For those who live in Ballantyne, a place with a culturally confusing feel and thus a growing list of restaurant road kill, chowing options have expanded recently. A pair of enterprising brothers, Tim and Jay Duffy, opened the 135-seat Blackthorne Restaurant & Bar last January. This is the Duffys' first restaurant venture, although they have lived in Ballantyne for 10 years.
Venison Meatloaf (photo by Natrice Bullard)
Blackthorne's entrance sports a carving of its namesake, an Irish blackthorn tree renowned for its wood used to make Irish shillelaghs (walking sticks). The blackthorn tree also produces a small berry called sloe, famous for flavoring gin (and the primary ingredient of the sloe gin fizz soon to be found here).
Even though it has been opened only four months, Blackthorne has many of the trappings of an old-shoe neighborhood joint. The interior has a comfortable vibe with dark wood tables, oversized light fixtures and tiled glass and brick walls. The dining room is a mix of booths, including one for a large party, and tables. Blackthorne is cozy, but the stretch of windows in the dining room face head-in parking, the perpetual problem for restaurateurs in strip shopping centers. The interior bar is a genial space offering a selection of 10 drafts — eight from North Carolina and most of those local — cocktails and a culled wine list. In addition to the side patio, the Duffys have created a suburban retreat on the roof: a 100-seat patio bar.
At the helm in the kitchen in the role of executive chef is Mark Hibbs (chef-owner of the now-defunct Ratcliffe on the Green), who is known locally for his culinary adventurousness and passion for great raw material — aka local foods. Expect a mingling of farm-market sensibility with creative technique. Also expect the menu to change seasonally.
Blackthorne's kitchen abounds in whimsy. Take the inventive quail dish on the starter list. A small aluminum bucket is filled with diminutive bird pieces. You forget how small a quail leg is since quails are typically served whole or halved. Doll-house sized wings and drumettes are gulped down in a few bites. Even when sided with small angel biscuits, this dish offers only a wee hunger reprieve. Better are the crostini with succulent slices of duck breast slathered with a caramelized onion and cranberry.
Salads, with their delicate just picked flavor intact, are a strong suit. Entrées, though, are the deal. A hefty braised lamb shank is zestily married to a barley and mushrooms mix. Notably, the barley alone elevates this dish. The blue-plate-special star, though, is the densely flavored venison meatloaf enveloped in smoky essence of bacon. When familiar dishes are finessed rather than wrenched into innovation, the result is memorable.
Unlike many neighborhood eateries without a pastry chef in the kitchen, the desserts — while not novel — provide the appropriate American sweetness to end the evening. This roster includes artisan chocolates from neighboring Think Chocolate, a chocolate shop; and a bread pudding made more interesting in a puddle of whiskey anglaise. This humble dessert outshines the fussier tiramisu heavily dusted with cocoa powder.
Entrée prices — for these economic times — occasionally wander boldly into the low $20-price range. But then on some weekend evenings, there is not a table to be had.
Blackthorne Restaurant & Bar
11318 North Community House Road in the Ballantyne Corners Shopping Center, 704-817-5554. Hours: 11 a.m. to close (kitchen closes at 9 p.m. weekdays, later on weekends. Late-night bar menu available). Live music Saturday nights. Saturday and Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. www.blackthornerestaurant.com.