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Venue Review: 5Church Restaurant

The art of fashionable food
5Church Restaurant
By "Helen Schwab"
The Charlotte Observer

127 N. Tryon St.

HITS: Dishes that put a high-end spin on classics: lamb burger, Indian-influenced pierogies, duck mole with hominy; seating arrangement variety; design showcasing local artists Nathaniel Lancaster, Leonard Greenberg and Rodney Raines (upstairs for his).

MISSES: Some execution misfires (steak, grouper), sound level.

PRICES: Lunch $6-$11; dinner $13-$40.

HOURS: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays; dinner daily 5 p.m. until; Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; late-night menu 11 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday.

5Church is a rare Charlotte example of a restaurant strategy executed down to the letter. The hand-painted letter, that is.

You’ll get the idea right away. Curb appeal first: Streetside windows let passersby peer in at tufted booths and Philippe Starck-like clear chairs, feathery pendants and tabletops cut from a single North Carolina oak, in a location that’s housed numerous forgettable ventures.

Detailed branding next: Even its matchboxes feature its key design element. Then menu-for-(modern)-Everyman: New American, rendered in plain English larded with foodie magnets like “artisan” and “emulsion.” Then servers in skinny jeans, with tailored shirts. And Converses.

There is, of course, a Twitter account, each tweet jam-packed with hashtags (sample: “Matt Servitto of #Sopranos and #Banshee having lunch @5ChurchCLT #HBO #Cinemax @CelebsInCLT”).

The foursome in charge – partners Patrick Whalen (operating partner), Alejandro Torio (marketing) and Mills Howell (design), plus chef Jamie Lynch – cultivate a look that’s part rock band, part Road Warrior in promotional portraits, yet share hardscrabble stories of working their way up.

They’ve codified the warrior stance with a motto (“There is only we”) and by having artist Jon Norris paint the aforementioned key design element: The millennia-old Chinese military-strategy manual “The Art of War,” by Sun Tzu. On the ceiling. Word for word.

This place has its finger pressed so hard on the zeitgeist, the zeitgeist’s wrist is bruising.

The result? Lots of bustle, the typical Charlotte trendster traffic (and the definitive win on DNC-celebrity-snagging), and a feeling that a few things were cold, hard decisions. (See “Art,” Chapter 1: The Calculations.)

Some are pure and warm and marvelous: a simple tabbouleh made with quinoa and feta; a delicate, Indian-inspired version of pierogies; and what are clearly the new best fries in town (perfect each of three times).

Duck mole with hominy, roasted corn and lime crème fraiche was lush and complex, and Lynch’s lamb burger is a star, cunningly accompanied by red onion marmalade, Gorgonzola and arugula on a sesame-studded bun. It, and the most successful dishes, put a chef’s tweak on approachable fare; you can see Lynch’s experience, which includes Cafe Boulud and Barrington’s, in these.

The best servers explain dishes engagingly and recommend with confidence. And Howell’s design has movement and detail, a pastiche of filigree and shadow and misdirection – concrete resembling fabric, a tree made of steel, wallpaper mimicking wrought iron. (Chapter 6: Illusion and Reality.)

Among the too-calculated? The cool-and-catchy-sounding “60 Second” New York strip. The idea is a cut-to-order steak cooked on only one side, so you get both the slightly bloody tang of rare and the slightly charred richness of cooked. Interesting idea. But mine, ordered “however the chef thinks it best” rather than specified rare or medium, had turned dry and flat on one side and hadn’t stayed bloody (or even juicy) – on the rare/raw side. (Grouper also arrived overcooked, though a fine champagne beurre blanc and bed of potatoes nearly saved it.)

Also over-designed: a S’Mores Trifle with perfectly toasted marshmallow, which came in a conical glass that made it nearly impossible to mix the layers in one bite – the very point of s’mores. (I’d love one other glass adjustment: appropriate shapes for different wines.)

Some servers are slow or mistaken on details, while décor decisions like those plastic chairs and concrete tabletops sacrifice comfort for looks.

The sound – which reverberates around the place’s hard surfaces – can get deafening when it’s busy, though Whalen says they’re looking at ways to tone it down. (Want to hear your companion? Go early.) But the three partners, who met at nightclub Butter NC and include years of NYC work in their resumes, had a clear top priority: Create a look and feel and sound that draws lots of people in fast.

Whalen says, “At 8 o’clock on a Saturday night, the place should feel busy … (a place) where you really get to escape from whatever world you’re living in. And in Charlotte, that’s the land of the steakhouses.” (See Chapter 10: Situational Positioning.)

5Church’s team calculates diligently and works angles smartly. Will that be enough to keep the fickle coming back, engage the loyal, and win an uptown contemporary-fare victory? Sun Tzu, who for all his wisdom was a pretty cryptic guy, wrote, “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.” In other words: We’ll see.

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9/20/2012 - The Charlotte Observer - Helen Schwab

New American food in contemporary, detailed setting.

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