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Into the Woods 

Chef Marvin Woods revitalizes a South End eatery

The cashier at the Harris Teeter register examined the cover of the January Special Collector's Edition: Southern Cooking Gourmet she was scanning and grinned. Agreeing I responded, "The cover looks like my grandma's biscuits. Yours, too? Who knew they were gourmets?" We laughed. Recipes in that issue include "Fried Chicken," "Smothered Steak," and "Shrimp and Grits." Southern cuisine, including Southern-styled barbecue, is hotter than a pit fire these days.

Fortunately Charlotte has consistently maintained small emporiums of local cuisine. Price's Chicken Coop has achieved national fame for their sensational fried chicken while Simmons Fourth Ward offers legendary smothered chicken and cornbread daily. But Charlotte didn't have a gargantuan offering modern Southern cuisine -- until now.

When South End -- the neighborhood -- was first created a decade or so ago, one of its main constituents was Southend Brewery & Smokehouse, a restaurant concept that benefited from the surging popularity of microbreweries. When first opened, even the balcony seating was filled. As time went by, competitive restaurants opened, the brewery stopped making beer, crowds died out, the doors closed, and Southend's management realized it was time to reinvent itself.

Enter chef Marvin Woods. This Atlanta-based celebrity chef hosted Turner South's Home Plate for four years and authored two cookbooks on Southern cuisine. Woods has Charlotte area connections: His father is a native of Salisbury, and Woods was the chef of Southend Brewery in 1998 and 1999. Last year Woods joined the ownership team with Southend Brewery owner Keith Jones -- who also is partner in Southend Brewery's Charleston and Raleigh locations, and the Mooresville-based Carolina Beer & Beverage Co. -- to create a new concept restaurant: Woods on South, which opened in October 2007.

The 340-seat interior was been revived, revamped and styled to whet the appetite. The convivial bar area, splashed with dark woods and a multitude of 50-inch plasmas, occupies considerable real estate while the main dining room, to the right of the burnished beer tank, fronts the wood-burning oven and the open line. The kitchen crew wears Woods' signature head scarves/bandanas. Stacked rock has been added on the dining room columns to create an unpretentious Dilworth-bungalow feel.

According to General Manager Dave Matters, Woods lives in Atlanta but is very "hands on" and visits the restaurant for one week a month. The executive chef is Pablo Fueguel, who worked with Woods in Miami. The Woods on South menu features a round up of Southern tastes with international twists, some a bit stretched, such as the awkward pairing of hoisin with thickly sliced onion rings, themselves fettered with beer batter.

On the bright side was the warmly inviting 10-inch cheese pizza and my favorite winter dish, Woods' spicy gumbo. But, Woods barbecue sandwich stirred too many memories of the bland way things used to be here. Even the side of crudely cut purple cabbage slaw could not rescue the innocuous pork, which was served on a crusty bun with lettuce and tomato. Huh?

But the macaroni and cheese is sensual and soothing, and the vegetarian collards are simply irresistible. With more time in the fryer the buttermilk fried chicken would be equally good. The shrimp and grits entrée, however, is a complete loss. This party on a plate dotted with green edamame, yellow corn kernels, cubes of red bell pepper and five medium-sized shrimp is drowning in a cream sauce, making a mishmash of indistinguishable flavors.

Woods on South's other entrées include a Creole-braised redfish from Wanchese, N.C., fried flounder with plum sauce, rotisserie chicken, braised short ribs, and a hanger steak with mashed potatoes. The all-day menu, which features many locally sourced items, will change seasonally. Sandwiches are $9 to $10; entrees range from $10 to $27.

Desserts remain a little fussy. Next to the overtly chocolate Mississippi mud pie, the sweet potato cream brulee can seem a bit anemic and a token gesture to the South with a thinly sliced base of sweet potatoes covered by traditional vanilla cream.

A varied taste flight of 10 beers and ales, including the popular Carolina Blonde and the outstanding Cottonwood Pumpkin spiced Ale, is worthy of a go. In the next few weeks, Carolina Beer & Beverage Co, which bought the brewing equipment from Southend Brewery, plans to have the brewery facility back online. When that happens, Carolina Beer can make small batch handcrafted proprietary beers for Woods on South and offer tours of the brewery with on-site tastings. Currently a Carolina blueberry beer is in the works.

Thankfully Chef Woods has put a spin, albeit not always successful, on Southern cuisine and offers coastal Southern dishes, both Atlantic and Gulf, on his roster. The vegetarian collards are exceptionable, dishes with soy are laudable, and the entrée portions are sizable. Woods on South doesn't purport to be a chef-driven eatery, and isn't. Bar appetites can be properly amused here: call it elevated modern Southern comfort food.

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