Gado’s Got It
The impulse to take a risk and open this downtown Matthews spot proves to be a great decision for the owners -- and patrons
157 N. Trade St., Matthews
$$-$$$ L, D, FSB, P, R. Closed Sun.
Of all the things to agree to do after a few bottles of good wine, opening a restaurant ranks somewhere between spelunking at night and base jumping. It can be dark as hell and a free fall for sure, but in the right hands the restaurant business can also be thrilling. That thrill, however evasive, is palpable at Gado Gado (GAH-doh GAH-doh), and neophyte owners George Poriotis and Dora Lai are still in the throes of it. Good for them. Weaker folk would have ripped up the wine-soaked napkin the next morning and gone back to work. It's the dumbest thing I've ever heard, but I respect the decision immensely — on the chutzpah alone. Oh, and, by the way, they happen to be turning out brilliant food.
Jon Luther's Favorite Dishes
Key Lime Pie
"This is my first restaurant…and my last," says Poriotis, winking. He means that — aside from all it does for one's ego — opening a restaurant is a mammoth pain in the ass and a completely irresponsible business move. But that really doesn't seem to be bothering Poriotis and Lai, because the place is, at the moment, bustling. The ample space, which was formerly a stable and then a bank, had been vacant for seven years. But now, aided by a creative renovation by the current owners, it may forever be a restaurant.
Glowing beams of late-afternoon sun shine through large windows, illuminating the front of the restaurant and the twelve-seat black-stone bar near the entrance. The bar menu features a small but formidable wine list, martinis, and cocktails. Try the foamy pomegranate margarita, ($7.95) a refreshing squeeze on the classic with top-shelf booze and a fruity, tart finish. A further revelation is the huge, if underutilized, brick and concrete patio that overlooks downtown Matthews. Gado Gado seats about 120 in the roomy main dining room and the more private side rooms. It is comfortable and quiet, save for the occasional clanging of glasses, china, and flatware, which could be remedied easily by the addition of tablecloths. Lunch is served Monday through Saturday with a selection of salads, sandwiches, and paninis, but the real attraction is dinner. The menu is well designed, but is riddled with typos and could use a little wordsmithing to better capture the essence of the Mediterranean/American offerings. (For example, there is a "Land and Air" section that features flightless fowl.)
For me, a good barometer of kitchen talents is the way they execute the staples. Like the ubiquitous spinach and artichoke dip ($8) — here it is light, creamy, and pleasingly vegetal with a nice, lemony finish, not clumpy and oily like it is other places. The crab cake ($8) is perfect — crispy outside and tender inside, with morsels of fresh blue crab swirling together with a tangy lemon caper aioli. A peppery arugula salad is snappily dressed with a basil vinaigrette, crisp fried prosciutto, and creamy goat cheese. Mussels are freshly steamed, fragrant, and delicious. A quick nod to proper portions: too many places load you up early with flavorless bread and overwrought first-course productions. Chef Jeremy Gorman clearly understands the concept of the appetizer. First courses should (and do here) consist of just a few bites to intrigue and entice the guest. It also allows larger groups to order a few dishes to share. Well done, Chef.
Among the second courses, a red snapper special ($22) is gorgeous with perfectly cooked fish arriving cloaked in a well-balanced and quite complementary orange beurre blanc sauce. Paella ($19) is simple yet elegant, with fresh peas and saffron rice along with succulent clams, shrimp, and mussels that burst with color first, then flavor. A New York strip ($23) is workable, but the attraction at this restaurant is not steak. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Like the Gado Gado. One of two vegetarian entrées, this is the restaurant's signature, named after a dish found in Indonesia. It is an earthy mélange of marinated and grilled vegetables featuring fennel, squash, zucchini, and red peppers and is served as an entrée with spinach and Spanish rice. I suppose it also helps that the Matthews farmers market, south Charlotte's best, is across the street, providing easy access to the best in-season produce. A standout among desserts is the house-made key lime pie. It's sweet, tart, and appropriately limey, served well chilled on a buttery graham cracker crust.
Reflecting on my visits to Gado Gado, I find myself grinning at the sheer folly of it all. We will probably never know exactly what transpired the night Poriotis and Lai were cajoled into opening Gado Gado. I'm sure the story gets more fantastic each time it is told. But owning and operating a successful restaurant is no dalliance. It is serious business, and it is clear Poriotis and Lai are driven. They have a competent and proud kitchen staff that is turning out clever designs and well-executed food. The service is attentive (if a bit overly so, a byproduct of the owners' hovering omnipresence), and it's a comfortable setting that's worth the trip to downtown Matthews. In any case, I'm glad they imbibed on that fateful night, because not only is Gado Gado off to a smashingly good start, the restaurant scene in general needs more courageous people like Poriotis and Lai.
Jon Luther's restaurant visits are anonymous, and all expenses are paid by the magazine. His reviews appear on these pages every other month. See past reviews at www.charlottemagazine.com