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Extreme Makeover

Dining in the dark


It's been said that being in the right place at the right time is half the trick. In 1995, the historic Lucas house in Elizabeth underwent an S lift (minimally invasive face lift) of sorts when it became CiBi Restaurant. Ten years later, the old house has undergone an extreme makeover. Partners Chef Greg Zanitsch, his parents Roger and Megan Zanitsch, and front of house managing partner Sara Scheidler bought the house a year ago and spent 10 months renovating it. The opening of The Fig Tree Restaurant at the Lucas House last March came at a time when passersby had been watching Clay Grubb transform, one destroyed building at a time, the long neglected area of Elizabeth. That section of town has a renewed vibrancy and it's a welcome change to see a renovation.

The Lucas house is a marvelous example of the Charlotte bungalow. Built in 1913, the house was once owned, according to Scheidler, by a man who worked for the Charlotte Chronicle and later became an executive with Duke Power. Although oozing with charm, the building still has the drawbacks of a business being in an old house: small rooms and staircases. The house is, however, handicap accessible. In addition to the renovations according to historic code, the partners added 600 square feet to the kitchen.

The warm brilliant patina of the golden oak floors and front hall oak staircase is stunning. Immediately to the right of the reception area is a small bar and lounge area complete with one of several fireplaces. The restaurant has been decorated in an Arts and Craft Craftsman style. To one side is the open porch, the only smoking area of the restaurant. The downstairs interior at night (the restaurant is open only for dinner) is dark. One small dining room, which is painted brown, has a series of dramatic stained glass windows; one can get a hint of their complexity when passing cars illuminate the glass from the outside. You may feel like Helen Bonham Carter in a British period piece in these first floor rooms with their dark historic colors and flickering candlelight. I'm sure in the daylight these same rooms are spectacular. Personally, I prefer to see my food and other diners and have given more than a passing thought to the correlation between the improvements of American cuisine after the invention of the light bulb. But the house is charming, nevertheless. Upstairs, though, the Restoration Hardware colors are brighter, seemingly more fun, and welcoming.

Chef Zanitsch, a native of Pittsburgh, PA, is a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, VT. With the opening of his restaurant in Elizabeth, that section of town has become the epicenter for graduates of that school: Chef John Blumreich at Carpe Diem is a fellow graduate and Mark Martin, chef and owner of Ethan's of Elizabeth American Bistro, is a graduate and former instructor at NECI. Scheidler is from Cincinnati, OH, where she met Zanitsch while working together at what she termed a "fine dining" Italian restaurant.

The menu at the Fig Tree is seasonal and currently focuses on the traditional litany of early spring offerings: rabbit, salmon, osso buco, lamb chops and filet mignon with Stilton cheese. We started with a solid beef carpaccio scattered with colorful peppers, and a less interesting tower of Peeky Toe crab and avocado salsa, dusted with sevruga caviar. The real problem here was the overly cooked (OK, burned) potato chips. This particular dish tasted altogether blander than it looked. The salads, on the other hand, were delightfully fresh and bright tasting: one with bursting pillows of goat cheese, the other a well matched concerto of textures and flavors. The garlicky shrimp scampi entrée ($23) seated upon the mound of pasta was similarly mannered. Less impressive was the pristine halibut, which was all but capsized by a sauce too lush with butter and lobster. Halibut, a deliciously flavored fish, does not need to be smothered. The asparagus, though, tasted like spring. To finish, we opted for a flourless Chocolate Truffle Torte which was enduringly sweet.

Entrée prices range from $18 for penne with mush-rooms to $34 for the lamb chops with potato gratin.

The staff at Fig Tree is pleasant, but not suitably rehearsed in wine service. We found this true while perched with others on the sofas in the lounge as well as at the table, where we ordered a 2001 and were brought a 2003. The server thought nothing of it (after we pointed it out) except to add that the wine list changes frequently to catch all the "typos."

As we found ourselves pouring much of the wine ourselves, we debated whether our table was too dimly lit for the server to find. Or perhaps, only a couple of months after the initial opening, the new crew has yet to gain its sea legs.

Eaters' Digest Owners Tammy and Dave Dearstyne, both graduates of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, have closed Dearstyne Bistro and Catering in Matthews. The couple first opened in Waxhaw in 1998.

Also in Matthews, Raucci's on East John Street has closed.

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