The milk bread. HELEN SCHWAB
The milk bread. HELEN SCHWAB

Helen Schwab

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Helen Schwab

Davidson’s Kindred lifting all boats?

Restaurant Writer

December 17, 2015 1:59 PM

Here’s why Kindred will be the first Charlotte-area restaurant to win a James Beard award (for the uninitiated: a national recognition often called the Oscars for restaurants, though that’s problematic, and we’ll touch on why in a minute):

1. Joe Kindred’s food is good. Really good. He manages, for the most part, a difficult feat: sophistication that doesn’t forget to be warm, complexity that doesn’t shout, and simplicity that doesn’t bore. Take the chanterelle mushroom tartine on one fall menu: meaty bits atop a blanket of the creamy fresh cheese called stracciatella, which was itself atop a slab of toast. Occasionally, a bite surprised with bits of cranberry and mint. Lush, nuanced, engaging. He’s improved his food since opening, too, and I expect that to continue.

2. The renovation of this historic Davidson building is inspired. White glass globes light the place, a white-on-white spread of subway tile and marble and woodwork leavened with expanses of brick and reclaimed wood and nailhead-trimmed leathery seating. The look recalls the pharmacy it once was without getting cute (and if you knew it as holder of Tom Clark’s gnomes, the earthy tones will resonate!), and includes small, efficient surprises: The mirror that prevents wrecks for servers bustling among the place’s three floors, for instance.

3. The pump is primed: We’ve had brushes with fame before – see Esquire’s “best new” 2010 (Kalu), 2001 (Upstream) and 1987 (Carolina Country Barbecue!) plus Beard semifinalist placings for Bruce Moffett, his Good Food on Montford, and Mark Hibbs. And we’ve had capable chefs for years before Bon Appetit ranked Kindred seventh nationally among 2015’s new places: I’ve had plenty of dishes here that surpassed food I’ve eaten at Beard winners. (Still, I don’t believe Charlotte should already have a Beard. The problem? Menus – a diner issue more than a chef one. But that’s an opinion for another day.)

4. Kindred’s got that name and a story, perhaps the most salient key to national recognition. That story is easily digestible, if hyphen-ridden: Hard-working couple Joe and Katy, with a deep-rooted passion for restaurateuring (and big-city-studded resumes), come back to his hometown to raise kids, sink savings into the community and offer respectful yet irresistibly tweaked Southern-esque fare.

All of the above is critical.

But here’s why the place actually deserves the attention – and your time, too, as well as the first four-star rating I’ve given in a dog’s age: Service. Not competent service. Exceptional service.

Cue kudos both for the chef and for Katy Kindred, who runs what’s called the front of the house. She’s also a seasoned sommelier, as well as jack of most other restaurant trades.

Service, long undervalued by Charlotte restaurateurs, requires leadership, education, day-in-day-out effort – and esprit de corps. There’s no faking, not for long anyway, the kind of generous teamwork that’s needed.

Here, it shows in consistency and detail, sometimes in the same dish: That milk bread, the complimentary and yeasty remembrance of childhood visits to Southern steakhouses, arrived hot, its dusting of salt intact, every visit.

It shows in tiny gestures: A diner got squirrelly about people knowing it was his birthday. His dessert was delivered silently, with “happy birthday” piped in icing on the plate.

It shows in a logical yet unprecedented (in my experience) extension of care: A diner with a shellfish allergy gets “the shellfish allergy menu”: That night’s dishes, with notes and lines delineating what’s OK and what’s not. You can have the bucatini with miso, egg yolk and black truffle if you skip the Calico Bay scallops that usually accompany them; the pasture-raised chicken with polenta, guanciale and collards has fish sauce in it, so be advised. All clear on the roast pork with shelling bean cassoulet, but skip the squid ink conchiglie completely, with its N.C. shrimp and sea urchin butter.

Servers know dishes, provenances, preparations. They’ve sampled and been taught, and talk about it easily. Popular dishes on the frequently shifting lineup include the milk bread, crispy oysters, delicate gnocchi (in a Thai treatment on my last visit), pork arista (roasted) with a changing cast of sides, those conchiglie (Bon Appetit drooled all over the shell-shaped pasta), duck-fat potatoes with aioli and “chocolate birthday cake” (no, really).

The bar features creativity and a Fernet Branca slushie that also (if that concept isn’t witty enough) is called “Take Two & Call Me Amaro.” (Google, please.) The dessert list includes a cheese cart, and as I sighed at the sight of Époisses, our server noted it wasn’t perfectly ripe. Close enough.

So’s Kindred.

P.S. As for why the Beards-as-Oscars are problematic: People can read it as “best of the year in the world,” judged by those who know. But while all Oscar nominators are pros, and can reasonably see every film, no such parity and unanimity exists in restaurant-ing. Plus, a committee (17 people in 2015) sifts nominees (nearly 40,000 these days) to name semifinalists (about 20 per category), before the 400-plus judges vote. Not parallel.

P.P.S.: If I were Tom Sorensen, I’d be trying to prove how I called Kindred back in January or March. But I, sirs, am (sadly) no Tom Sorensen. So I’ll settle for this... Keep an eye on the Beard nominations, typically out in February. Then watch through March and May, when winners celebrate. You might want to book your table now.

Kindred

Modern Southern cooking in a smart setting with service that’s warmly (or, if you prefer, invisibly) top-notch.

FOOD:

SERVICE:

ATMOSPHERE:

131 N. Main St., Davidson; 980-231-5000; www.kindreddavidson.com.

HITS: Pastas and the milk bread win most of the attention, but I’m a fan of his lamb in many forms, and the deceptively simple vegetables. Think umami.

MISSES: That Epoisses.

PRICES: Lunch about $10-$12, dinner about $13-$21.

HOURS: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

INSPECTION SCORE: 93.5 Sept. 9.

= excellent; = good;= fair; = poor

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