Before I walk into Restaurant Constance, I lurk off to the side, across the street, and take in the view.
Opened in January of this year, Restaurant Constance is tucked like a book too big for its shelf into a development colored in shades of strip mall — but one that’s been repurposed for event spaces, designers and other haunts attracted to things gentrified and shiny — along a stretch of Thrift Road that exhales as it leans into Wesley Heights.
When the light is just right, at Golden Hour plus-or-minus 20, you can see Uptown Charlotte in the distance, skyscrapers flickering to life, emerging like Oz or the Promised Land.
From this point of view, I can’t imagine anything more dramatic. Except that once inside, I am overwhelmed at the transformation that has taken place.
But for the rafters, all traces of the previous restaurant tenant are gone: the self-serving soundtracks replaced with cinematic peeks into the journey the evening’s ingredients took from farm to table projected on the back wall, black curtains at the front replaced by an actual hostess stand stationed against a wall displaying album covers and family-loved trinkets.
On good days, Constance herself — the chef’s daughter and restaurant’s namesake — is there to greet those coming through the door.
The open kitchen is still there, but the dynamic is different. Diners are no longer tense at the show put on before them, kitchen cahoots have given way to sharp, zen focus. The color palette has calmed down, too, from the walls to the seats to even the menus — whites and neutrals, with a hint of sparkle, trimmed in red and blue.
It’s Americana, but not the Americana of today — God, no. It’s classic, nostalgic and welcoming.
When the cooks look up and out into the dining room is when it hits that the open kitchen is not there for diners to look in, but for the kitchen to look out. Directly opposite, a wall of histories: the chef’s family line from past to present, a constant reminder of where it all began and where it could have ended.
From this point of view, on my visits when it’s Chef Sam Diminich himself who’s looking up and out to the timelines before him, I can’t imagine anything more dramatic: the quiet intensity of a man focused on the act, who pauses only long enough to let a moment — or a private thought — hit, then immediately goes back to cooking like his life depends on it.
A transformation in dining experience
I’m a food critic, but I am also a human being.
My professional instinct, at first, was to deconstruct what I perceived to be flaws in the shrimp toast. I told my friends who were with me on that first visit that, despite what the menu had promised, the sauce was not a sambal. “Chili soy sauce, maybe,” I had said, “but the word ‘sambal’ belongs nowhere near this zip code.”
And the server just poured it all over the plate. The toast — in this case the literal truth, more like a slice of Wonderbread instead of the small bite one might find at dim sum — was for a brief moment a buoy, sinking slowly back to the plate as it absorbed the soy pond.
One bite only served to suggest that perhaps it didn’t matter what I thought. That’s when my baser, primordial instincts kicked in.
I, like the cavemen before me, employ chest beating and guttural flourish to signal pleasure and glee. That’s more or less what happened here. Comfort food elevated, even praised. If he couldn’t nail the look, Diminch sure nailed the taste of plump shrimp mousse, ticklish and sweet, and a bit of vinegar there to keep the party in order.
I’ve ordered the shrimp toast many times since, and I am pleased to report that the amount of sauce poured has been reduced (the better to keep that toast crispy!), and that the sauce itself is still not a sambal.
There’s a backstory here that I’ll keep between Sam and me, but it’s important that he knows the extent to which he has challenged my own biases — conscious or not — with his food.
Not only did it finally occur to me that the size of the shrimp toast had less to do with vulgarity than it did generosity, but I’ve come to realize that in every plate that’s come to my table (and on some visits, it’s been literally every plate on the thoughtful, concise menu), Diminich reintroduces joy into the act of eating in a way, I suspect, only a man once on the brink could do.
This is life. You’re alive. We’re alive. So let’s celebrate.
Like with popcorn fondue cream, appearing as an ebullient little lashing on a plate of sticky BBQ ribs. Sam will only smile when you ask him about it, stopping well short of explaining how exactly he managed to stuff everything wonderful that ever came from a Cracker Jack box or a movie theater concession stand into that Easter-yellow blob.
Is there a condiment more fun or worthy of attention currently dotting plates of food in Charlotte? I don’t think it necessarily goes with the ribs — which are sweet and fatty in a good way, but much to the detriment of the altogether more delicately flavored fondue — but oh, how I don’t want them to part.
Everything good in life is on that one little plate. Who cares if the third cousins with the tattoos and Playboys don’t get along with the matriarch? Few chefs today work simultaneously in hues of generosity, of life’s great creature comforts, of bold flavors and a fuck-it-all irreverence to how things really should be done.
If I were the type to declare, I’d stand atop my soap box, which would buckle under my weight as I shouted to anyone who would listen that Chef Sam Diminich is the closest thing we have in Charlotte to Chef David Chang.
But then few chefs today have Diminich’s hard-won perspective.
Empathy and accessibility in dining
Better writers than me have already told the story of Sam’s struggles with addiction, the issue I’ve been tiptoeing around up until now, but one that’s vital to the narrative insofar as, from my critical perch, it affects what’s on the plate. At Restaurant Constance, those struggles have influenced the menu in the most incredible ways.
Begin with the cashew hummus and replay in your head that moment in Dirty Dancing when Johnny insists that “nobody puts Baby in a corner.” Never has hummus been so vibrant or joyously textured, and never again will it be so taken for granted.
You’ll lose track of all the fun little bits and pieces tucked into the bowl, and you won’t think once of all the extra protein you’re getting from the cashews blitzed creamy within.
And for those like me who are porcine and kale-adverse, you will want to order two of the kale salads. There’s more fondue to be had, and yes, there are candied pecans, but the most truly ravishing thing about this bowl o’ greens are these nuggets of gold that Sam has chosen to name “sweet potato croutons.”
This easily ranks among the city’s best salads the way Simone Biles ranks among the best female gymnasts. At this level, there’s no contest.
That this POV extends even to the beverage program is kind of the point. While the wine list will appeal more broadly, especially with selections that will not leave anyone wallowing into their wallets with regret at the end of the night, the not-to-be-missed performances-of-a-lifetime are the nonalcoholic beverages.
Oh, how I hate that term, it’s less than-ing, especially when the selection at Restaurant Constance is so impeccable. So let’s just call it like it is: a beverage program that eschews alcohol for exhilarating combinations of texture, flavor and temperature on a level that would not be out of place at any of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
The point being, because I promised that there was one — and this is where I pause to wipe away a tear because while I am a food critic, I am also human — the level of genuine empathy and purpose on display here kills me.
It takes a recovered addict to quietly point out that everyone deserves to be healthy and that everyone deserves the chance to have a delicious meal. The price accessibility of the menu overall only reinforces this honest and heartfelt mission: Everyone is welcome, everyone is important and no one will be turned away.
Hey, Beards, if you’re reading this, this Sam is ready to cook you a meal.
Highlighting heart and purpose through food
At Restaurant Constance, Chef Sam Diminich cooks like his life depends on it. And that could very well be the literal truth.
To see the name Constance, to take one step inside the restaurant, is to know how much family means to him. He recovered and survives for and with the help of his family, and now he cooks to bring us all together.
Knowing this means understanding, of course, that he’s the only chef in town who could conceive of pork shank in such blockbuster fashion, towering on a plate of okra, black beans and rice, eliciting gasps from the entire dining room when spotted leaving the kitchen, eliciting cries for more napkins as it soon appears on every table and every face.
Knowing this also means understanding that there had to be divine inspiration for the chocolate miso tart to come into existence. It’s a mature, confident but also deliciously rich and assertive slice of life. One bite is enough, which could be Sam’s way of teaching us about moderation.
Could he have conceived of this dish at the precise moment it all came tumbling down and he feared for his life? That this moment happened in such proximity to where he now builds a culinary empire with heart and with purpose is fact, but this is where the seed of that fact blossoms in my imagination.
Just one more dish.
I wonder if after the assault — plus or minus twenty steps from where Restaurant Constance now exists as the best new restaurant in Charlotte this year and likely the next — he stumbled upon that stretch of Wesley Heights and saw, with the light just right, Uptown in the distance, calling out to him in the twilight, its message encoded in the flickering skyscraper lights.
“You are important. The city needs you. Stay with us, Sam, and make one more dish.”
From this point of view — lurking as I do just on the edges of reality, where the dreams that keep us all going come to life — I can’t imagine anything more dramatic.
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