Incredible as it might seem, in the dark ages of Elizabeth there was nary a glass of wine or gnocchi to be had. Sure there was tongue at Leo's, pecan pie at Anderson's and even Creole étouffée nearby. Restaurateurs who date back to those days have either melded with developer Clay Grubb's fast-creeping gentrification plan or closed up shop. In their stead are stylish joints fit for the new neighborhood as part of the $200-million-plus Elizabeth Avenue redevelopment plan, a collaborative effort between Grubb Properties, Presbyterian Hospital and Central Piedmont Community College.
Last March, the 66-seat Customshop: Handcrafted Food opened in this deja-new Elizabeth. Prior to this, the food community was a buzz with the rumor of a mighty Manhattan chef setting up shop -- so to speak -- in Charlotte. In reality this restaurant turns out to be a partnership with one New York celebrity chef, David Pasternack, and three guys with Charlotte ties: John Sergi, a restaurant consultant; Trey Wilson, chef and Johnson & Wales graduate (Charleston 1996) who was the executive chef at Dean and Deluca Philips Place for six years; and J.J. Levine, a former wine distributor. At lead is Pasternack, a Manhattan chef who was awarded the 2004 James Beard Best Chef in New York and is a partner with the even more famous Mario Batali at Esca, a southern Italian seafood trattoria in Manhattan (Esca means bait in Italian.). Pasternack also helped to open David Bouley's TriBeCa and was Terrance Brennan's chef de cuisine at Picholine. (If you don't know N.Y.C. restaurants, these are some of the exceptional ones.) In May, Pasternack's The Young Man and the Sea: Recipes and Crispy Fish Tales from Esca, (co-authored with Ed Levine, and Christopher Hirsheimer), was published.
The small, glass-front corner Customshop is cleverly demure. The interior keeps the mix of old -- a side wall contains an exposed and lit pipe -- and new ... as in the hardwood floor, candle dotted shelves, and a long tilted side mirror. In June, the setting sun pours in through side windows, balancing the soft glow from the candles: the dining room quickly becomes a retreat for Elizabethans -- a neighborhood where buildings have not yet occluded the sky. At a nearby table resides a family of five, yet couples dominate the room. In this context Customshop fits: a locally owned, independent, Roman-style trattoria in a quaint neighborhood.
The menu fits as well: simple and modern with Italian overtones. The dishes, flavored with Pasternack's creative ego and the final say, change weekly while the wine list designed by Levine changes monthly. This list is various, priced under $40, with a good number from the southern hemisphere: South Africa, Argentina, New Zealand. (Neither appellations or country of origin is noted on the list.) Entrees are priced from $16 to $22 and sides are $6 for one or three for $14.
Starters are divided into salads, vegetables, crudo (another word for raw fish as in ceviche, sashimi and tartare), meat and seafood. The preparation is not given, just a listing. "Eggplant" turned out to be thin slices rolled around ricotta cheese -- structurally fine, but lacking oomph. But, the grilled calamari is exquisite.
For locavores (those believing the best, most ecologically sound food comes from local farmers), the kitchen at Customshop is sourcing locally. The salad of just-picked watercress and roasted red beets was dotted with pistachios and ricotta and finely dressed in vinaigrette. Wilson's kitchen shows its stuff in the whole fish. The red snapper dish appeared at most tables and was so delectable even the smallest woman appeared to devour the entire fish. Though everything we ordered pleased, including a fine side of escarole with just enough pecorino, there were some missing notes. The duck breast scaloppini leaned towards chewy rather than tender.
In keeping with the rest of the menu, desserts are plain spoken but well-crafted. Eyes lit up even at nearby tables when the densely rich chocolate soufflé arrived. More imaginative was the kitchen's take on bread pudding flecked with bits of fruit.
What needs to be tweaked is the service. We poured the wine ourselves, and one busser had the nasty habit of removing plates before all members of the table had finished a course, which leads to an awkward situation. What restaurant wants its patrons to feel uncomfortable?
Customshop is a classic neighborhood restaurant in scale, yet with polished cooking. Too bad the city won't allow sidewalk dining in Elizabeth. This neighborhood begs for perpetually thronged sidewalks. But for now sidewalk strollers (not the kid kind) are enticed into places like Customshop for a glass of wine and elevated munchies -- or stay for good grub.
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