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Gently Down the Stream 

Streams are an important component of Charlotte's geography; in fact, there are 400 miles of streams in Mecklenburg County. Our rolling terrain is cut by creeks: Briar, Davidson, McDowell, Long, Paw, Steel, Little Sugar, Mallard, and Clear. People who lived here a generation ago talk about the beauty of these waterways and of fishing in many local streams and creeks. Even now on weekends, I see a brave angler or two on the banks of a creek in a greenway hoping to hook a bass. So it wasn't surprising when local restaurateur Tom Sasser and his partners in Harper's Restaurants Inc. took over the site of the former Bertolini's Authentic Trattoria in Phillips Place last September and named the new 146-seat restaurant, Upstream. The prolific Harper's Restaurant Inc. includes Harper's Restaurants located in Charlotte, Greensboro, Columbia, SC and Louisville, KY; Mimosa Grill; Harper's-To-Go-Go; and newly acquired Louis's Restaurant in Charleston, SC. Upstream's 7,000-square-foot space was transformed through the design work of David Wagner of Wagner Murray Architects of Charlotte. The ceiling of the main dining room is a textured treatment that looks like a steam complete with a scattering of colorful autumn leaves. The walls are algae green, a color almost forbidden to restaurants but which works in this environment. Structural columns moored to the ceiling are wrapped with an illusion of bark. While some floors flow in a carpeted pattern, others are slate. On the walls is a collection of black and white photographs of landbound subjects by local artist Rebecca Collett. Intimate booths line the side walls while the middle areas are filled with linen topped tables and molded mahogany-stained chairs. The seating is comfortable and spacious. From the main dining room, patrons can watch the goings on of the busy open kitchen. The 80-seat bar is a large area separate from the dining room. Champagne buckets protrude from the stainless steel wall of the raw bar and on a back wall is a large, yet odd, North Carolina flag composed of colored foods. The design changes have made Upstream into a fabulous looking place, a very visual place. But while the emphasis of the interior design is water on land, the menu is filled with creatures from the sea. Tom Condron who is among Charlotte's growing pool of talented chefs, is executive chef at both Mimosa Grill and Upstream. The Upstream menu is filled with tuna, shrimp, lobster, oysters, and crab. At times Condron's dishes are delightfully harmonious, others are ambitious. But all radiate one quality: visually pleasing. This is the kind of place where half the fun is watching other diners as their food arrives. The berth of a half dozen wood roasted shrimp is a bed of mashed potatoes laced with voluptuous nuggets of tender lobster. Large crisp potato chip sails are set into the potatoes. The shrimp tastes of both fire and sea, singing on key with the lobster and the potato in two forms -- an excellent appetizer. The brick-oven quail appetizer, on the other hand, was too intricate. Here the hapless quail was filled with crab and wrapped in smoke, and then had to fend off the feistiness of andouille sausage and the inherent sweetness of sweet potatoes, only to be further compromised by the pronounced taste of the asparagus spears. I felt tired for the quail. But we made short work of the shrimp, and the quail lament was soon washed away and all but forgotten by the newly released opulent 1999 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay (still listed as the 1998 on the Upstream wine list, but the latest vintage is a better bottle anyway). The 95-bottle wine list is primarily Californian, but French, Italian, and other wine regions are represented. The list is delimited by heaviness of the wine: delicate, medium-bodies, full blown. A dozen or so wines by the glass are offered as well. The wine prices are high but not rudely so. The entrees are too, for that matter: $17 for a vegetarian entree and $29 for the rack of lamb and veal medallions entrees. Most entrees are in the $20 range. Another good dish was the goat cheese salad. The creamy fresh-tasting goat cheese from cheesemaker Evin Evans' Split Creek Farms bore a light hazelnut crust and perfectly balanced the spirited spikiness of the arugula beneath. Seafood entrees can be tricky. The sea cares little of a person's wants or cares; essentially this is true of the best seafood. Neither shellfish nor fish needs an interpreter to be truly outstanding. Fresh and uncomplicated are the words to cook by. This was true of the sea bass entree. A thick slab of meltingly perfect wood oven-roasted sea bass arrived on the same lobster mashed potatoes as the shrimp app, accompanied by more asparagus spears. This dish was simple and good. Equally refreshing was the grilled swordfish, precisely cooked, with a rich undercurrent of artichoke risotto and buoyed by a few leaves of peppery arugula and bits of sweet crab. Other offerings on the menu include teriyaki glazed Atlantic salmon with wasabi whipped potatoes and saki clams, whole crispy dayboat fish with Asian black bean sauce and sticky rice, brick oven roasted trout with jumbo crab and apple smoked bacon, and grilled jumbo sea scallops with maple polenta and country ham glaze. While Condron's menu is dominated by dozens of shellfish and fish items, there are pork chops, an Angus filet mignon, spit roasted chicken, and more for landlocked tastebuds. Note, though that the menu changes monthly. The kitchen also knows how to turn out desserts which delight. The elegant chocolate layer cake is seductive, and does not need the ice cream for oomph. Service was extremely attentive at our table. More than once our server brought out his crumb scraper (which he's had since 1989) to gleam a microscopic speck from the table. But Upstream prides itself on this attention to detail. Check out the ladies' or the men's room to see what I mean. Lunch menu includes appetizers, salads ($5 to $16), a burger and sandwiches ($8 to $9), and entrees such as Low Country Shrimp and Grits with andouille, onions and tasso gravy ($15), Grilled Atlantic Salmon with three bean salad and arugula ($14), and Rotisserie Chicken Bucatini with mushrooms, bacon, tomatoes, and pesto ($12). Reservations are recommended at Upstream. The good part is they don't just take your name and keep you waiting to watch the antics of a checkpoint Annie. Here your table actually awaits you. Savvy Sasser knows his customer base. There's no skimping on the kitchen output and Condron's menu features prevailing predilections, revved up a notch, then paired with the familiar. Plus everything is so beautiful -- I bet that's how our streams used to look. Upstream, 6902 Phillips Place Court, 704-556-7730. Hours: Monday through Thursday 11:30am until 1pm, Friday and Saturday 11:30am until 11pm; and Sunday 11am until 10pm (brunch 11am until 3pm). 60-seat patio. AmEx, MC, Visa, Diner's Dis.

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