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Ain't that Peculiar

Veteran restaurateur and chef work to get the genre right in Plaza Midwood

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The Peculiar Rabbit
1212 Pecan Ave., 704-333-9197. Hours: Sunday 10 a.m. to 12 a.m.; Monday 5 p.m. to 12 a.m.; Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 12 a.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Late night menu: weekends from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. www.thepeculiarrabbit.com.

Like Zooey Deschanel, Plaza Midwood exudes almost too much quirkiness — and I mean that in the nicest sense. Although not defined by a forced designation like "The Arts District," Plaza Midwood has evolved into Charlotte's cultural core and is currently in full Renaissance bloom. Define it any way you want, but Plaza Midwood is original, tolerant and fiercely loyal to its own. This is not true of other Charlotte neighborhoods. Restaurateurs in SouthPark, for example, have to keep a look over their shoulders, knowing they are likely to lose out to a trendy new spot (farewell, Zink American Kitchen). Another positive for Plaza Midwood is the extent of its allegiance: even if a chef moves out of the neighborhood (Marc Jacksina) or restaurant changes venues (The Diamond), chances are the residents will frequent the new spot.

As the Plaza Midwood restaurant scene continues to metamorphose, more Charlotte restaurateurs will attempt to bottle that elusive alchemy. So what would happen if a successful establishment from another neighborhood — maybe even a competitive neighborhood — opened a sibling operation in Plaza Midwood?

This happened last September when Rob Nixon, a co-owner of Elizabeth's well-known Jackalope Jack's Restaurant & Bar, opened a 300-seat eatery in Plaza Midwood, The Peculiar Rabbit, with Andy Wilson. From its simplicity of design, you would not guess this site was once home to a church and, more recently, a nightclub. The space has been renovated spectacularly. Sure, the first and second floors have predictable bar-like schematics, but the third-story terrace affords a breathtaking view of downtown Charlotte.

But the heart of The Peculiar Rabbit is the kitchen team. Originally designed to be a "gastropub" — a term that's become increasingly meaningless in direct proportion to its trendiness — the kitchen has made a few adjustments since opening. The menu has been dialed back from the full-out imaginative farm-to-fork focus. Geoff Bragg, one of Charlotte's most talented chefs, is at the helm, and the menu offers a mix of traditional bar food and chef-driven dishes. Bragg, a graduate of Johnson & Wales Charleston, has consistently produced well-crafted dishes wherever I have encountered him. You may remember him from his stints at Pewter Rose, Café Milan and The Grove Park Inn, but Bragg first showed his inventive dishes at the now-defunct Peaceful Dragon, a vegetarian/vegan restaurant and CL award winner.

Rabbit cassoulet - MEREDITH JONES
  • Meredith Jones
  • Rabbit cassoulet

Like any self-respecting pub maven, Bragg offers a signature bar bite, Devils on Horseback: bacon-wrapped figs with goat cheese and beet reduction. But Bragg still makes room to flex his culinary prowess on the entrée list. The rabbit cassoulet is at once rich and comforting with traditional white beans, spiked with Benton's bacon (for bacon lovers this is the Holy Grail) and duck confit. West Coasters can take comfort in the cioppino: sea creatures bathed in a tomato sauce showered with crispy fennel. This dish is paired with a few slices of Duke's Pullman bread — the Dukes are sensational local bakers located in the University Area.

A progressive Waldorf salad of Bibb lettuce, poached pears, candied walnuts and blue cheese sings with flavor. Desserts by pastry chef Katie Bowen change frequently, and are first-rate. (How many bars have a pastry chef?) But you don't have to go to these items on the menu. The roster is filled with traditional choices and expected bar food, such as chili cheese fries, fried pickles, wings; and pub food, including shepherd's pie and fish and chips, if you look beyond mashed rutabaga on the start menu. Some items, like the lamb burger wrapped in flat bread, are offered throughout the day and on the abbreviated late-night dining menu.

Frankly, the traditional dishes are what I saw at the majority of tables. But that's OK since Bragg excels in dishes packed with flavors and well-suited for the beer roster, which has 24 on draught including local and regional craft beers. A limited wine list is available, too.

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