Even the most self-aware aware amongst us can slip. At the end of a long day battling bias and whatever happens to be trending on Twitter, preconceived notions can be like blankets, and to be aware is to acknowledge at least this much. I’ll be the first to admit, therefore, that I rushed to judgment when I heard about Supperland arriving with well-moneyed aplomb in east Charlotte’s Plaza Midwood.
A meal in the style of a church potluck in an actual church? You’ve got to be kidding me. And what to make of that menu? Shrimp cocktail for $6 — per shrimp? What is this? A Republican church?
The shrimp, as it turns out, are something else. As fat as the side of a clenched fist, bouncy and sweet like sea candy, these shrimp would not be out of place in even the best sushi-ya. My friend and I wolfed down four and then promptly ordered six more.
With each bite, I let my mind wander; so intoxicating these shrimp were that they lent themselves to daydreams. At one point, I could see myself on stage singing with the cast of My Fair Lady — “Ding dong! The bells are gonna chime. For Gawd’s sake, get me to the church on time!”
The joke, it should go without saying by now, was clearly on me.
Every moment of a meal at Supperland appears to be thus designed to throw you off your game. Part of that, I would argue, is that Supperland offers an experience that is head and shoulders above what any other restaurant in Charlotte is even attempting to curate — one so painstakingly and meticulously crafted that you will certainly find yourself objecting to the notion that Supperland only just opened.
You’ll notice something’s afoot the moment you walk through the doors. That first sight is arresting: a church gutted and reborn, near glowing in natural light, transformed into a dining room enclosed by rustic walls that are half-white and half-stone, with gorgeous plush, purple banquette seating trailing along underneath. Long wooden pews with purple velvet cushions run perpendicular to the entrance and divide the dining room into sections.
At the top, from where Sunday sermons were once delivered in hushed and solemn tones, is an open kitchen bursting with energy that comes not from chaos, but from the collective focus of a kitchen crew doing their thing and enjoying every moment. If heat isn’t an issue and you allow yourself to sweat in front of others, ask for one of the bar seats to overlook the action — or simply to have a high perch from which to take it all in and gawk at how owners Jeff Tonidandel and Jamie Brown, the duo behind NoDa gems Haberdish and Crepe Cellar, have gone all out.
But that only sets the scene. What struck me most on my multiple visits was the service. To say it’s well-choreographed is missing the point. Though to be sure, you will witness nary a misstep and think surely they’ve been performing this dance for years.
No, what amazed me was how thoughtful the service was — the depth of that thoughtfulness, and how it played out without a whiff of pretense. Those women at the door who greet you and bid you farewell? You sense that they mean it. That conversation your server strikes up? Entirely genuine. The servers here know recipes and the provenance of all the ingredients. They can recommend a killer drink pairing, and they take to heart any feedback you might need to give — all without missing a beat.
When the managers come out to ask about your meal, they look you in the eyes and listen. What does it say of the state of restaurants in Charlotte when that simple social gesture strikes with such force? At no point during your visit will you feel anything less than a welcomed member of the family.
Which is not meant in any way to diminish an experience at some of my other unnamed favorite restaurants in Charlotte. Sure, the food is more exciting at Camp North End. Absolutely, the concept is more innovative on the west side. But as crass as this may sound, what differentiates Supperland from these is money. I mean, isn’t it obvious? Money oozes from every nook and cranny of this place. It’s almost profane, but there’s no use in pretending it isn’t there. You see it in the design, you see it in the staff, whose headcount alone is breathtaking, and you see it in your bill at the end of dinner. The wondrous things that can be achieved with a ridiculous budget well-spent.
And about the food, you should know that this Republican church serves ambrosia salad. Joking aside, you have to try it. I certainly haven’t seen ambrosia salad outside of the one Midwestern church I last dared to set foot in, and the one here at Supperland comes without the kitsch or internalized moral guilt. Toasted coconut and sugared pecans add texture to each bite at the same time their subtle salinity draws flavors out so that not a single piece of fruit is lost to the marshmallow fluff. Is it a salad? Is it a dessert? Why is it listed under sides? Who cares? Just order it.
There are other gems to be found hidden amongst that list of sides. “Seasonal Vegetable” in reality works as a lottery — ever changing and sometimes not even “vegetable” — and on two visits, I won big. My pineapple was charred and grilled up to the precise point where its assertive citrus notes melted away into something submissive and fragrant. Decorated with honey, crushed almonds, and an elegant mint chiffonade, it’s the kind of dish I’d love to see in a cooking competition, so simple and yet entirely dependent upon a chef who knows how to edit and how to wield fire.
Recently, this pineapple was replaced with a riff on succotash (or elote street corn, and half the fun that night was making that connection with my server, that they were variations of the same thing, that our differing frames of reference can exist together and complement one another without conflict – restaurant as metaphor for social ideals in 2021).
The first spoonful not even halfway into my mouth, I let out a scream. What was going on here? The corn! With the sweet effervescence that signals its season has begun. The mayo that was more Kewpie than Duke’s. Those peppers. Those hearty, hefty bacon lardons. (If we can rebrand a church as a restaurant, then certainly we are able to rebrand “lardon” as a word that isn’t so unpleasant to say out loud.) It was a tremendous dish, bold in flavor, generous in size, and reason enough for another expensive visit.
It’s worth noting that the one thing these two dishes had in common was the one thing they both lacked: heat. The succotash came with the promise of hot sauce. I tasted none, I felt none, and the dish was begging for it. The pineapple, too. I suggested to the server that flecks of Thai bird’s eye chilies would have sent this dish into the stratosphere. Same earlier with the shrimp: the cocktail sauce was perfectly adequate, but I missed the horseradish tickle in my nose. In a kitchen that wields fire so confidently, why shy away from heat?
And just to get this nitpicking out of the way, in its present iteration, I would recommend passing on the broccoli. While the menu says the broccoli is grilled with bone marrow butter, and while your pulse may quicken at the sight of those very words, you would be in for disappointment. Yes, the broccoli was well-seasoned, but not by anything I could distinguish as bone marrow, let alone butter.
My other quibble: the baked brie bites (Yes, those bites that have already become famous on social media, breakout stars on a menu with many). I found them to be a bit dull. Imagine a Portuguese custard tart without raison d’être, or that sad single third cousin hiding in the corner at the church potluck. I wanted to smack some life into them.
Now back to the raves. Even my quibbles may only seem as such because the majority of the dishes I’ve tried are such overwhelming successes. Chef Chris Rogienski may take divine inspiration from his surroundings, or perhaps is just an incredibly talented chef at the height of his powers. Or it’s magic. Whatever it is, it’s the reason we have sausage gravy croquettes, so rich and so smartly conceived, that deliver creamy comfort and innovation in every bite.
It’s the reason we have pork can can, the unbridled star of the mains, bone-in belly and loin arriving at the table with ostentatious flair and a layer of pork-belly fat rendered so exquisitely that … well, even I am at a loss for words.
I like to think, too, that it’s the reason we have Liana Sinclair, a pastry chef with no peers, whose mini pies have crusts that may eat like they contain all the butter in Charlotte, but which are, in the end, nothing but pure, cheeky fun. I’ll be thinking about her raspberry pie with pickled and fresh peaches for the rest of the year.
All of which begs the question: Does this reviewer also happen to eat crow? Absolutely. I know when to admit my mistakes. What I thought would be a tacky Disneyland attraction for adults is actually one of the most successful restaurant debuts I’ve witnessed. Shame on me and my tired, now only half-aware self.
Every moment, every gesture, every over-moneyed design flourish, not to mention almost every dish; Supperland is the complete package, and it’s so exciting to watch everyone there strive for perfection. So much so, in fact, that those lyrics need a rewrite. Drug me or jail me; stamp me and mail me. Just get me to the church … right now.
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