Dining review: Enticing contemporary Southern menu at Carolina 1663

CorrespondentJanuary 2, 2014 

  • Carolina 1663

    One Europa Drive, in the Sheraton Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill


    Cuisine: Contemporary Southern

    Rating:* * * 

    Prices: $$$

    Atmosphere: Spartanly furnished business hotel dining room

    Noise level: Low to moderate

    Service: Hit-or-miss

    Recommended: Calamari steak, black-eyed pea hummus, chicken and dumplings, pumpkin cheesecake

    Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily

    Reservations: Accepted

    Other: Full bar; accommodates children; limited 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.

With apologies to William Shakespeare: A rose by any other name may indeed smell as sweet, but if you’re a trying to build a customer base for a restaurant, it’s generally best to stick with just one name. If you’re a large hotel chain, it wouldn’t hurt to have your legal department research the name before you open. Then be sure it’s a catchy name.

At least that’s my theory as to why, when I visited Carolina 1663 nearly six months after it opened last summer in the Sheraton Chapel Hill, the dining room was nearly empty. Both times. And one of them was a Saturday night.

For its first few weeks of existence, the restaurant was called One Blue Hill. Only after opening did management discover a possible legal challenge from another restaurant with a similar name.

Hence the no-doubt-hurried search for an alternative: Carolina 1663, a name that – while commendable as a tribute to the Charter of 1663 granting the land that would eventually become North Carolina – doesn’t exactly stand out in a town where it’s hard to think of a more commonplace word than “Carolina.”

It certainly can’t be the food that’s keeping people away. Executive chef Ches McLane, a veteran of more than 30 years in restaurants and hotels from Santa Fe to Chicago to Knoxville, has developed an enticing contemporary Southern menu that promises to give substance to the restaurant’s historic name. The kitchen delivers on that promise, with an occasional memorable dish rising above the generally solid execution.

The chef’s modern riff on classic chicken and dumplings is a prime example. Substitute potato gnocchi for the dumplings, and a light, fresh thyme-scented sauce for the gravy. Then top it off with crisp-tender asparagus tips, bright green peas and a moist pan-seared breast of Ashley Farms chicken, and you’ve got a dish that is sure to delight all but the most diehard traditionalist.

An airline breast of chicken given the Southern-fried treatment could even win over the traditionalist. Nor would anyone likely object to shrimp and grits, punched up with a savory smorgasbord of smoked sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes and bacon. Braised beef short ribs served over mashed Yukon gold potatoes and roasted root vegetables, then topped with gorgonzola crumbles, while not strictly Southern, should satisfy any meat-and-potatoes yearnings.

Crab cakes, made with a generous portion of traditionally seasoned jumbo lump crabmeat and pan-fried to a lacy-crusted turn, are a fine starter option. They’d be even better if they were mixed with a careful hand that left more of those sweet lumps intact.

Even the most persnickety of palates shouldn’t have any quibbles with black-eyed pea hummus, dense as a spreadable paté and served with house-made icebox pickles. OK, maybe he’ll complain that the hummus is so addictive that he ran out of warm pita wedges for spreading. Another starter features cilantro- and lime-marinated grilled calamari steaks in a presentation that stretches the boundaries of “Southern” all the way to the chef’s native Texas. It is without question one of the most surprising dishes on the menu. It’s also one of the best.

The grilled rib-eye, of all things, can also be surprising. Unfortunately, the surprise is not a good one. The beef is grass-fed, which is notoriously unforgiving of even the moderate overcooking that the one I ordered was subjected to. This was the only out-and-out disappointment I encountered over the course of two visits, and it may well be an anomaly. To be on the safe side, you might consider ordering your steak a notch less done than you normally do.

On the other hand, you can be confident of ending your meal on a happy note with any of chef McLane’s house-made desserts. Pumpkin cheesecake, say, prettily served in a Ball jar. Or a sweet tea pie made with strong brewed orange pekoe tea and a splash of lemon.

Of course, it’s possible that Carolina 1663’s name is not the only factor contributing to those empty dining rooms. Service, for one, can be hit or miss. And, apart from a few black-and-white photos of famous North Carolina personalities and historic events near the entrance, the dining room’s sparse furnishings make for an uninviting setting, even by business hotel restaurant standards.

Some artwork to cover those bare frosted glass windows would warm up the place considerably. A few potted plants wouldn’t hurt, either.

Chef McLane says management has substantially increased the advertising budget for next year. Good idea, because nobody I’ve spoken to has even heard of Carolina 1663.

Maybe they could ante up a few dollars for decorating, too. Then, who knows, if the wait staff gets up to speed, maybe enough people will discover the food to make Carolina 1663 a name that everyone remembers. or

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