Chef Alex Verica’s new restaurant PARA, which emerged fully formed and ravishing from the ashes of the former Zeppelin space along Tremont Avenue in South End, is that singular thing we foodies in Charlotte have been so patiently waiting for: something, to put it quite simply, to shout about.
Not that we didn’t have anything to celebrate before.
Charlotte’s burgeoning status as a bonafide food destination is owed in no small part to an entire legacy of restaurants that brought the scene to where it is today, many of which still enjoy acclaim. Chef Verica himself is part of this legacy, and quite literally so. His father is Paul Verica, best known to most Charlotteans as James Beard-favorite and creator of The Stanley, but best known to this Charlottean as the man who once made an ill-fated attempt at bringing Italian food to the hipster masses.
Without The Stanley, one could argue, and without more recent spots such as Leah & Louise and Bardo, there wouldn’t even be a Charlotte food scene in the first place.
But the difference is, where those restaurants created names for themselves that were unique to Charlotte but also heavily influenced by food and chefs and traditions that came from other times and other places, PARA is the first to arrive since COVID started to a local culinary stage fully set, that isn’t a square-shaped pizza chain or a rehash of some chef’s year abroad repurposed and repackaged for ease of consumption by influencers.
Rather than being referential, PARA achieves its greatness by being thoroughly original. Alex Verica’s sights are directly and unwaveringly pointed ahead.
Chef, if you’re reading this, that’s just my roundabout way of saying, you have arrived, sir. Now let’s eat.
Any meal at PARA should begin with a lobster shooter. Like the menu itself, the lobster shooter is small and concise, nothing more than bisque and a chunk of lobster meat. However, lest you trick yourself into thinking that “nothing more than” is an expression of disappointment, take a sip and then lose count as the number of sensations you feel on your palate approaches infinity.
It’s a singularity in a shot glass, with so many rich, warm layers of brown butter and spice concentrating at the center of such a tiny vessel that space-time at your table warps ever so slightly. The lobster meat on top — generously portioned, delicate, sweet — quivering in the aftermath of this cosmic food event is also, perhaps more aptly, the cherry on top.
Much of the rest of the menu follows in the same vein: a limited, seasonal series of dishes that are thoughtfully, imaginatively, and concisely constructed. Much of the rest of the menu, too, is inspired by the flavors of Asian cuisines and izakaya-style dining familiar to Japan.
Yes, I know. I groaned, too. “Just what Charlotte needed, another white guy chef cooking Asian food,” I thought.
I even took it one step further in my mind and assumed the name “Para,” which in reality is a nod to the Spanish words for “unstoppable” and “for,” was actually a play on para-para, the 1990’s dance craze that was Japan’s answer to the macarena. It seemed there was no limit to how geeky and deferential a smitten Japanophile from the West could be.
Nor any limit, as it were, to how cynical one could be. To be fair, this was all before I had actually walked in and tried the food. I may have even rolled my eyes at the words “lobster shooter.” But, oh, what a thing Chef Verica has done, creating Asian tapas that, without the appropriation you might expect, feel entirely like their own, new things, but which also wouldn’t be out of place on an izakaya menu in Japan.
For example, the milk bread. Verica takes that soft, sweet, pillow-y bread that has left an entire nation enthralled for generations, understands on a molecular level what makes it so good, then finds the perfect way to both complement and enhance it.
His answer has something to do with more lobster, but in this version, a creamy lobster salad whose sweetness slow-dances at the prom with that of the milk bread. It’s then piled high on a slab of toast, decorated with green fronds, colorful pickled things, and a scoop of caviar, creating a dish whose aesthetics alone would be at home in a solemn Japanese dining temple, if each bite were not also so precisely balanced.
On the other side of the menu, a much different aesthetic, more in common with agitprop and stadium rock: crab Rangoon. It’s Chef Verica’s only real mistake, but only because of the awful thing he chose to call it. Why not call it what it is: a sugary fried doughnut chock full of chunky, lush, and meaty crab?
My goodness, they’re glorious. And aggressively decadent. And also everything right about what he’s trying to do at PARA. Wouldn’t “crazy crab doughnut” be a better name for what we’ll look back on as the most provocative dish of 2022 in Charlotte, and certainly for one that will follow Chef Verica around for the rest of his career?
If you think I’m being extra in my praise, then you’ve not yet been to PARA on a Friday night. When have you seen a restaurant barely four months old become the buzzy place to be so quickly? That the interior is stunning is one thing, designed from floor to ceiling in palates and materials cleverly chosen to trick the mind into thinking that you’re eating inside an ancient temple. That is, of course, right up until the moment the sun goes down, because that’s when wood and metal start to glow gold, and suddenly you find yourself in a hip, happening restaurant, where solemn temple chants have instantly become cacophony.
This transformation is an arresting sight to behold, yes, but then so are groups of beautiful people and their beautiful friends all accessorized beautifully and gathered there for lobster shooters. In fact, I don’t think I’ve yet been to PARA on a night where more than 90% of the South End restaurant is filled with the most beautiful people in town. You think I’m extra? Then go on a Friday night and realize there’s nothing more extra than the sight of pretty people praising each other for the decision to come and eat such delicious, pretty food.
Leave the complaining to the food critic, frumpy as he is — and after so many of those crazy crab doughnuts, double-chinned to boot. But mind you, these are not so much complaints as they are nits to be picked, or disconnects to be pondered.
Like, how can the same kitchen that takes watermelon and through witchcraft transforms it into something that looks, feels, and tastes impossibly of thin slices of tuna sashimi, topped the night I had it with pickled radishes, jalapeño, and flowers — in other words, an actual carnival of flavors — also be the kitchen that figures the best thing to be done with objectively perfect short rib meat is to turn it into dumplings that have been irredeemably bland on multiple visits? This is the same kitchen, too, that turns humble cabbage into decadent sin replete with gruyere and black truffles, so they do actually know about umami.
Or how can a kitchen remember to put words on the menu but not on the plate? It happened once seated at the bar with a bowl of gnudi during an early iteration of a new permanent spring menu item: yuzu was entirely left out of the yuzu beurre blanc. The pasta, which I had opted to cover in shaved black truffles (another instance of my being extra), was lovely, sure, but the rich beurre blanc was screaming for that cheeky Japanese citrus. The bartender, aware of the issue and sympathetic to my plight, tossed me a couple lime wedges, which worked out well in a pinch.
And it’s happened multiple times with dessert. The description of the fernet-branca kakigori, the very best of the three versions of shaved ice on the menu, promises pandan, a green Southeast Asian leaf that tastes of sweet tea, milk, and freshly mown grass.
It took several years of living in Singapore for me to come to terms with that flavor profile, but once I did, I couldn’t get enough. Imagine my disappointment, then, that the flavor I worked so hard to love was missing from an otherwise magical kakigori, one which could easily be rebranded a la crab Rangoon as an adult tiramisu.
Imagine, too, my disappointment when the same exact thing happened the next time I went. All in good fun, it became a running gag between me and the restaurant manager, who on my most recent visit, ensured that buckets of pandan extract would be ready and waiting.
The point being, a kitchen that makes these odd missteps is a kitchen that’s distracted, and I worry for Chef Verica that it’s his restaurant’s Achilles’ heel.
It makes me wonder whether the kitchen was prepared for the overwhelmingly positive response to the food and all of the beautiful people who would rush to the South End restaurant at the same time to try it. That’s not a bad position to be in at first, of course, but on every single one of my visits, there has come a time around 90 minutes into service when dishes have just stopped coming out of the kitchen, a service logjam that four months in is still a menace. It would be endearing if it weren’t also affecting the food.
On a recent visit, ravioli were marred by tough outer edges, a sign in my mind that they had been cooked too early and left to dry out before being sauced, perhaps as a survival strategy for the cook who prepared them, knowing they were about to be slammed by crowds, but surely not the best one available.
Instantaneous popularity takes some getting used to, it seems, and despite these growing pains, PARA’s popularity is well deserved. In fact, I remember after my first visit, summing up in a one-word text message what I saw in PARA.
I didn’t back down from that word on subsequent visits to the South End restaurant.
On my last visit, bar manager Yoshi Meija’s cocktails, particularly one called Sakura which is the best cocktail you’ll find anywhere in Charlotte at the moment, compelled me to shout that word at the ceiling.
(My friend’s response to that, apropos of nothing but nevertheless worth mentioning, was to excuse herself to the restroom after three of those drinks and come back to the table singing that word in vibrato because of the exquisitely high-quality tampons she found stocked in the ladies’ room — a detail about restaurant planning I never knew I had to know.)
That word, chosen back in February precisely because it captured in a few simple syllables everything I saw in and in store for PARA, I sent in a one-word text message to a friend, which read very simply as: blockbuster.