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City Fare 

East Boulevard eatery offers bistro-style cuisine

In 1999, owner John Weinbrenner opened the 100-seat City Tavern in the old Drum location, a space that had been renovated and occupied by the Porcupine Cafe. The decor is still much the same as the former occupant: blond wood, an expansive curved bar, and large booths under a wall of windows high enough to allow some privacy from East Boulevard. The seating is comfortable and spacious.

Weinbrenner, a native of Yonkers, NY, came to Charlotte via Atlanta where he owned "a couple of bistro-style restaurants" and managed an Atlanta location of The Mill, a microbrewery. He describes the cuisine at City Tavern as "bistro style."

"Bistro" is a term I have come to dread as a food writer. In the past, the definition for bistro was clear and meant a small bar, tavern or nightclub, or an unpretentious European style restaurant. In 2002, bistros have become a different breed, which range from being the arbiters of American trendiness to places of French authenticity. Taverns, on the other hand, typically serve liquor and beer orientated foods.

A restaurant needs clear definition. Diners need to know what to expect from the moment they enter. Is it a tavern or a bistro?

Confusion over expectations seems to have affected the wait staff at City Tavern, where service is haphazard at best. On one visit, I had to request utensils. On another visit our server confessed, "I've never opened a wine bottle before" and proceeded to fumble with the corkscrew. It was then I wished I had ordered a martini from the long drink list -- especially since the wine goblets had water spots on them.

But then the utensils had water spots as well. One server tried to whisk away plates before everyone at the table had finished. On one occasion the server was well versed on the menu items; during another visit knowledge was lacking. Staff training would go a long way at City Tavern. I wouldn't complain so vociferously if one dinner bill had not been over a hundred bucks. At that price, some knowledge of food service and professionalism is expected.

The menu covers the full range from appetizers and salads to sandwiches and entrees. The complimentary focaccia was presented with a mediocre olive oil and a too young, too spry balsamic vinegar. Best at City Tavern were the appetizers and salads. The fried calamari ($7) is fine and is served in table sharing portions. The fairly decent crab cakes ($8) are laced with capellini, which makes them look weird but taste good, and are served with a bite-you-back Cajun Remoulade. The cool wedge of iceberg lettuce ($5) blends beautifully with the blue cheese dressing and bits of tomato and bacon.

So why is the restaurant such a bland disappointment? The rack of lamb ($19) entree was a mess. The lamb tasted only of garlic and the party on the plate pallid vegetables were overcooked and limp, making the flavors almost indistinguishable. The rather enormous scoop of "horseradish mashed potatoes," which centered the dish, was cold. Also cold, and not thoroughly cooked, was the lobster ravioli ($15).

Better was the large portion of "Chicken Salad Salad" ($7) with a scoop of housemade chicken salad over a nest of fresh lettuces. The grilled filet mignon sandwich with melted provolone cheese and saut?ed mushrooms and onions ($8) was also in the okay range.

Save for a few idiosyncrasies such as fried cheesecake (which our server could not describe nor explain), the desserts are standard fare, such as a large brownie square with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce.

In August, Weinbrenner plans to open his third location in the Stonecrest Shopping Center at Piper Glen on Rea Road and I-485. Menus are the same at all locations. Prices for lunch range from $5 to $10; dinner entrees range from $10 to $19.

The term "tavern" led me to expect lovely, unfiery food, free of confusion, and a manageable bill. I did not find these things. While City Tavern does well with appetizers, salads, and sandwiches, it falls far short of the mark at the entree level.

City Tavern, 1514 East Boulevard, 704-334-1235; corner of Church Street and 5th Street, 704-343-2489; and opening in August in the Stonecrest Shopping Center. Hours: 11am until 10pm Sunday through Thursday; until 11pm Friday and Saturday. AmEx, MC, Visa, Diner's. No Sunday brunch downtown.

Tasty Tidbits

* Want to go to barbecue boot camp this summer? Syndicated food writer Steve Raichlen, author of The Barbecue Bible, is conducting a three day class, "Fire and Smoke on the Mountain," at The Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs, WV from July 21 through 24 and again on September 15-18. Grill masters can learn the latest barbecue techniques and perhaps have time for a round or two of golf. For more information call: 800-228-5049 or www.greenbrier.com/culinary.

* It may be premature to start thinking about what you are putting on your Thanksgiving table this November, but you might want to try an heirloom turkey sponsored by Slow Food USA, a group dedicated to saving America's heritage foods. Breeds such as Narragansett, American Standard Bronze, Jersey Buff, and Bourbon Red are among the turkeys Slow Food hopes to save. Fewer than 1700 of these turkeys were being raised by 15 hatcheries when Slow Food started their program to send 4800 hatchlings to selected farmers in 15 states across the US and set the price at $3.50 per pound. Slow Food believes that the best way to save a food from extinction is to eat it. Alice Waters, owner and chef of Chez Panisse, has ordered some of these turkeys for her menu. For more information about ordering a turkey for this year or next, call 212-965-5640.

Do you have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant which 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? You can fax this information, at least 12 days in advance of event date, to Tasty Tidbits: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. *

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