Block and Grinder sounds like a reference to ice hockey. Instead, it's a spiffy new Cotswold canteen where owner Jed Kampe has drawn on experience of owning a local meat market to bring appealing flavors to a strip shopping center restaurant. To say the Cotswold community has wholeheartedly embraced this space (which has recently changed chefs but not its culinary direction) is an understatement. Kampe has created a hospitable hangout with modest style and assertive flavors.
For Kampe, the restaurant is a natural evolution. After opening The New York Butcher Shoppe, a franchised store in Myers Park in 2010, he decided to change course and lead with a restaurant to feature his selective cuts of meat, but still maintain a small butcher shop. He opened the 65-seat Block and Grinder in March. Despite this spot's visual banality — overlooking a parking lot and an active expanse of congested Providence Road — Kampe has taken this ungainly space (it opened as an easily forgettable, quasi Asian fast food joint) and turned it into the dining destination it never was.
The interior is crisp and relaxing with the butcher counter just inside the door. The menu offers unchallenging classics: steaks, pork ribs, burgers and even grilled cheese for kids. When these items work — like the 12-ounce reserve New York Strip steak or the wedge salad with house-cured bacon — it's because the ingredients themselves are impeccable. Kampe offers all-natural, organic meats and local sourced (when possible) products. The resulting tastes seem to re-create taste memories of a butcher (someone who knows meat) and farm food, and that's meant as a compliment.
This style is most apparent in the burgers. On one of my early visits, I sampled the Breslin, easily the best lamb burger I've had in years and worth the $14.50. The trick to lamb (here from Colorado) is to allow the flavor of the meat to shine through. Too many places douse the meat, smothering the taste. Not here. A smear of cumin aioli on the bun, a few flecks of feta on the burger and this sandwich is a standout. So, too, is the beef burger, especially with cheddar. New on the summer menu will be a weekly wild game feature and burger. Who wouldn't be game for that?
There are snacks to begin on the roster, notably the deviled eggs with goat cheese and prosciutto, and yummy roasted bone marrow. The elegant sweetbreads tame even tablemates who often grimace at finding offal on a menu. Greens don't get lost amid the scene-stealing house-cured bacon on the wedge salad.
The brightly grilled steak needs nothing more than freshly ground pepper and some salt; however, the mushroom side lacks oomph. I like the wild game meatloaf, nicely crisped on top and served with bourbon sauce, perhaps too sweet. Although the meatloaf blend changes, when I had it, the mix was three cuts of beef, venison and wild boar. Delicious. The meatloaf is sided with a fried croquette; a simple mash would work better.
Old standbys are also on this ambitious menu. Grilled chicken; seared duck breast (with parsnip bread pudding); seafood; and crawfish and Bost Mills (Cabarrus County circa 1810) grits.
Unfortunately, expecting a restaurant — especially one of this scale ($35 for a 16-ounce ribeye without sides) — to operate at lunch and dinner and have its service team match the kitchen might be foolish. The servers I encountered need far more training in timing and proficiency, although at lunch, servers seemed more alert and better cued.
The winelist is small and accessibly priced. Cocktails, notably mojitos, make their way to most tables. And for dessert, we're partial to the seared pear with Cheerwine (yes, Kampe is from Winston) glaze served with a dollop of cashew crème and fleur de sel ice cream. It's an unexpected combo that works, much like Block and Grinder itself.