If you keep up with the local food scene, there’s a good chance Hawthorne & Wood is on your radar.
You may have heard that owner/chef Brandon Sharp is a North Carolina native whose 20-year career has taken him all over the country, including a restaurant called Solbar in the Napa Valley, where he racked up seven consecutive Michelin stars as executive chef before returning home to Chapel Hill.
You may even have sampled his wares at Crossroads in the Carolina Inn, where he cooked for a couple of years before setting out on his own. If you did, your mouth is no doubt watering at the prospect of seeing what the chef can do when he’s free to create his own restaurant from scratch.
Or maybe you’ve already been to Hawthorne & Wood. It’s been six months since Sharp opened the restaurant, so you’ve had plenty of opportunity to explore his seasonally evolving, globally inspired menu.
If you rushed in during the first weeks after Hawthorne & Wood opened in April, you may have delighted in the first tender asparagus of the season, in a salad lightly dressed in a fines herbes vinaigrette. You could have followed that with herb-crusted vermilion snapper straight from the fishmongers at Morehead City, served with lemon artichokes and sauce Provençal.
A couple of months later, you would have found Sharp giving the vermilion snapper an entirely different treatment: steamed in a corn husk à la tamale, finished with avocado relish, guajillo-spiked yellow-eye peas and pumpkin seed mojo.
In August, you could have joined the chef in celebrating the summer harvest with a pairing of heirloom cherry tomatoes and diva cucumbers in a vibrant green goddess dressing. Or a Thai-inflected salad of canary melon and watermelon, or a pitch-perfect NC shrimp remoulade draped in translucent-thin slices of mirliton squash.
Seafood accounts for half the entree offerings during the summer, when you could choose among the likes of Morehead City redfish in a coconut-lemongrass broth; bacon-wrapped yellowfin tuna; and seared diver scallops in a kaleidoscopic swirl of sugar snap peas, daikon radish, and crispy cubes of butternut squash sticky cake, glazed with a sour cherry jus.
By early October, fall flavors were beginning to make their way onto the menu. Butternut squash, apple and turnip soup, for starters, punctuated with puffed wild rice and charred poblanos. And pan-roasted duck breast with a palm sugar glaze, served with forbidden rice, cauliflower and Hosui Asian pear. And red quinoa-sweet potato cabbage rolls with apple-miso glazed beets — a vegetarian entree offering that could turn the head of a diehard carnivore.
Clearly, though, the chef’s passion for fresh local seafood knows no season. Just a few weeks ago, you could have landed an exquisite flounder amandine with lemon brown butter, served over haricots verts and pillowy gnocchi Parisienne.
Regardless of the time of year, you can count on a first-rate double cheeseburger, served on a potato brioche bun and topped with a fried pickle spear. You’ll find a few mainstays among the selection of bar snacks, too. That includes signature status-worthy General Tso’s cauliflower with navel orange and bitter greens, and fried Castelvetrano olives that are an addictive companion to any of the bar’s outstanding cocktails or a glass of wine from a small but thoughtfully chosen list.
Three desserts are typically on offer — recently, a flaky-crusted apple galette, a wicked-rich chocolate pot de creme and an elegant take on an ice cream sandwich. They’re a bargain at $6 apiece, or you can get all three for $15. My advice: Go big or go home.
Kitchen miscues are rare, and in my experience can either be chalked up as a near-miss (panisse that didn’t live up to the menu description’s “crispy” promise, in an otherwise excellent vegetarian entree) or a matter of personal taste (I found the chef’s contemporary riff on a Waldorf salad to be overwrought and dominated by blue cheese).
Sharp’s efforts toward making Hawthorne & Wood a worthy dining destination aren’t limited to his impressive culinary skills. Breaking the large space into sections — cozy banquette, large convivial lounge, lavishly landscaped courtyard, all united by a casually elegant contemporary decor — he has created a versatile setting suitable for romantic dinners, celebrations and after-work get-togethers alike.
The chef’s attention to every detail of his restaurant is evident at every turn: chilled dessert plates, mini Etch-a-Sketch pads for kids, a dining room intentionally designed to keep noise levels low enough to carry on a conversation. Just the sort of thoughtful touches you might expect from a chef with seven Michelin stars under his belt.
Hawthorne & Wood
3140 Environ Way, Chapel Hill
Rating: 4 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: casually elegant
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: welcoming and well-trained
Recommended: take your pick
Open: Dinner nightly
Reservations: recommended on weekends
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; wheelchair accessible; parking in lot and parking deck.
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.