Ten short hours after I landed at CLT, I found myself at Customshop in Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood with a photographer, a pharmacist and a tattooed accountant. This isn’t the set up to a joke exactly, but there is a punchline, which I’ll share later on.
And I hadn’t just flown in for a visit. Surprise! I have moved back to Charlotte.
At the end of 2022, I went out to California for a job opportunity … but immediately regretted it. As they say in the movies, money isn’t everything, especially when it comes with relentless gaslighting and verbal abuse, and all at a higher tax rate to boot. I once survived Stage 4 cancer, you see, which therefore means I know my limits.
It does not necessarily mean, however, that I know how to spot the obvious. In hindsight, it was obvious even to my mother that Charlotte, without my acknowledgement and even despite all of my previous efforts to the contrary, had grown to be my home.
And, dear readers, there is no place like home.
Especially when that home still has so many delicious secrets to uncover.
Tucked as it is into a space that’s both obvious and not at all — in the middle of Elizabeth on the light rail tracks, on a side street caddy corner from the hospital campus and oodles of available parking — Customshop is discrete to a fault. I imagine that it reveals itself only to people in the right place at the right time, under the most Brigadoonian of circumstances, except that everyone I’ve talked to since my first visit seems to have been going there for years.
To some extent, I understand the secrecy. In a town like Charlotte, discerning eaters of food live with the very real fear that their favorite places will come under the undue influence of influencers, or worse, that the undiscerning and unduly influenced will just ruin it for everyone. Thank goodness for Darwinism, though, and ultimately, the triumph of taste. Remember Xiao Bao? Yeah, me neither.
Nevertheless, I feel little guilt about letting this cat out of the bag. Food this wonderful needs to be celebrated, and in the Customshop, chef-owner Andres Kaifer and general manager Alex Bridges — who in the summer of 2022 bought the space from Trey Wilson, which until then had been his Flour Shop’s sister spot — find themselves at the helm of a restaurant, very much like Leah & Louise and Supperland, that will add yet another twinkle to Charlotte’s rising star on the national food scene.
Customshop’s menu is a lesson in ‘Wow’
I mean, if even the bar bites are so magnificent, then is there any other possible outcome?
Especially the croquettes. They are golden, Golden Snitch-sized baubles, stuffed with fluffed potatoes that are mixed through with heady lashings of ham and a lush roasted garlic bechamel seasoned with flecks of provolone. They share a plate with an herb aioli whose white color has the effect of making the croquettes appear to float. It’s a simple albeit controversial choice of condiment, as it forgoes Duke’s in favor of the far superior Kewpie for its base.
Aesthetically, the croquettes are the geometric ideal of a sphere, and each bite is so formidable that they tend to elicit the most specific and personalized reactions. On one of my visits, a wallflower at my table shouted, “OH MY GOD,” while on another, an aggressive alpha male shut his mouth for five whole seconds to withdraw internally and say simply and quite quietly, “Wow.”
“Wow” at all decibels, in fact, appears to be the theme of the menu — concise and so seasonal that it seems to change with the phases of the moon — as it walks a taught, hair-thin tightrope, rewarding diners with a breathtaking level of balance and precision.
This also means that even the tiniest wobbles can be noticeable.
Sometimes it’s consistency. Wagyu tartare on one visit was hearty, chunky, lovely, if not just a little too much; each heavy bite screamed for just a splash of acid to cut through the richness. On another visit, the opposite problem: my tongue burned from too much acid. Was it the giardiniera?
But in both cases, I couldn’t taste yuzu kosho at all, despite being promised on the menu, and that distinct and delicate citrus-y pepper flavor is exactly what would have made this dish the complete package.
Other times, it’s too much of a good thing. Among the crudo, for example, my favorite has been the tuna, but not because the tuna itself is so fresh, sliced in a way to make a sushi master proud, and still the right temperature when it arrives at the table. Rather, I am obsessed with the wickedly flavored buttermilk cream that comes with it.
Seasoned with a little bit of chili and a whole lot of everything else (but the bagel!), it tastes straight out of a Jewish deli, albeit one that’s popped up at a rave. However, each time I’ve had the dish, there’s just been way too much of the cream, such that the fish is like an afterthought. Cut the amount by half, and just like that, a signature dish will be born.
Good goddamn, though. When those wobbles subside, when balance and precision combine into revelation and the kitchen sticks its tightrope landing, well, there’s just nothing else like it.
You’ll see it in the duck.
One will be hard-pressed to find a better flavor combination than duck breast and cherries, so come to Customshop where they say “Fuck that” and throw some walnut crumble into the mix. Those nutty crunches become the sweet dulcet tones underlying what turns into a symphony, where duck rendered just-so melds into dark cherries cooked down just-so, which then seep into sunchoke purée that’s really there as a security blanket when emotions without fail begin to run too high.
And you will, for the love of all things holy, really see it in the risotto.
Despite the hate crimes committed against it on a whole horrorshow of TV cooking competitions or even by less competently staffed kitchens in this town, risotto really only requires one thing: the elusive Missy Elliottian quality of “when its thong comes off, its ass goes boom.”
You know what I’m talking about: that seductive sploosh, the precise moment risotto frees itself from the confines of the ladle and spreads out across the plate. That’s because risotto, contrary to what diners-out in this city might have become accustomed to, is not some congealed thing that is just meant to lie there. Remember Orto? Yeah, me neither.
At Customshop, be prepared to put your thing down, flip it and reverse it. The risotto here is chef’s kiss perfection, languid and lulling, woozy but also coquettish and confident, and oh my, it is such a special thing indeed.
Delicate dill fronds and mini batons of earthy asparagus that still have the whiff of morning dew are like amphetamines, warping senses and opening eyes not only to the light reflecting off of every single grain of rice that has, as though by magic, retained its structure, but also to the tingling of each taste bud, which starts softly and then crescendos until your entire tongue is in rapture. No, your pupils are not that dilated; sweet, vibrant scallops, expertly seared, are, in fact, still pulsating on top.
This dish is the apotheosis of seasonal cooking, a Shakespearean springtime sonnet from someone who is a true poet of a chef.
Which is how I can end this on what almost seems like a limerick.
A farewell to Kenty Chung
A writer, a photographer, a pharmacist and a tattooed accountant all gathered at Customshop one night to toast to friendships old and new, to tell dirty jokes, to be dirty jokes and to have a jolly good time.
Months had passed, and the tattooed accountant was new to the group, but that didn’t matter.
Perhaps it was the venue, which post-acquisition, had been redone by Bridges and Chef Kaifer and turned into something that felt hip and current but also comfortably lived in. Couples dressed to the nines and neighborhood walk-ins dressed in shorts are equally at home.
Perhaps it was Secretly Stern, bar manager Kyle Brown’s pristine and off-kilter take on an espresso martini that also doubles as foreplay or a swipe-right on Tinder. Tattooed accountant had five before I finally joined in on the fun, and three visits later, I think I’ve had 10.
Whatever it was, on that night, it felt like time had stopped and nothing had changed.
Except that — and here is that punchline I promised — the photographer was wearing white.
Kenty Chung, as the photographer is also known, only wears black. Those of us who know and love him dearly know that as one of the many details that make him so special. He has also appeared as “tricep model” in some of my writing because, in case you haven’t noticed, holding aloft a camera for as many hours of a day as he does turns out to be an excellent conditioning exercise.
All of this despite also being a nice guy and wonderful human being.
The subtle wardrobe change was symbolic: Charlotte’s favorite food photographer is getting married and moving to Texas. I credit his fiancee’s influence on doing away with the black tees. And as it turns out, subtle changes were all around us.
When Chef Kaifer arrived from Miami by way of Raleigh and took over the restaurant, he quietly removed “handcrafted food” from Customshop’s name, a notice of arrival and marking of territory that, in my mind, also serves as an evocation of a version of the Charlotte food scene not yet bastardized by influencers and their hashtagged buzzwords, or by chefs nominated for awards who suddenly care about raising money for the children.
It seemed like pure luck, then, that we all found our way to the same place, at the same time, and all taking in the same delicious moment, toasting the end of one journey and the start of another. That Kenty and I decided to recapture what made that moment so special as our last collaboration together seemed fitting.
That’s really as good an ending as I’ve got that can also double as a beginning.
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