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The Chef Is Inn

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Caffe Siena Trattoria e Barra

When was the last time you visited a hotel restaurant you thought was good enough to write home about? Sure, some of the boutique and resort hotels across the nation, such as the Mansion at Turtle Creek in Dallas, have exceptional restaurants that would remain busy with or without their hotel clientele. However, most restaurants attached to hotels offer fairly standard fare morning, noon and night. In addition, most hotels do not hire talented local chefs to stand at the helm of those kitchens and have them produce a well crafted menu.

But if the hotel chain is Holiday Inn, known more for "kids stay free" than extraordinary dining, the surprise is especially sweet.

Caffe Siena Trattoria e Barra, the restaurant on the College Street level of the Holiday Inn, is indeed something to write about.

The interior of the space has been transformed from the lackluster functional spot it was. Now, a stylish stainless steel-rimmed bar with stainless bar stools greets the eye. The main dining room has hardwood flooring, a keyhole opening into the kitchen and faux finished walls. A side buffet stands at the ready: Remember, this is a hotel restaurant. Tables are set with dark blue linens and trendy white china; the sidewalk patio draws a crowd as well.

But what's notable about Caffe Siena is not the interior work (although it's laudable). What's noteworthy are the rejection of the hotel restaurant's typical bland boarding school food and the hiring of a classically trained French chef with a stellar resume. Mickaël Blais became the Executive Chef at Caffe Siena in April 2005. Blais is known in the Charlotte restaurant community as being one of the top chefs in town (see "Top Toques" in CL's recent Food Issue, June 22, 2005). In his native France, he's worked under the legendary Chef Joël Robuchon at Jamin Restaurant and in the Ritz Hotel and Hotel de Crillon in Paris. Blais moved to New York City in 1998 and worked for legendary chefs Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse. He originally came to Charlotte to work at Bistro 100.

Although known around town for the Basque dishes he introduced at Bistro 100, the current menu at Caffe Siena is primarily Italian with some Mediterranean influences.

In late August, he will unveil a new menu. But no matter what dishes are included on the new menu, Blais fills his palette with flavors. His simplest dishes are expertly seductive. The antipasto for two, for example, is a scrumptious cheap thrill -- only seven bucks. But it includes fresh mozzarella, pristine prosciutto, roasted artichokes and grilled eggplants. The steamed clams and scallops appetizer are bathed in an appealing mix of brash garlic and aromatic basil. An Italian salad of summer tomatoes, housemade mozzarella and powerful red onion is splashed with aromatic basil oil.

After the first wave of grub recedes, the bountiful entrees appear. There are the pasta dishes, of course: four cheese penne, linguini with clams, lasagna with beef and veal, and rigatoni with meatballs. Blais offers steak, chops, chicken dishes and osso buco, too. But better were those dishes with seafood. The angel hair pasta scattered with delicate shrimp bore a heady dose of garlic balanced by basil and tangy goat cheese. The grilled tuna had been marinated in subtle balsamic vinaigrette. The only detraction to this dish was the underlying wilted spinach, which had too earthy a flavor for the tuna.

Even if you think you shouldn't, desserts are a must. There's a tasty tiramisu of which you swear you'll only have one bite -- and then it's gone.

In addition to the well-crafted food, another pleasant surprise at Caffe Siena is the wait staff. They're solicitous and knowledgeable not only about the food, but the wine list as well.

Not many Charlotteans think about going to the Holiday Inn to eat, but Blais hopes to change this perception. It's nice to know, though, that visitors to Charlotte are getting such a bang for their buck. Maybe Charlotte will come to be known as a food town after all.

Eaters' Digest

Trading Spaces: ARPA, once located off the Interstate Tower lobby, has relocated to the larger 129 West Trade Street (formerly Sonoma on the corner of South Church and West Trade). Sonoma Modern is now located on the plaza of the Bank of America Corporate Center, 100 North Tryon. Both restaurants are open for business and have valet parking. In the former ARPA space (121 West Trade) will be Harper's Blue Ribbon Diner, serving lunch and dinner (with plans to soon open for breakfast as well).

Patou French Bistro is moving into the Latta Pavilion (in the space once occupied by Red Star) on East Boulevard. The owners plan to open on August 24.

For those who mark their calendars far in advance: On Monday, November 14, award-winning cheese maker and author Paula Lambert will be Mama Ricotta's guest at a dinner featuring recipes from her book The Cheese Lover's Cookbook and Guide. Mama Ricotta is located at 601 South Kings Drive; phone, 704-343-0148.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? 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 or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via e-mail: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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