New to Charlotte and a little unsophisticated on the dining palette, I asked colleagues and friends where to go for our first anniversary dinner six years ago. The unanimous answer was the McNinch House in Charlotte’s Historic Fourth Ward. “Very romantic!” Everyone raved. “Perfect for a night out to celebrate your first year of marriage!” I was intrigued. “Tell me more?” I asked.
I learned that the restaurant was located in a quaint turn of the century Victorian Home. The menu was a set of fixed courses selected and prepared specifically for you by the chef. Everything was local. The meat was grass-fed. The game was wild. The seafood was line-caught off of dayboats. The produce was organic with many items coming directly from the chef’s garden. The price tag was a little out of our budget. Fast forward six years later, and we finally made it to the McNinch House for our anniversary dinner.
My friends and colleagues were right. McNinch House proved to be a unique and memorable dining experience. The food was outstanding – classically prepared with Southern nuances. The freshness and care that is placed into each dish is unequal to anyplace else I have ever eaten. Yes, you can taste the care in the delicate layers of flavor. It’s not just dinner out, but a complete dining experience. Diners have two menu options: The House Menu or the Chef’s Tasting Menu. Each comes with a choice in the number of courses. For the House Menu, diners can chose from 4 (Petite) or 7 (Grand) courses and you select from the restaurants limited, but well planned out menu. For the Chef’s Tasting, diners chose either 6 (Petite) or 8 (Chef’s) courses and the chef actually selects the courses for you.
The entire dining experience is quaint and first class. You pull up to the old house and a sign directs you to leave your car in the driveway and bring the keys into the house. One of the staff members will park the car when they have a free second (the restaurant is small so they multi-task). You then wait in the foyer while the host / general manager makes sure your table is prepared. I admired the antique furniture and plaques of awards the restaurant has received (Wine Enthusiast, AAA, etc). The host prepared a special table for us under the front window in what would have been the family room of the old home. The rest of the restaurant wound through the remaining rooms of the first floor.
We briefly looked over the menu of choices and decided that the Petite Tasting was the way for us. All of the items sounded delicious so the best choice was not to choose. The Chef could do that for us. We also decided to not select a wine either. Instead, we had the Wine Steward pair the ideal glass of wine with each course. Sometimes it’s good not to choose.
We started out with a moose bouche which was in addition to our 6 courses – Heirloom tomatoes from the restaurants garden with a parmesan moose. The sweet of the tomatoes and the salt of moose was ideal for opening our palettes to what was to come. Our first course was tempura battered fried green onions with lump crab meat. Hot damn were those good. The fried green tomatoes were the best tempura I ever ate, and the lump crab meat was a perfect pairing. Our second course was the arugula and shaved asparagus salad served with crisp prosciutto and a lemon poppy dressing. It was only a salad, but it was a dance of flavors in your mouth – spice from the arugula, sweet from the dressing, salt from the prosciutto. We were then given a house made fennel and white peach sorbet to cleanse our pallets before the entries came. The delicate sweet and savory of the flavors did exactly as they were designed.
The first entrée was pan seared duck breast stuffed with cranberry and nuts and topped with a wine reduction sauce. I wasn’t in love with it. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. It was just too sweet for my tastes. Was I upset it was one of the courses? Absolutely not. The fun of the Chef’s Course option is trying things you would normally not order. The second entrée was the duo of slow roasted beef short ribs and beef tenderloin topped with an onion and bacon relish. There was potatoes and asparagus, too, but I don’t remember much about those as the meat was a true superstar. For dessert, we were served white chocolate and coconut soufflé. I don’t like white chocolate – actually hate is a better word – but I licked my plate clean.
With that said, our dining experience was not without constructive criticism. We didn’t think the wine pairing was worth the money ($55 per person). The wine never showed up with the course, but a quarter of the way through. The wine steward also did not show you the bottle. Instead, he said that he wanted you to be surprised and came back later to tell you the type and location of the wine. The winery itself was not mentioned. The skeptic in me suspected that we were being served Two Buck Chuck. I doubt that is the case though as these were some of the most complex wines I have ever drank. Why then not share the label? The pours also could have been a bit more. I’m not expecting full glasses, but something more than we were given. We were also disappointed that all of our courses were directly from the menu when the waiter said that some could also be specially prepared by the Chef and off the menu. We would have preferred a mystery item or two that really wowed us. In fact, going into the dining experience we thought there was no menu and the chef tailored the experience to your tastes.
Knowing what we know now, we would still go back. We would even still do the Chef’s Tasting. We would just buy a bottle of wine rather than the pairing. You just don’t find places that offer an entire dining experience. For my birthday we went to Flemings and were out within an hour. Here, we arrived at 8:00 and left at 11:00. That is what fine dining should be. If you plan to try McNinch, remember that the restaurant is tiny so be sure to make reservations in advance if there is a particular night you are targeting. Also, they keep it classy. Cell phones are not permitted and gentlemen must wear a jacket.