Where is everyone? That’s what I wondered as my friend and I glanced around Charcoal Bistro. Chairs the inviting color of Moscow mule mugs, but no one sitting in them. Strands of white lights cheerily crisscrossing the ceiling, but no one cheered by them. No laughter bouncing off the whitewashed brick, only the sounds of chitchat between the server and bartender and a soulful rendition of “Just the Two of Us” playing in the background like something out of a sitcom. After all, it was just the two of us dining, which was slightly disconcerting in a room set for fifty.
When a restaurant sits empty in prime time, there’s usually one culprit: bad food. But the plate of Icelandic cod before me that night was flawless. Golden and crisped on top, the fish would have made its home country proud, separating into fat flakes that I took my time swirling through pale-green brodo. The broth was so good I nearly took a spoon to it: creamy but not overly so, with a hint of mint, subtle sweetness from puréed peas and a splash of brightness from white wine. Asparagus was abundant on the plate, served both grilled and steamed and arcing out from under the fish like sunbeams, while other spears were shaved and tossed with lemon in a sprightly slaw. A single pea pod sat open, one green pearl snug against the other; as I ate, the spheres elbowed free and spread out in the broth like buoys.
Was this a one-hit wonder? A stroke of luck for the kitchen? Not hardly. Night after night, dish after dish revealed the same thoughtfulness and creativity. Billed as a New American bistro, Charcoal Bistro has more in common with its polished sister restaurant, Charcoal, than the typical mid-level joint conjured up by the category. Though the original tilts more European and fine, this eight-month-old offshoot from owner Gary Sumihiro and executive chef/owner Patrik Landberg, which opened last fall on South Gaylord Street, is clearly cut from the same cloth. Microgreens make a frequent appearance. Breads, from buttery brioche to ciabatta, are made in-house. Fries are meaty and hand-cut. Proteins are generous, approachable and thoughtfully sourced.
Bacon-wrapped dates aspire to be more charcuterie plate than snack, ringed with thoroughly crisp bacon, snuggled on goat cheese and green-tomato jam scented with clove, allspice and star anise for “that hint of licorice that Swedes love,” says Landberg. (The recipe is his grandmother’s.) Chunky tzatziki and a tousle of pickled fennel and orange peel take Colorado lamb meatballs on a fun Middle Eastern jaunt. A burger gets bragging rights for substance, not flash; instead of fried eggs or onion rings, you bite into a half-pound patty layered with housemade bread-and-butter pickles, caramelized onions and aged Cheddar. Shrimp, cod, salmon and mussels stock a terrific tomato-and-fennel Sicilian soup that Landberg learned to make in Sweden. Pork tenderloin offers a harmony of earthy flavors: a rub of ground coffee and anchos, yellow-corn grits, pickled fiddleheads coiled like an old-fashioned lollipop. Pan-roasted chicken over green chile promises a welcome change from routine, though its skillet cornbread is as sweet as cake.
As our meal progressed that first lonely night, a few more groups wandered in: a grandmother with grandkids and toy trucks in tow, four women wanting wine and appetizers (dubbed “previews” on the menu in honor of the space’s roots as an old-time movie theater). But even with more people around, the room still felt stiff; the friendly, low-key server seemed as self-conscious as we were, not sure where to put her eyes when she walked by.
Charcoal Bistro isn’t always so slow. The restaurant picks up at weekend brunch, when families drop by for housemade crumpets and Swedish pancakes with blueberry jam. It hums on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, when Landberg typically mans the raw bar and shows off his Swedish skills with lovely plates of crispy octopus salad and pasteis de bacalhau. Otherwise, the kitchen is capably helmed by chef de cuisine Josh Leiby, who started at the original Charcoal when it opened in 2011. So why is dinnertime such a hard nut to crack?
An error here and there might explain why Charcoal Bistro wouldn’t be on a wait, but it doesn’t explain why it can be nearly empty. One fix would be to better advertise the raw bar, which isn’t referenced on the regular dinner menu and is currently operational just three nights a week. (Hours are projected to expand this summer.) That way, if you happen in when the raw bar’s closed, you’ll know what you’re missing and make a point to return. Deals could also use some love: The first time I heard about the $10 burger-and-beer bar special was by phone after my visits.
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Landberg has his theories for the lack of crowds. He’s expanded the confines of happy hour, a huge mid-week draw at other restaurants on the block, though the bistro’s current specials still don’t approximate its competitors’ pack-’em-in promotions. He’s also lowered prices somewhat from the opening menu, but clearly this isn’t a restaurant that wants to lower the quality bar in order to lower the price. Occasionally, however, the bar is slightly lower than it should be; molten-centered chickpea fritters and dry pork would be easier to overlook at lower prices.
But the right prices are just part of locating the sweet spot. Charcoal Bistro seems to be straddling two worlds: not quite casual enough to draw in the hordes of socializing neighbors, not quite polished enough for special occasions. It’s time for Landberg and Sumihiro to nail the restaurant’s positioning. This winsome bistro deserves another chance to be welcomed with open arms.
1028 South Gaylord Street
Hours: 3 to 9 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
Select Menu Items:
Lamb meatball $15
Bacon-wrapped dates $10
Chickpea fritters $6
Sicilian seafood soup $15/$24
Chicken and green chile $24
Pork tenderloin $24
Icelandic cod $26