad. In contrast, the spinach artichoke quesadilla seemed rather ambitious and I remained unconvinced that Mandarin oranges and artichokes are complementary tastes. The best of what we enjoyed, however, were the salads. The abundant pear and blue cheese salad was first-rate, with ice cold greens, crumbled blue cheese, thin slices of pear and golden raisins with an infusive poppy seed dressing.

The entrees stumbled a bit. Although flecked with parsley and cilantro, the undercooked rice did nothing for the vegetarian chili while the chili itself was a whisper rather than a shout of flavors. Better was Bront's take on Jambalaya with spicy sausage and a cream sauce.

What was fun, however, was sitting with a friend and sipping wine, with the possibility of browsing through a cookbook while tasting its recipes. Charlotte's Bront will begin serving dishes from the month's featured cookbook later this summer. The concept of savoring flavors while scanning the cookbook is a novel idea.

Eaters' Digest

Since Dearstyne's closed their downtown Matthews location several weeks ago, more than a few of you have written to inquire about their new location. So here it is: The Dearstynes are back in Union County. The couple has relocated to Rocky's Steak House, 4320 Potters Road (at Old Monroe Road) in Stallings. Tammy Dearstyne wrote that the "name will soon change to Dearstyne's, but for the next few weeks, the sign on our place will say Rocky's." They'll be open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, and the menu features wood-grilled steaks, seafood and their signature dishes. The Dearstynes' new restaurant is located on five acres with a one-acre vegetable garden. For reservations, call 704-821-6646.

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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