Darrell Horwitz is The Newbie Foodie. He has recently moved to Charlotte from Chicago and is on an unbiased search for what’s good and what’s not, unaffected by the hype surrounding renowned restaurants and unaware of the top local chefs whose names are repeated endlessly in outlets across the city.
If you ever heard the saying you only have one chance to make a good first impression, things weren’t looking good at Sea Level in Uptown during restaurant week. We had reservations at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night and the place was jam packed.
When I gave my name, blank stares came back at me as I was told I wasn’t on the list. After my initial surprise, I asked to speak to a manager. One of the young ladies upfront mentioned she was a manager. She checked the list again and said my name wasn’t on it, and due to how crowded they were, we could wait and see if something opened up, but there were no guarantees.
I then explained it was my wife’s birthday and I had made reservations more than two weeks prior, and that it was not our fault the person that took the reservation failed to put it down. She immediately took control and said she would see what she could do to get us seated as soon as possible.
As we waited, I took in the surroundings. There’s a nice long bar on one side of the restaurant, with a brick wall on another, adding to the warmth of the environment. It’s an attractive layout.
A few minutes after she left, the manager came back and said she was working on something to get us seated. Her name was Kendolyn. She said she would keep us updated, and she did, coming back every five minutes or so until we were seated. It was around 6:30 when we sat down, and considering how packed the place was, I was impressed.
Kendolyn then introduced us to Brittney, who would be taking care of us. The first words out of Brittney’s mouth were that Kendolyn wanted us to have an appetizer on them. She suggested we consider the Calabash Shrimp, which is a specialty of theirs. It runs $15 when not comped and would have been worth it regardless.
The shrimp had a crunchy outer coating and included salsa criolla, chicharron “pork” salt and Peruvian aji pepper sauce. The shrimp were large, very fresh tasting, and had some fire. We both thought it was a great choice.
While I was enjoying the shrimp, I was also appreciating the Ghost Pepper Pommarita I ordered — a deal for $12. It featured Lunazul Blanco Tequila, Pama, triple sec, ghost pepper syrup, pomegranate juice and lime. It was just the way I like it, nice and spicy.
Before ordering our entrees, I started with the clam chowder. It was creamy but not too much so, filled with plenty of clams and potatoes, with a little spice. Clam chowder is always a good test for a seafood restaurant and Sea Level passed with flying colors.
Taking advantage of the fact that it was Charlotte Restaurant Week at the time of our visit, my wife went with the grilled salmon, which normally runs $25. As part of the deal that night, she started with the Sea Level salad that goes for $16.50. It included fried oysters and a sweet sauce, but I don’t think it’s worth the price.
The salmon came with Anson Mills Carolina Gold and white rice risotto, a confit sweet potato and crispy Brussels sprouts with a brown butter. The risotto was very creamy, the potato was good, and the sprouts were charred the way I like. My wife savored her dish and said the accompaniments added to the enjoyment.
While we were eating, Kendolyn stopped by a few times to check on us and make sure everything was good.
I opted for a house favorite N.C. paella dish that runs $30 per person. It included the daily catch (swordfish) along with N.C. shrimp, mussels, Comeaux andouille, and Anson Mills Carolina Gold rice. I added a lobster tail for 12 bucks. The dish had a mix of complex flavors that tasted even better when I finished up leftovers the next day, but if ordering again, I would forgo the tail.
Before my paella, I sampled Sea Level’s brand of local oysters. They were a great combination of sweet and briny. We had so much food we decided to take the dessert that came with my wife’s deal to go. We were pleasantly surprised with the bread pudding. As my wife said, “Who knew bread pudding could be so good?”
And who knew that what started out like a nightmare could turn into such an enjoyable evening? You really see what a person (or establishment) is about when things don’t go right, and Sea Level should be proud to have Kendolyn working for them. She saved the day, and Brittney was also great. Sometimes you can change a first impression.
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 bites for very good food, excellent atmosphere and outstanding service.