Seafood restaurants in Charlotte tend to fall into two categories: those with atmosphere (and pricey wine lists, fashionable cocktails and fish-cloaking tendencies) and those glaringly without. In the latter are the Carolina fish camps with large picnic tables, and mounds of fried or broiled fish -- usually white. The former category has been slowly growing in Charlotte, and these menus frequently feature more appealing, renamed fish: Chilean sea bass for Patagonian toothfish and lemonfish for Cobia. While countless chef-driven, locally owned restaurants have always carried fish on their menu, few have dedicated themselves strictly to fish.
Last August, another fish house, albeit a chain -- if two makes a chain -- entered Charlotte. GW Fins, (named for co-owner, Gary Wollerman) opened its first store in 2001 in New Orleans. Wollerman had served as vice president and chief operating officer of Ruth's Chris Steak House, but when founder Ruth Fertel sold in 1999, Wollerman went out on his own. From Ruth's, Chris Wollerman learned the value of a well-honed menu and the right kind of sinkable seating that often only the highest-end steak houses offer.
Charlotte's GW Fins is located on the fringe of downtown proper, on 9th Street. Surprisingly, that side of Tryon has not been infected with the towering condo craze seen at the other end of the street. According to General Manager Marin Wollerman, daughter of the owner, the upfit, which took about 10 months, included moving the front door to the west side of the building by the valet drop-off, and the bar was relocated from the garden side to the towering glass fronting Tryon Street.
Fins' atmospheric stage is set with watery blues, grays and posh waving booths. In the enclosed kitchen is a chef's table for up to 10 with a $85 per person prix fixe menu of eight to nine courses ($40 more per person if paired with wine).
The executive chef of both GW Fins is co-owner Tenney Flynn. He, too, had been with Ruth's Chris Steak House as director of culinary operations. Fins' menu, changing with the availability of seafood, is designed by him. In Charlotte the menu is performed by chef Jeff Oliveri, who was an executive banquet manager at Disney's Epcot Center before coming to Charlotte. In addition to fish is a 12-ounce rib eye and wood-grilled chicken. But then who comes to a fish house for steak?
Fish is broken down in the kitchen, once a rarity in Charlotte -- now almost ho-hum. Marin Wollerman noted that they always have a few seasonal selections from the Carolina coast and there is much from which to choose. Start with the floats of lobster dumplings with shaved fennel, and you'll notice Flynn's penchant for smooth finishes. There it is again in a truffle vinaigrette on a mission fig and prosciutto salad. Whimsically, he dots his Caesar salad with softer polenta crotons rather than the hardened bread bits. Nice touch.
There are only a few nods to their Cajun roots here. The seafood gumbo with a wondrous roux base is deliciously indulgent. As for another New Orleans classic: I'm never sure why blackened foods occur on any menu, much less one that also has a wine list. Shouldn't some of the ideas of the 1980s -- like big hair and shoulder pads -- remain memories, not memorialized on a menu? So skip the blackened grouper and order the sautéed Gulf snapper bathed in a gentle lobster butter resting on a shrimp etouffee and nestled with a twirl of mashed potatoes. You won't be sorry.
Timing is everything, especially at a seafood restaurant. Why not go mid-May until mid-June when the Copper River king salmon is in-house? Alaska's Copper River produces a cult-followed, highly flavored salmon that consistently brings in top dollar. At Fins, this salmon was stylishly plated, but the mango salsa counterpoint was jarred by bits of jalapeno.
From Thursday through Saturday, Fins offers live music and nothing makes gumbo taste smoother than the cool strains from Ron Brendel's bass. We were lucky to catch him one night.
A little forewarning by our server would have lessened our 20 minute wait for the flawless apple pie. This is baked to order and should be ordered at the beginning for the end of the meal. Another server, however, who issued the just-baked biscuits (they come out every 10 minutes) came by our table so often that she left a small take-home box with my dining companion who just couldn't get enough of them. We love her for that.
Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine events? To contact Tricia, send information via e-mail (no attachments, please).