Flipside Café, which has been up and running for several weeks in a shopping strip near the North Carolina line, is not the kind of restaurant we're used to seeing in Fort Mill. In this renovated space, Flipside has a Portland feel: small, independently owned, with foods locally sourced and an owner who will not let you be a stranger. Chef and owner Amy Fortes is taking names and making friends.
Fortes owns Flipside with husband/chef Jon, who is also the executive chef at Mimosa Grill, part of the Charlotte-based Harper's Restaurant Group. The road to Flipside has been long and winding for the Forteses, with stops in New England, Florida, Chicago and Ohio. Both are graduates of Johnson & Wales University: he from the Rhode Island campus and she a 2010 grad in Charlotte.
Flipside breathes life into the 40-seat space in a rustic-craft kind of way. Natural wood tabletops of two heights break up the small space, with crisp white walls banded with red and an oversized blackboard that announces the local purveyors — some only by name, not company. Much of the food is diligently sourced from the farms around the area. Fortes takes pride in having almost still-warm eggs from the farm, which she says is essential for her thriving breakfast business. Not surprisingly, the menu is clean and economical (no dish costs more than $20 and most are well below that).
The food is distinctly comfort-driven. Fortes' riff on shepherd's pie includes densely flavored, shredded braised short ribs with a dome of whipped potatoes served in a charming mini cast iron skillet. The exceptionally tender house chicken, with its ho-hum barbecue sauce, is served with a creamy mac and cheese (instantly inhaled by the table) and excellent sautéed spinach. In fact, Fortes has a way with vegetables. Haricot vert: perfect. Ditto the warm green salad, an unexpected treat of splayed apple slices and toasted pistachios nestled into local greens with a puff of rich ricotta above and a schmear of sharp radish crema below.
The "Out of Season" tomato soup only made us wish for table bread or a grilled cheese sandwich, while the pan gravy on the meat loaf is worthy of biscuits. The kitchen plays around the map a little, in dishes like the expertly crisped empanadas with pickled onions and tasso cream, and Spanish potatoes bravas. The warm flourless chocolate cake with roasted bananas and peanut butter mousse in a mason jar, christened The Elvis by its creator, sous chef Rachel Smetana, makes a fine ending. The only downside is the current lack of alcohol, but Fortes reports that they are expecting to receive a beer and wine license before March.
With the license, Flipside will have everything you could ask for in a restaurant whose reason for existence is to honor a communal repast that originated in the American kitchen. The food is delicious and the portions are sized large enough to share with the table. The staff is far more eager to be helpful emissaries than newfound chums, and the overall mood is laid-back but food-focused.
Finally, Flipside Café is an actualization of the places folks have asked me about since Johnson & Wales University announced plans in 2002 to build a campus in Center City — those small, independently owned spots opened by young, talented entrepreneurial chefs eager to make their indelible mark on the Charlotte culinary landscape. And yes, these businesses are going to open in cheaper rent districts. But that is what is similar to Portland, since its outcroppings of culinary brilliance are dotted throughout the entire city. Like Charlotte, Portland's neighborhoods are scattered, but residents are fiercely loyal and willing to give the independent spirits a chance to be creative, to be innovative, to take food and spin the B side as imaginatively as the A — as the Forteses have done at Flipside Cafe.