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In the bank

Converted space provides respite in Matthews

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What exactly is "small-town charm"? In the Charlotte area, where so much of the past has been eviscerated from neighborhoods and surrounding communities by bulldozers and wrecking balls, towns like Matthews and Davidson have a singular appeal. While developers have tried to recreate small-town charm in places like Birkdale, the result always seems Disneyesque and contrived. Without history there is no magic.

While not all of Matthews has survived, a small stretch on Trade Street has historic buildings. And at least one business, the venerable Renfrow Hardware, has been operating since 1900 when Matthews was a small farming and cotton community and Charlotte was a train ride away. With newly developed tracks of land to the south of Matthews, nearby residents look to the center for restaurants and entertainment. This summer, in fact, Matthews will accentuate its small-town appeal by hosting a summer concert and movie series in Stumptown Park.

Last winter marked an addition to Matthews' covey of locally owned restaurants. In February, Gado Gado Restaurant opened in a building that had been designed for a bank branch. Converting real estate from one use to another typically requires imagination and a lot of cash. Frequently, these upfits are weird hybrids failing to negate the original purpose and, in the case of a restaurant, still having the aura of a church, or a fast food joint, or a bank.

But not here. In a process that took 16 months, co-owners George Poriotis and Dora Lai have succeeded in converting a bank into a quaint 98-seat restaurant with a remarkable 100-seat patio located in the former drive-thru area, blissfully far removed from the manic city. The interior -- still featuring dental moldings -- has been given a coat of subdued paint. Cunning illumination draws attention to the eatery's collection of vibrant abstract art by Spiros Papanikas whose work was shown at the Mint Museum and Queens University in 1990.

Gado Gado is the first restaurant venture for Athenian native Poriotis, who has lived in Charlotte on and off since 1973. Before opening his restaurant, Poriotis was an Italian- and Greek-wine distributor and before that a real estate broker. Partner Lai, a native of Hong Kong, worked in restaurant operations in Shun Le Palace.

Gado Gado is named for a restaurant Poriotis and Lai visited while vacationing in Indonesia. In fact, Poriotis noted that the Indonesian Gado Gado was suggested as an alliance. The term Gado-gado refers to a national Indonesian dish, a salad that manifests differently throughout Indonesia. A typical dish might have long beans, potatoes, cabbage, bean sprouts, hard boiled eggs, a crispy shrimp-flavored cracker called krupuk and then drizzled with a peanut sauce that's been punched up with chili paste.

With its namesake an Asian dish and with owners from Greece and China, one might assume that Gado Gado's menu would be eclectic. This would be wrong. Poriotis describes his menu as "American bistro food with a Mediterranean influence." OK. In other words, this kitchen is preparing the safe-bet cuisine of the moment. Thus the get-right-to-it clarity of the 11-item entrée menu includes grilled steaks, grilled fish and paella. That's pretty standard, worry-proof stuff.

A perfection of a crab cake appetizer arrives heady with delicious morsels of the sea, while another starter, the tuna niçoise, rather odd in its translation of less French and more urbane, is heightened by a pomegranate sauce over thin slices of rare tuna and accompanied with a side saddle of chopped olives corralled by a thin slice of cucumber. The lightly dressed arugula salad is balanced by caramelized apples, but jarred with overly crisped prosciutto while the Caesar was mechanical. Surprisingly, the namesake Gado-gado entrée was disappointing. Rather than a spunky peanut sauce, olive oil highlighted the grilled vegetables and a timbale of rice, flavored only by English peas, added nothing. A better bet is the precisely grilled New York Strip steak.

The wine list is focused, offering a handpicked selection of wines by the glass and bottles. Service can be an issue, ranging from hovering to absent; however, the elegance of the space triumphs over the awkward pacing of the meal. Dinner entrées range from $16 to $23 for a filet mignon. The lunch menu is more straightforward, cheaper and includes sandwiches, including a burger and a shrimp po' boy; paninis; and entrées, such as seafood linguine and a vegetable lasagna.

Happily for Poriotis and Lai, their gamble has been fruitful, and many Matthews residents have found their way to Gado Gado. Indeed for these knockout May evenings when people want to expose those newly sun-kissed shoulders, a glass of wine on the patio at the refashioned Gado Gado is one way to celebrate spring in a small town.

Eaters' Digest is back on a bi-monthly basis. Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine events? To contact Tricia, send information via e-mail (no attachments, please).

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