If you are a practiced light eater -- hopping from dish to dish like a honeybee while sipping a wine you like (rather than matching taste profiles), all the while chatting about the unpredictability of relationships, bosses, and the vagaries of taste -- chances are you are like my girlfriends when we dine out. Food isn't the focus: it's an enhancement. But, when the gastronomic experience jostles the storytelling, then the food moves into foreground. And when the table setting becomes an even brighter star, then you have Maddi's Southern Bistro.
This is not to say the salt and pepper shaker is giving Executive Chef Jon DuBay a run for his money. Clearly what's on the plate is the main event; however, when was the last time you talked about restaurant shakers?
Each table at Maddi's is whimsically set with "craft du cuisine": unique plates, glassware, creamers, and salt and pepper shakers. Even the check comes on a hand painted tray. The table beside ours had diminutive salt and pepper shakers with the head of an elephant and donkey. A server noted that the politico duo was a best seller. Everything you see is also for sale; the folk art on the wall is ever-changing.
None of this is too surprising since Maddi's, the bistro, is the outgrowth of Maddi's, the gallery. Owners Diane and Madis Sulg opened their first Maddi's gallery in Dilworth in 2002, and the Birkdale location in 2004. The shops feature funky American crafts, Southern folk art and artist-made jewelry. Maddi's has long been a popular place for the perfect last minute hostess gift and the place to find clever and well-crafted items for the home.
In 2007, the opportunity presented itself to expand into the space beside the shop in the Huntersville location. Madis Sulg noted that having a bistro was one of their intentions at the Dilworth store, but parking always presented a problem.
Although the interior space is small, the flavors are grand. Chef Jon DuBay, a graduate from the Charleston campus of Johnson & Wales with years of corporate dining under his belt, shows a fondness for robust, elemental flavors. Take his sublime summer salad: slices of watermelon and cucumber separated by goat cheese resting on micro greens, with tendrils of Vidalia onions and ringed with an orange-lemon-lime vinaigrette. This is Southern with style.
Maddi's is also one of few restaurants in the Carolinas serving a St. Louis favorite: fried raviolis. DuBay is from that Western gateway city ... perhaps gooey cake will appear on the menu as well? Maddi's menu changes seasonally, but Sulg noted that when they tried to take off the collards, loyal fans demanded they be put back on. Even though the Sulgs are regulars at the Matthews Farmers Market and would prefer buying locally grown, Sulg says that getting locally sourced in Huntersville is more difficult than in south Charlotte.
Starters rise from prosaic to polished. The stuffed mushrooms burst with gentle blasts of artichoke, spinach, and sun-dried tomatoes. DuBay shows an absolutely lovely knack for making the sum more than the parts as with his panko and pecan-crusted crab cake. Even simple compositions become flavorful. The toasted focaccia prosciutto sandwich is lushly tempered with smoked provolone.
Alongside the familiar Southern dishes like fried chicken, and shrimp and grits is a flank steak, delightfully spiffed with a marinade. But some dishes are more successful than others. The smoked Gouda and cheddar macaroni and cheese worked fine as a side, but lacked the spirited kick I had been getting used to by DuBay.
Desserts, unfortunately, seem like an afterthought. The one dessert made in-house is the beignet trio with either powered, vanilla-bourbon, or cinnamon sugar and served with a mound of whipped cream. These poppers, however, collapse under their own weight. Other desserts -- like the key lime and pecan pies -- are made by a local wholesale bakery. The wine list is eclectic, and the fruit forward Newton Red Label 2005 chardonnay proved a good choice.
After years of entering those large testosterone steak emporiums with edge-to-edge mammal meat and masculine décor, finding Maddi's was like reconnecting with an old friend. The place is warm, quirky, and you can shop while you eat. This is not to make short shift of DuBay's considerable urbane style with Southern food. But Maddi's is a happy surprise which reveals an even more satisfyingly creative twist, both on the plate and even the plate itself.
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In Birkdale Village, 16925 Birkdale Commons Parkway, Huntersville, 704-987-7762. Hours: daily 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. Sundays until 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. All major credit cards. www.maddissouthernbistro.com