In the Q.C., swift change is inevitable and customer loyalty is not only an elusive quality, but almost extinct. Too often it's the line out the door of the newest greatest eatery that only remains popular until the next newest greatest opens. Imagine being a restaurateur and trying to keep up with this?
Reinvention has become commonplace among locally owned independents that compete with other independents as well as formulaic, never-changing chains -- a strange dichotomy. Some restaurants take the plastic surgery route: an interior renovation. Some remarry: change the chef. Some, in the style of great fictional characters such as Jay Gatsby, do a complete makeover, a self-reinvention. The trick, though, is to keep enough of the old to placate the diehard fans while allowing enough change to be considered among the newest and greatest.
Chris and Sue Edwards realized this when they decided to reinvent their restaurant Dakotas, which opened in 1998. That restaurant had first opened in another part of the shopping center, and then moved across to a larger space with the original space becoming Cajun Yard Dogs, an eatery the Edwards later sold. Now the Edwards have reinvented themselves again with the opening in October 2007 of the 90-seat New South Kitchen & Bar.
For Chef Chris Edwards this is a culinary return to his roots as a Shelby, N.C., native. But with the rise of all things Southern, and not just biscuits, this change is not so surprising. Edwards has always had elements of the South on his menus. He trained at CPCC and has been in Charlotte restaurants ever since. In fact, the Edwards met while both were working at Catherine's, a legendary, now-closed Myers Park place.
But what is New South? Old South cuisine was hard enough to define with non-Southern food writers lumping Cajun, Low Country, and Floribbean into the same pot. Is New South just cooking healthier? Collards without the fatback? Or is a new spin on regional comfort foods?
The Edwards reinvention takes the idea of the Old South meat and three (a protein and three sides) and spins it into a New South of small plates. Sue Edwards says that while her husband has always "been doing Southern food" they wanted to offer a bigger menu with the popular smaller-plate option.
The clean, modern interior has been spiffed up and is non-smoking (another indication of a new Carolina). The menu focuses on plates: "small," "green," "cheese," and "big" with panini sandwiches, and other dishes such as shrimp and grits thrown in. The "Big Plates" are not big as in size since each item is singularly presented on a plate, but these plates come with an additional plate of the three sides. Demure scoops of rich and cleverly textured spinach baked with artichokes, densely flavored roasted beets and outstanding collards sit together in a neat row. Other choices proved less successful: the "mac and cheese" is an uncheesy penne while mashed potatoes were quite under the mark.
Edwards' savory version of pork tenderloin is right on the money, though, awash in flavorful bourbon sauce. The crab cakes would be better with a little less of everything. Starters are fun -- from the Redneck cheese plate (that would be pimento cheese) and fried green tomatoes to the more urbane goat cheese and peach chutney. The smoked salmon cakes, a spin on Southern salmon patties, are no match for the taste memories of the originals.
Also on the menu are old South offal dishes: sweetbreads, calves liver, and foie gras. Desserts are exactly as they should be: creamy, chocolatey or decadent. The wine list is well chosen; the beer list includes an Aussie favorite, Coopers. Prices on the big plates range from $14 to $19. Sunday brunch is $13 ($6.50 for those under 10).
Currently New South offers live jazz on Tuesdays, and other live music on Friday and Saturday nights, but Sue Edwards says more will come.
New South Kitchen is an effortlessly easy place to fall into. Well, maybe not exactly fall into since its location is within the interior of a sprawling shopping center. Nevertheless, New South has just enough newness to bring new buzz to Edwards' reinvented comfort food.