Review

City Kitchen takes the American brasserie to new heights

CorrespondentDecember 26, 2012 

  • City Kitchen 201 S. Estes Drive, in University Mall, Chapel Hill 919-928-8200, citykitchenchapelhill.com Cuisine: eclectic Rating: *** Prices: $$$ Atmosphere: vibrant, dramatic Noise level: moderate to high Service: attentive and eager to please Recommended: lamb sausages, trout, bouillabaisse, desserts Open: Lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: suggested Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot. The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *   *  *  *  Extraordinary  *  *  *  Excellent.  *  *  Above average. *   Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Dear Giorgios Bakatsias:

The last time I wrote to you, as you may recall, was in spring 2003. It was a fan letter of sorts, expressing my admiration for your varied and prolific contribution to the local restaurant scene. Even back then, you had already given us nearly a dozen restaurants by my reckoning, from the original Café Giorgios that gave Cary its first taste of contemporary Mediterranean cuisine in the late ’80s to Vin Rouge, which continues to set the local standard for a French bistro.

But the main reason for my letter was to review Spice Street, which you’d opened a few months earlier in Chapel Hill’s University Mall. I found a number of dishes appealing, but felt the menu lacked focus. And the dining room – a cavernous, multipurpose space that incorporated (among other things) an olive market and a coffee-and-tea shop – was downright disorienting.

Savvy restaurateur that you are, you refined the concept over time. Spice Street enjoyed a healthy run of nearly a decade.

Now you’ve taken a bigger, more decisive step: You’ve closed Spice Street and opened City Kitchen in its place. It’s a step in the right direction, without completely abandoning the trail blazed by its predecessor.

The remodeled dining room is certainly easier to navigate, now that the space has been pared down a bit and the main dining room broken into two smaller spaces. With colorful collages of iconic historical figures by noted local artist Louis St. Lewis vying for attention with towering trumpet-shaped pendant lights (a Spice Street holdover), the restaurant’s decor won’t disappoint Bakatsias fans.

A pair of prominently placed communal tables reinforce City Kitchen’s billing as an “American Brasserie,” as do copious chalkboards covered with daily specials, small plate offerings and the obligatory outline drawings of farm animals.

I must say, Mr. Bakatsias, it looks like you’ve found a promising culinary talent in R.L. Boyd. A local boy who graduated from Johnson & Wales in Charleston, S.C., Boyd worked at Fearrington House and Il Palio before setting out to expand his horizons in restaurants from Dallas to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. He returned home to take over as executive chef at City Kitchen.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the American brasserie concept allows chef Boyd considerable creative leeway. Of course, I imagine you provided a few guidelines. The flavors of your native Greece and neighboring Mediterranean cuisines are woven throughout the menu, from a starter pot of mussels in a garlicky white wine broth to crisp-crusted flatbread pizzas to yogurt-marinated chicken kebabs to juice-spurtingly toothsome grilled lamb sausages.

Your fans won’t be surprised to learn that lamb frequently turns up on the chalkboard, too. Recently, the lamb special took the form of two double chops, crusted with garlic and rosemary, and served over roasted potatoes with pesto cream and a drizzle of pomegranate molasses. It’s a worthy dish, but you might consider directing the wait staff to inform customers that it will set them back $35. That’s more than twice the price of the average entree.

That still leaves plenty of creative room for Boyd to play with, and the young chef takes full advantage of the opportunity. On the appetizer list alone, he serves up an offering whose flavors span the globe, from sea scallops a la plancha with an orange-fennel salad to wok-fried ribs with a cola-Sriracha glaze.

By and large, Boyd’s food is as exciting on the plate as it is on the seasonally changing menu. Those alluringly tall, cylindrical crab cakes can on occasion be marred by a spongy, overworked texture or an underdone crust. But fried oysters are reliably succulent under a delicate crust.

The hickory-smoked pork chop on the entree list comes close to the mark, its only flaw a tendency to being overcooked. But unless you’re a stickler for authenticity, I can’t imagine anyone finding fault with the bouillabaisse. And the pan-fried butterflied river trout is simply one of the best things I’ve put in mouth in recent memory. No question about it, Mr., Bakatsias, your man has a way with seafood.

I’ll confess I never understood how sushi fit into the Spice Street concept, and I still don’t get it with City Kitchen. Don’t get me wrong, the sushi is solid as far as it goes – a decided notch above what you’ll get at a BOGO joint (and priced accordingly). And I’m told that sushi was one of Spice Street’s most popular attractions. Veteran restaurateur that you are, I’m sure you know the importance of not messing with success.

Speaking of success: Where, may I ask, did you find pastry chef Isabel Dominguez? Figuratively speaking, of course. I know she’s originally from Mexico City and has been working with your restaurant group for the past six years. But her vanilla ginger crème brûlée? Wow. And her Granny Smith apple cheesecake? Wow again.

Hope I haven’t run on too long. With 11 restaurants in the Giorgios Group, I’m sure you’re a busy man. And no doubt you’re even now dipping into your seemingly bottomless well of ideas for new restaurants to add to the fold.

Just thought you’d like to know I think City Kitchen is a solid addition. Judging by the crowds when I’ve visited, I don’t think I’m the only one.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service