Posted: 10:40 a.m. Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Local Eats: Verdict mixed on Uptown hangout

By J. Scott Wilson

When it comes to restaurants in downtown Charlotte, the trick is to get some of the people who pound down their hurried, non-alcohol-enhanced lunches to come back for dinner, when the bar tabs skyrocket and the entrees are joined by appetizers and desserts to bring the check total up nicely. 

Convert just a tenth of your lunch crowd into dinner regulars and you’ve pretty well got yourself in business.  (A quick note, here:  I know that some portion of the Charlotte central business district refers to itself as “Uptown.”  I don’t get it, and won’t perpetuate the fallacy. Downtown is downtown. “Uptown” is semantically nonsensical.)

Restaurants like Blue, where Chef Gene Briggs has held court for a decade, have become established landmarks on the downtown scene.  The Hearst Tower location doesn’t hurt, but plenty of restaurants have failed to grow in equally fertile soil. 

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This week’s stop on our culinary tour, 3 Trade Food and Wine at 333 W. Trade St., doesn’t have the same bounty in terms of upstairs neighbors as Blue, but its easy proximity to the new Knights ballpark and Bank of America stadium, as well as plentiful nearby parking, should help the cause significantly.

The menu is promising, as well, running the gamut from sushi and charcuterie to lamb shank and cassoulet.  It takes a lot of kitchen talent to pull off that varied a bill of fare, but my preliminary reports had indicated no great issues with the food.  The service, however, had gotten mixed reviews, and I’m sad to say I’ll have to add my own voice to those who find waiting 10 minutes for a fresh beer and having to jockey for space because empty plates haven’t been removed a bit annoying.

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I arrived a bit before my dining companion, and was shown to my table by a woman who returned a few moments later with a menu and offered to bring me a sample of a seasonal local beer with which I wasn’t familiar.  While she was getting that, a manager stopped by my table offering to take my drink order. I explained that had already been handled, and he looked completely puzzled. 

This dance was repeated twice, with the server first bringing my sample and then my pint of OMB Captain Jack (a standby) and the manager coming by to offer services already rendered.

I should mention that the “and Wine” part of the restaurant’s name is amply represented. The wine list is impressive, with a wide array of varietals at every price point.  I am simply more of a beer guy, and enjoy the pairing of beer with food.

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The confusion cleared somewhat when they both appeared at my table explaining something about some third party coming back from the liquor store.  That third was apparently the fellow who was supposed to be my server, and after a couple more awkward pauses, he took over.

My companion arrived, and we ordered the charcuterie plate and the fried brussels sprouts with prosciutto. Seeing that martinis were on special, we both ordered dirty ones, mine with gin and hers with vodka (she’s a Philistine).  When the server returned, he appeared to be having great difficulty managing the glasses, and served me before my companion while slopping generous amounts out of both drinks.

The brussels sprouts were an absolute revelation.  If you, like me, grew up thinking of them as those overly potent little cabbage bombs that your mom would take from the freezer and boil to death, it’s time to give them another shot.  These were fried to a perfect turn, with gray sea salt giving them a perfect zing and the prosciutto providing a lovely counterpoint to the freshness of the sprouts.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had this particular veggie in a better presentation.

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The charcuterie plate was another story.  For starters, there was a blot of golden goo in the middle of plate that looked suspiciously like honey with a bit of comb in it. I asked our server, and he identified it as “tomato jam.”  It was, in fact, honey, which didn’t serve much purpose but did taste nice.  The same could not be said for the “house-made” mustard, which was a very bland, flat Dijon-style that did nothing to wake up the meat offerings.

The meat was middling quality, rather more reminiscent of Boar’s Head than any upscale smokehouse.  The selection of olives was outstanding, and I could cheerfully have devoured an entire plate of those alone.

Moving on to entrees, my companion ordered the spicy Italian flatbread, despite our less-than-stellar experience with the quality of the deli meats on the charcuterie plate.  It was quite tasty, with the heavily savory tomato sauce dominating and the salami here perhaps benefiting from the oven’s heat to wake up and show its flavor.

I am a sucker for a burger with any form of bleu cheese on it, and when I saw that the 3 Trade offering was also topped with a fried egg, my decision was made.  I have an evolutionary theory as to why we enjoy things like bacon and fried eggs on burgers:  Our evolutionary leap to homo sapiens was made possible largely by an increase in fat in our diet, which helped our brains get bigger. (This is why you feed toddlers full-fat milk and yogurt, etc.)  So when we eat a burger, our monkey brain is happy with the beef fat.  Add some pork fat in the form of bacon or (my favorite) country ham, and he hoots even louder.  Add the richness of an egg yolk to the party, and ol’ bananabrain just about falls out of his tree with joy.  So the next time you want a bacon cheeseburger with a fried egg on it, just blame it on the monkey in your head.

But back to the burger at hand … or rather at two hands.  This was one delicious hunk of burgerosity, with a pillowy bun soaking up every bit of the juices and the properly medium-rare patty conveying a very generous portion of good Stilton along for the ride. The egg was very fresh, and cooked perfectly, with the white completely set but the yolk magically runny.

I don’t often order a vegetable medley with a burger, but when I found out the fries weren’t hand-cut I decided to give them a try here.  I was not disappointed.  The flavors were outstanding, and the yellow squash tasted like it had been harvested that morning.

I should note that throughout the entrée portion of our meal, we saw our server once.  But when I was almost finished, he became very solicitous, offering another beer (I’d switched back to Captain Jack) and almost hovering.  It was a rather odd experience.

So, in short, there are some serious bright spots on the 3 Trade Food and Wine menu, and I will definitely be exploring there again … and eating more of the brussels sprouts.  The service needs work, although I suspect my experience would have been far more pleasant with my original server.

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