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Breaking bread at Andrew Blair's


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Brandishing an epi baguette within silvery tongs, our server adeptly stopped before placing the bread on our table saying, "I don't want you to think I forgot a plate. We serve our bread on the table [covered by butcher paper]." We laughed, broke bread, and ate -- which is the communal feeling the owners had intended. In this age of dishwashers, however, a plate is not too much to ask for and preferable to a clutch of crumbs in the center of the table upon which dishes will rest. But it's the choice of multileafed epi bread that is at the heart of the owners' decision to present things this way. Each baguette has the same number of leaves as diners at a table. Thus, each pulls his piece from the main loaf. Very kumbaya.

The 140-seat Andrew Blair's American Bistro & Wine Bar, the first full-scale restaurant venture for owners Tom and Andy Henson, opened last June on Montford Drive, a street full of promise for restaurateurs and at the nexus of the Parks: Myers, South, and Madison. The father and son team also own the Four Brothers Hospitality Group, which operates Eat Here Now, Angry Ale's, the Grand Cinema in Ayrsley, and the Hilton Garden Inn Charlotte in Ayrsley.

The restaurant's namesake is Tom Henson's father-in-law whose photographs dance within the mural that greets diners. There is something secure about a dining room bound by booths and punctuated with large round tables. This warm space would startle anyone who remembers its prior incarnation as a overtly red Asian buffet hall. Blair's is wonderfully unassuming and infinitely more convivial; a perfect setting for confusion-free food with a dining-room crew that serves with easy authority.

The concept is big-hearted comfort food with a twist, and since "comfort food" is the bankable taste for these fizzling and uncertain times, the menu seems to hit the high notes. Price is a consideration, too. Tom Henson said they try to keep the price point below $20 for entrees. This is true except for some of the steak dishes that are in the high 20s. Recently, he added half-off bottles of wine on Tuesday nights.

At the helm of the kitchen is Bill Davis, a Johnson & Wales graduate, who seems adept in producing foods that cover familiar turf, such as pot pies, mac and cheese, strip steak, and familiar surf -- crab cakes, tuna, and a lobster roll to boot.

Serene as Davis' plates appear, there's nothing fussy about their pleasures. The stemmed (Roman-styled) artichoke hearts studded with goat cheese and bound by prosciutto is a voluptuous dish. Davis shows attention to the smallest of details, like the adroitly dressed autumn salad with a blood orange vinaigrette, which punches up Bibb lettuce and poached pears. One faux, though, is the scallop threesome -- each festooned with sauces ranging from lemon to a saccharine honey. Scallops rarely need anything to make them taste better. Quite frankly, a pan-seared scallop is perfection since you can taste the sea. But, my dining companion snarfed them down, in quick succession, only momentarily debating which sauce he preferred.

After the appetizers, the kitchen occasionally stumbled over its delicate feats of equilibrium. The marlin, a day's special, was dry -- a too-often taste characteristic of this difficult billfish without the fat of a tuna -- and it was cut thin. On the other hand, the inventive, imposing tower of crab and filet mignon Napoleon was precisely cooked and delightfully distracting with nuances and textures. The vegetables that accompanied the latter were the stellar asparagus and the less-than-appealing tri-flavored mashed potatoes. Maybe one, in this case flavor, is the loneliest number, but it can be singularly sensational.

It's not too difficult to eat frugally here. Large sandwiches range from a Monte Cristo ($10) to a prime rib ($11) and the sweet potato gnocchi is $14. Some of the starters like the flatbreads, mussels, and hummus come in as many as three sizes and are meant to be shared by the table.

Davis' desserts are unavoidable, loud, brash and meant to be shared. The Rocky Road brownie, a table pleaser, tends to lumber down the gullet like an oversized parade float. It's a full-out chocolate assault. Meanwhile the more demur apple crisp has a not-so-crisp topping, but the apples were wonderfully devoid of an imposed sweetness so they could luxuriate in the melting ice cream. The only thing wrong with encouraging all this sharing at the table, is that, at times, my first impression was the only impression -- since before I could get a second bite, the dish was gobbled up.

Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine events? To contact Tricia, send information via e-mail (no attachments, please):


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