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Retooled 

The new Knife & Fork sparkles

The Knife & Fork had been a landmark spot in Charlotte since it opened in 1963. In the decades that followed, K&F became the place to go at 2am after the bars closed or for eggs over easy at 7am. When it closed in 2001, the vinyl booths were ripped, the floor tiles mismatched, and the parking lot had become an obstacle course of pothole craters. After the original owner closed, one group tried to make a go of it, but failed. And so the Knife and Fork sat empty.

Chef Robert "Otto" Graham lives close to the Knife & Fork, which is at the intersection of North Sharon Amity and Independence Boulevard (Hwy. 74). He watched as the building stood empty with a tattered "For Lease" sign draped over the exterior. He also noticed his neighborhood off Monroe Road changing as more young professionals moved in.

Graham trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, interned at the Rainbow Room and then worked in two Italian restaurants in Manhattan's SoHo before coming to Charlotte. Here he became part of the opening kitchen crew at LaVecchia, the Chef du Cuisine at Upsteam, the Executive Chef at Toscano, and the Executive Chef who opened Luce.

"But I always wanted to open my own restaurant," Graham said. He saw the Knife & Fork as a diamond in the rough and as the first step in his entrepreneurial career plans. He continued, "I went from "star studded' -- the restaurants in New York, that is -- to a diner, but I did that for a reason. I wanted to own my own restaurant and I don't have a million dollars to invest. I live in this neighborhood. I looked through the windows and saw the tables and booths and thought I won't have to do much to it and this can give me my own place." He got the landlord to repave the parking lot and fix the HVAC system. "It became more than I thought."

The interior is familiar, but fresh. The booths are back, but there are center tables and a bar as well. The floor tiles were removed. Graham noted, "I liked the floor with its original stones and decided to leave the foundation, but polish it."

Polishing is exactly what Graham has done with the building and the menu. Even though the items are pure Americana, the ingredients used for these dishes are fresh and well chosen. The new name for the 84-seat restaurant, which opened October 27th, is Otto's Knife & Fork: Chef-Inspired Diner Cuisine. If you were expecting the old greasy spoon Knife and Fork to be resurrected, you will be disappointed. The vinyl booths are not torn and the green beans do not come out of a can. In fact nothing, not even the soup, comes out of a can and the dishes sparkle. Some servers, suited in Knife & Fork T-shirts, remind you of Flo, some are new to serving. The wine list is short as is the beer list: sweet tea still rules.

For those of you who shied away from the old Knife & Fork, or recently moved here, Otto's Knife & Fork offers the equivalent of the old-styled Route 22 Diner in NJ, where folks enjoyed home-cooked meals with gentle prices. Graham grew up in similar diners in Brooklyn. Of course you wouldn't find shrimp and grits on a Jersey diner menu, or lamb gyros, or collards, but you will here. The menu has pizzazz with Italian specialties such as Lasagna Bolognese ($9.95) and Veal Marsala ($14.95); "Mama's Meatloaf" ($9.95); a double cut pork chop served with red beans and rice pilaf ($12.95); a Reuben sandwich ($6.50); potato pizza ($8.95); a Sante Fe Barbecue Ranch Salad ($5.95) with glazed chicken breast and romaine lettuce, a Crab Cake Salad ($7.95), and an Iceberg Wedge Salad with blue cheese, shaved red onions and bacon strips ($3.95).

While I listened to the guy behind me telling his dining companion about some misadventure at 3am at the old Knife & Fork, we downed the corn chowder thick with roasted corn and ham. A crisp side salad was equally enjoyable. While the woman at the center table told her "story" to her server, we devoured two rows of jumbo grilled shrimp surrounding a pool of creamy grits flecked with bits of grilled spicy andouille sausage and cooled with a lemony sauce. Another well-crafted dish is the tender fried chicken, marinated in buttermilk, and greaselessly deep fat fried. The collards were good, but the best vegetable was the sauteed spinach. On one occasion the beer-battered onion rings were over-cooked, on another they were perfect.

At lunch the familiar crowd of area workers and police piled into the place. The sandwiches, though, were not as good as the dinner entrees. The bland lamb gyro is presented open-faced on Greek pita with slices of roasted leg of lamb, bits of cucumber and tomatoes, thinly sliced red onion, and tzatziki sauce. The Philly Cheese steak, too, lacked spunk, perhaps the fault of quality beef. Here rib eye is used along with peppers, onions and only a few mushrooms with melted provolone cheese. The side of potato salad, however, was tasty.

Unfortunately the desserts are not made in-house, yet, and the apple pie had the bought-crust taste. But plans are in the works to expand the menu and the hours. Graham hopes to have a 24-hour operation soon.

Otto's Knife & Fork is a definite perk for the neighborhood. As Graham gingerly fords his way between what his new customers and the old Knife & Fork fans want, and what he wants to serve, the menu is sure to further evolve into something more classic, or more regional. I, for one, welcome Graham's adventure. If you are tired of being snookered by "home styled" restaurants offering you food straight out of the freezer or can, you will like Otto's place, too.

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? Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com

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