Venue Review: Fern, Flavors From The Garden
The Charlotte Observer
Ferns don’t bloom or have seeds: They spread spores.
Which brings to mind – for those of a certain age – that classic Star Trek in which a planet’s plants puff spores into the crew’s faces. Voila! Perfect health and peace of mind. (I wouldn’t bring this up for the young folk, but since nearly 2 million of you Like George Takei, aka Sulu, on Facebook, Trek references matter again. Finally.)
Particularly this one.
Fern is the vegetarian restaurant in Plaza-Midwood created by the Something Classic/Halcyon folks. And what it does is (gently) blast you in the face with this message: Vegetarian fare can be vivid, diverse, complex in flavor and texture. It can be meaty, it can be delicate, it can be a cuisine of essence, not of substitution.
For Charlotte, particularly our non-vegetarians, this is enough for now. Perfect health and peace of mind optional.
Chef and softspoken Charlotte native Alyssa Gorelick, 27, spent time in the Halcyon kitchen after Art Institute training, cooking in other area restaurants (including pastry chef at Mez) and time in Italy. Here, she brings a light hand and willingness to experiment. Gorelick says boss Jill Marcus told her early on: Cook food that you love to eat. “That changed my whole thought process,” and freed her to take a few chances.
Among her most successful dishes is Farmhouse Ragout: crushed small potatoes drizzled with olive oil, a bit of preserved lemon and an array of color: glazed carrots, spinach, Marcona almonds, chunks of pebbly tempeh and more. Eggplant and zucchini parmesan arrives layered and topped with toasted whole-wheat crumbs, in a hot casserole dish, each bite dredging up gooey fresh mozzarella and a tomato sauce with kick. The Laughing Buddha Bowl changes daily, but includes “the Essentials: Beans, Rice, Greens & Vegetables.” On a recent trip it offered the chewy-tender, deep-purple grain called forbidden rice, with kale and eggplant caponata and more. Note the temperature variations. Nice.
If I have a complaint, it’s that Gorelick occasionally overloads: Fewer ingredients, sometimes, would strengthen the dish’s profile and better distinguish it from other offerings.
Beet tagliatelle, for example – the pasta ribbons, wider than you’d expect, a lovely shade of maroon and studded with small halved figs, sheerly sliced bleu cheese and beet greens, all with a bit of walnut-dotted beet juice/red wine sauce – is well-focused, bright and restrained. (And perhaps even better the next day.)
Entrees tend to the generous and run $12 to $16 or so, while the signature OM burger (a burger done with white beans, tofu and hemp seed in a blended form – no chunks, and crispy exterior) is $10 with a side.
Vegans have plenty to choose among, and many dishes can be made vegan on request; these are marked and easy to decipher. Sharers will also find a lot: “Community plates” make up most of the menu’s front, from dips and crudités to tarts, meatballs, latkes and cheeses. Portions vary: There was too little roasted cauliflower (and it was too-little-roasted) for $11, but hummus was abundant for $5 and seven dips for $25 would feed a crowd. And, while sharing, don’t miss the donuts for dessert.
Service varied on our visits from inviting and painstaking to a bit brusque, but all were competent and quick, and what answers they didn’t know, they found out quickly. That’s critical when you’re working to win hearts and minds, which every smart vegetarian restaurant is.
Fern lays claim to its earthy roots in décor – from the live, irrigated pocket-o-ferns wall and vines climbing the awning supports out front, to its hues of green and brown and gold, its Mason jar lighting fixtures and tiny pots of flowers on the tables. The soundtrack runs calm as well, Beatles to James Taylor and the like, and a lineup of chakra-related juices joins organic wines and nearby brews, the better to keep us all in a relaxed flow.
Not about relaxing? Not a problem. Go for the flavors, and be convinced.