The new chef at Char is walking a thin line.
Displayed above the doors exiting the kitchen is a ten foot sign that reads, “MAKE PEOPLE HAPPY”, and chef Brian Cartenuto is doing everything in his power to do just that. Even so, he’s fighting a hard battle bringing change to a well-established clientele at this Jackson institution, and nevertheless received an unhappy email when a customer’s favorite salad was taken off the menu. Welcome to Mississippi!
Five months ago Brian was installed as the Executive Chef of Char; he was courted away from the Pacific Northwest back to his Southern roots. Since arriving, the menus have been picked apart and re-invented to reflect a more modern Southern flavor, moving away from the steak house it once was. He’s focusing on utilizing fresh, local ingredients and making as much as possible in-house. Although this concept isn’t unfamiliar, it’s fairly rare in these parts, and undeniably a new vision for Char.
To my surprise, an invitation showed up in my in-box about a week ago to sit at the Chef’s Table in Char’s kitchen. This is why I found myself (husband and two friends in tow) being led to a table in the corner of a bustling kitchen Friday night. Being in unfamiliar territory we were excited to taste the fruits of his labor and ate at the mercy of the chef.
Each of us was presented with a different dish for every course, except for dessert which was the same; 4 people x 3 courses + 1 dessert = 13 dishes. And so it begins…
We started with an Avocado Salad, Boudin Hushpuppies, Potato Soup and BBQ Gulf Shrimp, rotating the plates among ourselves. There was a small variation on each dish, brightening it up ever so slightly. The Avocado Salad was refreshing and had Asian characteristics combining sweet and sour grapefruit, salty olive, spicy chilies and lush avocado. Every bit of the comeback sauce was sopped up by the Boudin Hushpuppies. The Potato Soup was pureed, dotted with oysters and horseradish gave it a subtle kick; the bowl may have been licked clean. The BBQ Gulf Shrimp were perfectly cooked, surrounded by an intensely buttery, Worcestershire sauce (much more brown that white) and next to a square of crispy crusted cornbread so meaty it could have been mistaken for beef. Agreeing with Tom Ramsey’s assessment of the shrimp, it was my favorite dish of the night.
Plates of Tagliatelle (one of his signatures), Ravioli de Camilla, Grilled Escolar and Pici Pasta, and Pho came next. Similar to carbonara, the Tagliatelle was rich, creamy and noodles delicately fresh. For a brief moment it transported me back to Rome where we had Cacio e Pepe at Sora Margherita on our honeymoon. The Ravioli were stuffed with a five meat filling, dressed in brown butter and topped with Amoretti cookies. It was interesting, sweet and savory, but the meats were indistinguishable and eating two pieces was plenty. The Grilled Escolar and Pici (thicker than angel hair, thinner than spaghetti) was tender and bare bones simple, it just could have used a dash of salt. And seemly out of place and straying from the traditional Vietnamese version, the Pho was outstanding. Fork tender pieces of raw beef filet were cooked in a hot mix of beef and chicken broth, in addition to shiitake mushrooms, shallots, arugula, and kohlrabi. A touch of star anise or a slice of lime on the side might put it over the top.
Right about now I was approaching capacity, but pushed on to try Butterfish in Pecan Butter, Ham Hock with Turnip Greens, Kansas City Strip Steak, and Coq au Vin. The Butterfish (Escolar? different or the same?) again was very tender and served on top of a sweet potato puree. However it was strangely reminiscent of Thanksgiving and the butter sauce tasted exactly like the ravioli from round two. The Ham Hock was a fatty piece of meat on greens, both sweet and sour from an apple cider/vinegar reduction. It was an advantageous dish, but far too sugary for more than a couple bites. The Kansas City Strip came in a cast iron skillet topped with fresh herbs, butter, and fries cooked in beef fat on the side. The fries were deliciously crispy and the steak was good except for being a little dry. Lastly the Coq au Vin was falling off the bone, covered in a mushroom sauce and on a bed of grits. It was a comforting, hearty dish but again, needed a pinch of salt.
As a finale we all received an adult beer float of Lazy Magnolia Jefferson Sweet Potato Stout, vanilla ice cream and honey. I’m not a beer drinker, so I drank tentatively and was pleasantly surprised how the honey off-set the bitterness from the beer. It’s a lovely combination and easy enough to try at home.
Besides the cuisine, one quick glance around the restaurant and it’s apparent Brian has his work cut out for him. The soft light, piano in the bar and abundance of dark wood gives off such a strong good ol’ boys club feel, I thought George W. Bush might be sitting at the bar smoking a cigar, bourbon in hand. (I’m aware he’s on the wagon, you know what I mean.) It’s no wonder there was a desire for young blood to shake up the routine and attract fresh faces.
Cartenuto embodies those desires, in addition to being passionate – bordering on romantic – about food. He could easily be mistaken for a college student (like I can talk), but underestimating his unassuming presence would be a mistake because the list of his experience is impressive.
It was a great opportunity to see what been cooking at Char and I truly appreciated hearing the thoughts put behind the dishes. When the relationships between farmer, chef and community are emphasized we all benefit and eat better food because of them.
He’s steadily balancing on that thin line so far and it’s worth giving the revitalized Char a shot to make you happy. Change indeed, can be good.
You just might have to try a new salad.
4500 I-55 North, Highland Village
Jackson, MS 39211