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Going Coastal

Locally owned restaurant makes the trip to Charleston a lot shorter

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How does one go about creating a great restaurant row? Proximity to entertainment (outside of the restaurant, that is) is one component. Perhaps ethnic homogeneity, or as found in Charlotte, multi-ethnic homogeneity (as in anything, but American). Or just good luck. Rarely though, does a great restaurant row occur through the work, albeit diligent, of a real estate leasing office.

Many lovers of finely crafted food will eschew the local neighborhood restaurant by assuming its part of a contrived chain. How could a restaurant located in the heart of a suburban shopping center be urbane and charming, or good, or even a brilliant beacon of hope in what is otherwise a wasteland of repetitious menus filled with baby back ribs and steaks?

My dining companion, a relocated urbanite, noticeably dreading dining in extremely south Charlotte, remarked, "It's scary down here: Why are people taking their children to play in a shopping center? That's what parks are for."

Could good food actually rescue a journey into suburbia? The answer is "yes," and the place is Sugar Magnolia Restaurant. Opened in November 2006, Sugar Magnolia is an inspired restaurant featuring low-country dishes, mimicking what is great about the capital of the low country, Charleston: great food, great service. Sugar Magnolia is just a spit of a spot in Blakeney Shopping Center, located beyond a row of chains, some locally spawned. But the obvious intent is that Sugar Magnolia doesn't just want to be just a space for the chain overflows; rather, it wants a place at the table of the restaurants in Charlotte that matter.

For owners Chris, a native of Charlotte, and Brandy Warren, owning a restaurant is a detour from a path that once included stock brokerage. But this is a family affair with one daughter manning the hostess stand and Brandy's brother Cody Stewart shining as the executive chef. Stewart is a graduate of Johnson & Wales' Charleston campus and worked in such notable Charleston-area institutions as the Boathouse.

Beyond Sugar Magnolia's long bar in the front room is the 68-seat dining room, warmed with dark-wood, highlighted by "cobblestone" flooring and palladian mirrors, dotted with predictable artwork of magnolia blossoms, lit with gas lanterns and cooled with slow-moving overhead fans. The setting is only missing the sounds of horse-drawn carriages in the street.

Stewart's menu is geographically focused: This is low country with a sprinkling of tested and possibly bulletproof suburban (chophouse) meats. Not everyone who lives around Blakeney, after all, warms up to grits and greens, you know.

But what makes a good low-country restaurant is shellfish and fish, and there's plenty of that to choose from on this menu: crab fritters, blackened red fish, won-ton crusted tuna and a daily roster of eight-ounce fish fillets at market price.

Skip the bread basket, which offers nothing special, and instead pay close attention to the she-crab soup. Although not served with an additional douse of sherry, this soup tasted as a good she-crab does: of crab and cream and a mysterious hint of other. If the server offers to split the soup, just order two bowls. Otherwise, you'll probably never see the bowl return to your side of the table -- that's how addictive this soup is.

If you are a Southern traditionalist, the fried green tomatoes may arrive with a heavier coating than the ones your grandma made. But nevertheless, this appetizer is sparkling with a sprinkling of black-eyed peas and a drizzle of a tangy buttermilk horseradish sauce. Salads are not generally memorable, but when one is crafted with such panache, it becomes its own high mark. What stands out here is Stewart's delicious poached pear salad, composed of organic greens flecked with blue cheese and faintly, yet perfectly, dressed. Yum.

As for entrees, it's hard to go wrong. The shrimp and grits featured slices of spicy andouille sausage, tender shrimp and slivers of sweet bell peppers, making it an easy dish for sharing. Another bankable course is the pair of marvelous lump-filled crab cakes crested with a scattering of delicate fried sweet onions.

Side dishes are served family-style, and the slow-cooked collards are sensational. Other sides include cheese grits and red beans and Carolina grown rice. Desserts are made in house, and the selection includes key lime pie (OK, maybe a little further south than Charleston), a luscious banana cream pie and a heady bread pudding. The wine list is brief but well thought out for the menu.

Last week, Sugar Magnolia opened for lunch and offered some of the dinner favorites at lunch: crab cake sandwich, crab fritters and the wonton crusted tuna. Lunch ranges from $5 to $13. Dinner entrees range from $16 for chicken and dumplings to $27 for a New York Strip steak.

Sugar Magnolia may not always be full, but that is the misfortune of unappreciative neighbors who may overlook a smaller, locally owned, family-run-and-operated restaurant that serves up Southern hospitality and food that is not only good, but reassuring. And that's the beauty of Charlotte, circa 2007: surprising excellence in unexpected places.

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