Venue Review: Blackthorne Restaurant & Bar
The Charlotte Observer
11318 N. Community House Road;
If an eight-piece bucket of fried quail (with biscuits!) and roasted Poulet Rouge chicken sound familiar, it’s because they’ve appeared uptown before in chef Mark Hibb’s lineup. Now that he’s in Ballantyne, they’re back.
Here at the Blackthorne Restaurant & Bar, they’re called “casual American Bistro style.” That’ll do, though those particular dishes fit with “contemporary Carolinas cuisine” and “farm to fork,” too, which is what Hibbs called them at Ratcliffe’s on the Green years ago.
That fluidity in culinary definition isn’t new. He cooked at Cosmos Café uptown for years, where tapas/small-bite dishes were ahead of their time, and morphed Ratcliffe’s from Lowcountry (that’s what it was when he stepped in) to fine dining to brasserie, seeking the right audience.
He was among chefs talking about “local” before it caught on, and took some chances, like that Poulet Rouge, a chicken developed from French stock for flavor.
Here, he’s also doing tavern-ish fare, such as fries and calamari and pork chop and steak, priced quite well at $14-$25. Some of those get a chefly turn – fries are skinny, crisp, showered with parmesan and garlic and served with aioli, while calamari comes with Korean barbecue sauce. Some are straightforward, like the chop.
They arrive with varying success: Fries, terrific. Calamari, dreadful. (Not the sauce; that’s great – but a crunchy coating so sweet you felt you were eating calamari donuts.) Pork chop, terrific again: Huge, juicy, a bit of char on the outside and sided with sweet potato hash. A short rib wrap appetizer proved interesting, but served on a plate so hot the iceberg leaf casings turned limp before I was half through. Venison meatloaf studded with tiny blueberries comes wrapped in bacon (nicely cooked) and with a bourbon barbecue sauce I might drink.
Gnocchi were adequate, aswim in carbonara-esque sauce, but orecchiette with sausage and tomatoes fared beautifully.
Fish was perhaps best. Grilled N.C. trout arrived hot and sweet and delicate, over moist wild rice, while a special of wahoo came with a lime-tinged cucumber salsa and just-wilted arugula.
Well, wait: The little cornbreads that came out pre-meal, with crunchy-sweet edges and soft insides – those were marvelous, too. And a chocolate-Guinness ganache for dessert arrived in a bitty Guinness glass, with a Baileys/Jameson crème anglaise on top, mimicking the head on a Guinness. Tasty, a bit over the top, fun.
Service varied nearly as much as our seating options: There’s a long bar where you can eat, too, with remarkably attentive bartenders and genial patrons who don’t mind scooching over to make room during the busier hours.
There’s a rooftop patio and bar, with umbrellas, three big flatscreens, an abbreviated menu (though you can request the full one), and servers in considerably more of a hurry and less knowledgeable about the food. This area clearly makes more sense for game-watchers; it’s noisy and poorly lit, which matters considerably less if you’re there to watch something.
But the volume in dining areas can be seriously problematic – sound bounces around all the hard surfaces of wainscoting and wood floors and tables, and can make conversation tough.
On the other hand, it was there we had the best service: smart, enthusiastic and quick, with a close eye on pacing courses, as well.
The place is handsome, and the crowd seems happy. Now, if we can just bring it down to a dull roar…