The first thing to catch your eye is the enormous wagon wheel, repurposed as a chandelier, hanging from the high wooden rafters. Then you take in other details: pendant lights fashioned from box graters over the long bar, fire burning in a massive stone fireplace, exposed brick walls, sturdy wood beams, wide plank floor.
Some of these features are the legacy of the ca. 1917 Tobacco and Mule Exchange building, the converted warehouse that has been home to Scratch Kitchen & Taproom since the restaurant opened in September. But the overwhelming effect of the additions is to reinforce the rustic Americana vibe, tempered only slightly by a few contemporary canvases on the walls and a bank of TV screens over the bar. Just looking around you, you’re pretty sure you can guess what’s on the menu before you even open it.
Then your waiter sets a small dish in front of you. On the dish are warm moistened washcloths — the kind you’re sometimes given at a sushi bar for wiping your hands before the meal. It’s a thoughtful touch, but now you’re not sure what’s in store. Pub fare? Or Asian?
Both, as it turns out, and often a fusion of the two. The menu is all over the map, both literally and figuratively, merrily traipsing from fish and chips to General Tso’s cauliflower to shrimp and grits.
With separate sections devoted to burgers, bowls and mac and cheese variations in addition to the traditional appetizer and entree categories, the extensive menu is an ambitiously broad undertaking. The kitchen is up to the challenge, by and large, though misfires are frequent enough to suggest they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.
House-smoked pimento cheese wontons, neatly arrayed like an armada of sailboats on a river of red pepper jam running the length of a long rectangular platter, are a delightful starter. So are pork belly bites, with a Thai-chili hoisin glaze playing counterpoint to the crispy-chewy cubes of porky goodness.
The California Round is more than respectable. You’ll find a play on a sushi roll reimagined as a molded cylinder of “krab” salad in spicy mayo atop a crispy rice cake, capped with a couple of tempura shrimp. Okra poppers are marred only by the fact that the whole pods tend to slip out of their crunchy casing.
A smoked tomato and spinach salad, on the other hand, with a warm candied ginger-bacon dressing and delicately crisp fritters of creamed feta, is an unqualified success. (Those cherry tomatoes don’t look smoked, but just wait until you taste them!)
Things get a little dicier when you venture outside the appetizer selection.
If you order one of the more elaborate burgers — the Kitchen Sink, say, with Black Forest ham, thyme-and-red onion mayo, NC hoop cheese, candied bacon, shoestring potatoes and fried green tomato — you might not even notice that the burger itself doesn’t appear to have been seasoned at all. The flaw was all too evident when I ordered the Apex burger (lettuce, tomato and pickled onion) one night. Given a chance to make amends on a subsequent visit, the burger once again lacked seasoning.
Entrees, too, are a hit-or-miss proposition. The chicken was dry — even the dark meat — in the cast iron chicken entree I ordered recently. Not as dry, though, as the pulled pork and black-eyed peas (yes, both) in the BBQ Bowl. Or the mac and cheese I ordered as a side on another occasion (available as a $2 upcharge, though it isn’t listed as a side dish option). Let’s just say I was glad I hadn’t splurged on the $23 main course offering of lobster mac and cheese.
But the shrimp and grits are a keeper. That’s tempura-battered shrimp, mind you, with stone-ground cheese grits and a miso-ginger garlic sauce. So are the fish and chips, as long as you’re not persnickety about authenticity (that’s a Panko crust on those fingers of haddock). Sesame salmon, nicely seared and filmed with a well-matched (and mercifully not overwhelming) mirin-soy glaze is better still, garnished with a sprinkle of black and white sesame seeds.
It’s tempting to say that seafood is the kitchen’s strong suit, though instinct tells me execution would improve across the board if the menu were pared down somewhat.
That said, the place has been busy every time I’ve been there, and I wouldn’t bet against success over the long haul. Scratch Kitchen is run by veteran restaurateurs Jeff and Meredith Kromenhoek, who operated a variety of restaurants (including Mexican, fresh local seafood, and Latin-Asian fusion) on Saint Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands before moving to Holly Springs in 2017.
For their first venture in these parts, the couple teamed up with Jonathan and Maggie Pierce, owners of The Mason Jar Tavern and Mason Jar Lager Co. (whose brews you’ll find among the two dozen draft beers on offer at Scratch Kitchen — served in Mason jars, naturally). Given their combined track records, I wouldn’t bet against them.
Scratch Kitchen & Taproom
225 Salem St., Apex
Cuisine: American-Asian fusion with a Southern accent
Rating: 2 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: rustic Americana, family-friendly
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: pleasant, can get overwhelmed
Recommended: pimento cheese wontons, smoked tomato and spinach salad, shrimp and grits, sesame salmon
Open: Lunch Tuesday-Sunday, dinner nightly
Reservations: not accepted
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in lot behind the restaurant.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.