CRW Meal 1: Ratcliffe on the Green

Day 1:   Ratcliffe on the Green

To kick off our Charlotte Restaurant Week of dining decadence (after earnest pledges of diligent workouts to hopefully counteract our indulgence), we ventured out on a sweltering evening into the heart of the city for our first experience at Ratcliffe on the Green.  We’d been intrigued for some time by news and accolades regarding Pennsylvania-reared owner and chef Mark Hibbs and his “passionate cuisine,” emphasizing amazingly fresh, locally produced and mostly organic products -- a fitting poster boy for the burgeoning “farm-to-fork” concept.  Hibbs presents his cuisine in one of the city’s most charming dining rooms:  the 1929 Ratcliffe Florist building, a gracious oasis amid the construction cranes, all soaring ceiling, pale yellow walls, Tiffany glass and hushed conversation.

No fewer than three maitre d’s worked the little room, ensuring diners’ happiness in comforting tones.  The crowd veered from 20-something daters, the young ladies looking pretty in their stylish sundresses and slightly intimated by the elegant surroundings, to more mature group tables (staidly) yucking it up, to a 40-ish couple dining with their surprisingly agreeable teenage son.  There were also a few of the apparently now-requisite young men who believe that Rainbows, baggy shorts, and a rumpled, untucked shirt constitute dapper attire for a fine evening out.  Ah, have we grown that old, or has the sense of decorum slipped a bit these days?  Probably exactly what our parents were thinking 30, 40 years ago [shudder].

Although never completely full at any given time, the room’s traffic ebbed and flowed in neatly choreographed seatings.  The confident Hibbs apparently runs a pretty well-oiled machine, as he was able to spend a fair amount of time observing the dining room and chatting with guests.  

In addition to the requisite three courses, Ratcliffe offered several wine and beer specials in honor of the evening, as well as a wine pairing option with the CRW menu for either $15 (first-tier wines) or $24 (second-tier wines) a head.  A nice touch, and a darn good deal as it turned out, with very good wines well-matched with each diner’s courses.

Once Bruce had his pacifier in hand — Grey Goose martini, very dry, up with olives (alas, no blue-cheese stuffing) — we perused the CRW selections, with set salad and dessert courses and three entrée options.  Before we got started on that, however, we just had to try one of the signature apps, ordering the intriguing Eight-Piece Quail Bucket.  The dainty little birds from Manchester Farms actually arrived in a paper-lined cup, battered and lightly fried, and sided by slap-yo-mama rosemary gravy worthy of drinking straight out of the ramekin and two airy buttermilk biscuits, another signature item.  So there we sat, looking couth in our posh surroundings, gnawing on fried bird straight out of greasy fingers and sopping our biscuits in gravy.  Heaven.

We recovered our dignity in time for the pleasant surprise of a bonus amuse bouche — a tiny teacup of gazpacho, cool and refreshing with the slightest spicy kick.  Then came the salad course, organic mixed greens tossed in a vibrant basil blossom vinaigrette and paired with an appropriately light Pinot Grigio.  More biscuits, accompanied by honey butter, appeared on our bread plates.  We struggled to enunciate the “don’t fill up on bread” mantra with our mouths full of buttermilk dough.

For an entree, I chose the meaty Carolina monkfish, served with creamy goat cheese risotto and tender Roma beans in a roasted tomato sauce and paired with a Reisling.  Bruce opted for roasted Prestige Farms chicken breast (while trying to recall the last time he’d ordered chicken in a white-tablecloth restaurant), dished up juicy and tender with a grit cake and veggie medley of baby squash, okra, and more of that rosemary gravy.  This dish called for a Chablis.  There was also a vegetarian entrée option; although the menu here is quite fluid, Hibbs indicated this CRW menu would stand as is for the whole week.

One youthful couple nearby, who we would pretty much swear originally came for the CRW deal, got swept away by the luscious-sounding menu of Southern-tinged haute cuisine and traded up for Hibb’s tasting menu of five courses (there’s a seven-course option as well).  They seemed thrilled with their inspired decision and got a case of the giggles when their server informed them that the monkfish with which they were previously unacquainted but currently happily devouring was, in life, a “really ugly fish.”

Dessert started with glasses of fruity blanc de noir sparkling wine.  Then the ubiquitous biscuits made an encore appearance — still welcome — residing on a rich but not too sweet stew of peaches, nectarines and blackberries from Fruit Bat Produce (love the name) and topped with fresh whipped cream.  Perfect summer-meal ending.

‘Twas a well-behaved crowd and evening all around — we encountered no celebrities, drunks, super models (although Bruce thought there were a couple of candidates), or people we knew.  After adding the martini and quail bucket at $12 each, and the second-tier wine flights for $24 per person, our invoice with tip came to $170.  As we left, the night was now quite pleasant, with folks ambling contentedly about and even sitting on the lovely Green just outside.  Get ready, Mark:  we’ll be back for that seven-course tasting menu.

Bruce and Jill Hensley are partners in the firm Hensley/Fontana. They launched the first Charlotte Restaurant Week, which runs through July 18. They're dining out each night and will be blogging about their experiences for Read past entries here.