Venue Review: The Liberty
The Charlotte Observer
1812 South Blvd
Melted cheddar drips down the side of a grass-fed beef burger, tucked into a bun with grilled onions and herb aioli. Condensation beads a tall glass of Brooklyn Local 2 Belgian-style strong dark ale.
Yeah. Me, too.
The Liberty at its best is quite good indeed, and that dinner was the place at its best.
Named by restaurant-biz lifers Matthew Pera and Tom Condron for the freedom of a place of their own, The Liberty combines quirky choices and plain good sense. Throw in classic beer ads on lounge walls and a bit of dry humor in the menu and you’ve got a brew-centric spot with burgers and boiled peanuts – and pork belly sliders and roasted Scottish salmon in the lineup, too.
The partners call it a gastropub, defining that loosely. The food is eclectic; native Brit Condron was corporate chef for the Harper’s group for years, after cooking with luminaries Joel Robuchon and Paul Bocuse. The service is smart; native Charlottean Pera had run Marais, Upstream and GW Fins in Charlotte.
Condron’s passion for big flavors with a spot of cleverness shows in the signature Gastro-Pig: roasted Berkshire pork served with thin crepes and lettuce leaves and a host of accompaniments with which to roll up little packages: peanuts, pickled pineapple, jalapeno peppers, lime. Delightful.
At $18.95, it’s also the most expensive thing on the dinner menu. There, entrees currently run about $17-$19, with sandwiches and “street food” going for $10-$15. Lunch is about $7-$12. It’s a reasonable range for food of this quality, but some more offerings at the lower end would help the place’s oft-stated determination to be affordable.
The street food ranges from grilled fish tacos to hot dogs made with Wagyu beef (the breed from which classic Kobe comes), sauerkraut, cheddar and apple-smoked bacon. I tried beer-battered fish and chips – yes, malt vinegar comes with that – and it was fine, though our server swore the fish tacos were incredible. Next time.
Calamari fries arrived as thick slabs, cooked to tender perfection, with a sweet-hot chile sauce, slivered scallions and a bit of aioli over curry slaw. I’d nearly sworn off calamari: It’s so commonly mediocre. This reminded me how good it can be.
A hefty piece of rich salmon is paired with organic farro, a marvelous grain (precise definitions vary, but it’s wheat) that cooks up something like risotto, with tender mushrooms and halved cherry tomatoes adding brightness.
Not everything has been that good. A farmer’s market tomato salad, appearing on the menu in mid-May, produced dull tomatoes, while soft pretzels, though blessed with a bit of smoky flavor, are not blessed with generous size. I’ve had dishes arrive cool-ish when they should be hot and vice versa. And servers need to be sure to slip in explanations where they might be needed: Servers know their stuff, but telling someone a sauce is "a gastrique, almost" doesn’t always work (but I loved it!). Desserts weren’t memorable, with the exception of a lovely little lemon tart.
But to dig into housemade pickles and a beer flight (samples) in the recycled-keg-columned dining room, or to pull up a burnished aluminum bar stool and sip a Hercules IPA is to know peace. Peruse the rhyming couplets in the dining side of the room (“When you’re downing amber ale, don’t drink it with a sweet, but barbecue and pizza, as a combo, can’t be beat.”). Or gaze at the “Mad Men”-esque ads that comprise the bar’s décor: Slogans like “I’m glad they still make a beer like this” and “People try it and they like it” just taste better than “Whassssup?” don’t they?
And “boy,” says Pera, “we’re selling a lot of beer.”
It’s the retro-yet-rustic, hedonistic-yet-sophisticated blend that makes The Liberty’s point of view unique. And mouth-watering.
Coming up: The place’s first “Beer Nerd Dinner,” June 29 for $60 per person, featuring KBS, DuganA, Terrapin Darkside and Tactical Nuclear Penguin, and a whole suckling pig.