All of these strategies have merit, yet the third option is made more difficult if the original concept has an ethnically oriented cuisine since patrons tend to categorize. Would readers accept Stephen King writing in Tolkien's genre? Could Krall sing rap? Unlike writers, chefs cannot assume a nom de plume if they want to venture into another genre. But excellence always shows through, no matter what the venue or style.
And that's what's happened at Nolen Kitchen and Crescent Bar Lounge, the latest venture to set up shop in tony Myers Park. This space in Selwyn Corners Shopping Center has been host to a whole lot of restaurants -- most recently an ill-advised concept that had as its only saving grace a funky interior design by Carrie Frye of Narmour Wright Creech Architecture. She had created an urbane feel that now has been enhanced by the new owners.
The 118-seat Nolen Kitchen and Crescent Bar Lounge is owned by chefs Stratos Lambos and Angelo Kaltsounis under the newly formed Stratos Restaurant Group. These chefs also own Ilios Noche, a small, stylish south Charlotte restaurant featuring a creative take on Greek cuisine. Lambos and Kaltsounis decided upon two names to give a more sophisticated feel. Nolen Kitchen is named for John Nolen, the Harvard-trained landscape architect and planner who designed Myers Park in 1911, while Crescent Bar Lounge evokes a feeling of the South.
The renovated lounge is friendly and very sexy. Crescent sports a custom-poured concrete aggregate bar top with embedded amber glass and mother of pearl, while more soft-seating is clustered around the fireplace. The color palate is crimson, brown and amber. Nolen's large patio is oh-so Myers Park in the summer -- golf shirts and khakis, Aldo flip flops and low-cut designer pants. The dining room has a long, ambiguously hued banquette, which provides excellent seating for the continuous on-stage service show. No exposed kitchen here. Servers come in and out of a swinging door presenting dishes.
Chef Lambos splits his time between Ilios Noche and Nolen, and it's hard to see where his sympathies lie since both kitchens are cranking out excellence. Kaltsounis, who also had been working at his family's east Charlotte restaurant, the Landmark, has been on board full time with both restaurants since January.
Nolen's Executive Chef is Joe Morrison, who worked the line at award-winning Chef Charlie Palmer's Aureole in Manhattan with Lambos and Kaltsounis, both graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY. Aureole is known as being a landmark restaurant in introducing New Yorkers to his signature "Progressive American Cuisine," featuring seasonal dishes. "I don't want to call the cuisine at Nolen Kitchen 'modern American' but it is American continental food with a touch of Asian," noted Lambos.
The menu is buoyantly uncomplicated: steamed mussels; Buffalo shrimp with celery and blue cheese; fried clams with aïoli; Kobe sliders with malted mayo; veal meatloaf with whipped potatoes, haricot vert and baby carrots; and the duck duo -- a breast with foie gras.
The lesson enjoyed by gourmands at Nolen Kitchen is that these uncomplicated dishes with only a few ingredients are perfectly balanced and create flavors that are lucid and compelling. Velvety potato raviolis become more delicious with caramelized onions and apple compote. Skewered cubes of marinated lamb are offset by a minty yogurt. Salads are offered in "petite" and "large" sizes. A peppery arugula is paired with candied walnuts and Manchego cheese shaved thin as silk stockings, while the house salad maintains a Greek identity (feta, cucumber).
Entrées show off the kitchen even better. A butter poached lobster contrasts the clean clarity of the sea when paired with the subtle earthiness of truffle risotto and English peas. The seared diver scallops have almost an ethereal sense of airiness so unpredicted of the sea.
Desserts are stupefying, refreshing and utterly elegant. Schooled pastry master Frank Kaltsounis (brother of Angelo) proves, once again, that his creations are second to none in this city. Kaltsounis produces Nolen's "custom sweets" roster. Whether it's the chocolate pistachio cake with "warm chocolate soup" or apple cobbler vividly enhanced by salted caramel ice cream, Kaltsounis' combinations are astonishing. One of his most popular desserts at Nolen (he is also the pastry chef at Ilios) is the strawberry rhubarb shortcake with pink peppercorn ice cream. That's right, pink peppercorn ice cream. Strawberry shortcake won't ever be this exciting again.
If Lambos and Kalsounis had debuted in Myers Park, more folks would know about them, but lucky for the folks in Ballantyne and Weddington that they started with them. With two hits under their belts, what is this talented twosome planning for an encore? Lambos said that they are -- oops -- can't tell you yet. But stay tuned.
To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.