The melodious syncopation of tango music beckoned us into the cavernous interior of Georges Brasserie. We arrived shortly after six on a Tuesday evening to celebrate my wife's 30th birthday and were seated immediately in one of the cozy, C-shaped red leather booths that fringe the walls of the spacious dining room.
Open since early 2010 in a space that once housed The Oceanaire, Georges retained a few touches from the art-deco, high-end seafood establishment such as the globe-shaped lights above the booths and the huge galvanized tubs of crushed ice running the length of the massive raw bar. But unlike the sterile, dark and haughty atmosphere presented by the former occupants, Georges stays true to Random House's definition of a brasserie as "an unpretentious restaurant, tavern, or the like, that serves drinks, especially beer, and simple or hearty food." Don't get me wrong. I loved The Oceanaire and I was disappointed to see it go. But the coffers of Charlotteans are no longer willing to support an oversaturation of expensive seafood and steak restaurants. Georges is a much better fit for a city of bankers on a financial diet. After all, this isn't Detroit, but we'll still throw down every once in a while. A rich marsh brown faux finish with green undertones reminiscent of the Seine River covers the rounded contours of the ceiling and a golden ribbon of filigree similar of fleur-de-lies scrolls above the booths indicating the expert hand of an artist. A sculpture of lights that looks like the surrealist lovechild of Dali and Edison showers the far end of the dining room with a soft glow. Dark wooden tables covered with white linen fill the dining room.
Black and white photos of Parisian street scenes, iconic Gallic architecture and screen legends like Marilyn Monroe and Veronica Lake create attractive collages on the walls. As the music segued from a tango to French classics in the style of Edith Piaf, our server Wade greeted us with a bottle of chilled tap water served Euro-style without ice.
I knew from the moment Wade approached he exhibited the demeanor of an experienced veteran of the service industry. After greeting us he directed our attention to the diverse raw bar options. He asked us about cocktails and presented Georges' descriptive beer list featuring regional greats like Highland Brewing Company & Duck Rabbit along with a choice selection of Belgian and French beers. Then he presented the specials before slipping away to round up some bread and return for our drink order. We're not avid wine connoisseurs in our household and I'll take a Gunniess over a Malbec almost nine out of ten times. But I did glance at the wine list which featured a diverse, but not overwhelming selection of options from popular wineries around the globe. The Birthday Girl opted for a cranberry and vodka with a splash of Sprite while I tried a Fischer Amber Ale brewed in France that I'd never come across before. It had a nice deep brown color and tasted crisp but the notes of caramel and nuts were a bit too strong for me to order a second. My missus didn't shudder when she took her first sip so we gave the bar a thumbs up on round number one.
Now I'm no expert on French cuisine. I had to look up the difference between a bistro and brasserie in the dictionary. And after nearly a lifetime of studying Spanish, I pronounce most French words in a lisping castellano lilt. But I once toured Paris while studying abroad and loved the culture from the moment we boarded the metro at Charles De Gaulle. The experience expanded my pallet with the succulent joy of rare duck breast and wine poured from a cafe tap. I also think that spy-turned-chef extraordinaire Julia Child is a brilliant American icon and that woman who got the Julie & Julia book/film deal off her blog had to be onto something by focusing on the precision of French cuisine.
After allowing us to peruse the menus and enjoy our drinks, Wade returned with a tiny galvanized pail filled with slices of baguette and individual ramekins of salted butter. We vacillated between a couple hors d'oeuvres selections: an onion soup gratinee, crispy calamari or the jumbo lump crabcake. Wade gave us the rundown on each and while the shrimp mousse used to bind the lump crabmeat intrigued me, the Birthday Girl demonstrated a clear abhorrence to venturing outside her comfort zone. What Mama wants, she gets. Especially on her birthday. So we agreed to share an order of onion soup gratinee and crispy calamari.
Within a couple minutes our appetizers arrived and the presentation had me salivating before my utensils made their way into my pawing fingers. The crispy calamari at Georges lacked the greasy finish and soggy batter you'll find with poorer attempts at the popular fried squid dish.
Thick roll cut pieces and tentacle sections of calamari were encased in a flavorful golden batter that wasn't too salty and improved with a squeeze of lemon. The spicy harissa aioli dipping sauce paired well with the calamari and belayed gentle hints of the Tunisian spice without setting the palate aflame.
Caramelized onions imparted a satisfying sweetness and rich color to the onion soup gratinee. A thick blanket of gruyere draped over the pieces of sourdough atop the onions and kept the soup sealed and warm within the white ceramic tureen. I caught myself peeling pieces of grispy guyere from the bowl and shoving them into my face before noticing the disapproving look on the Birthday Girl's face. As I was raised in a household with five males and my saintly mother, I can only quote the great Merle Haggard and say "Mama tried."
Almost every time we test a new restaurant, the missus has reconnoitered the menu and narrowed her entre choices to one or two options before we set foot inside. And being my wife, knowing my nuances and idiosyncrasies, she usually has my entre choice pegged as well. Bouillabaisse is a dish I've never tried before and was really only familiar with as part of a song name on the Beastie Boy's greatest album, Paul's Boutique. I did know it was a fish stew and it took little counsel from Wade to decide I needed to set my standards with Georges' version. Soon I learned it would become one of my new favorites. The aroma alone of the tomato saffron broth in the bouillabaisse made my senses reel as the food runner delivered our entrees.
I immediately forgot about the huge helping of calamari and onion soup we devoured minutes earlier and set my sights on the splendor before me. Precious clams, gaping mussels, fat shrimp, plump scallops and hunks of tender halibut beckoned to me half-submerged in the rich, decadent broth. Oceanwhere? Georges wasn't giving up any points on the seafood touted by the former occupants. I needed two forks, a knife and a soup spoon to trawl my way through the delicious stew. A crouton, floating like a lifeboat, with a dollop of rouille was an excellent touch atop an already wonderful meal. Once again I caught myself acting like a cretin and sopping up the broth with the remainder of our baguette slices.
Birthday Girl was kind enough to offer me a couple bites of her NY Strip Au Poivre (A dish I still cannot pronounce properly nor would I bastardize such a fine cut of meat by attempting to recreate it at home).
Plated with a heaping mound of crispy pomme frites, the tender cut was cooked to perfection and rubbed with a layer of ground peppercorns. Each bite packed a punch that pulled the breath from your lungs. The fries were hot and crispy and tasted excellent dipped in the brandy-peppercorn drippings, intended for the steak, that the chefs tastefully served in a small gravy boat beside a thimble of ketchup.
Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to try the deserts because there was a sixer of decadent Red Velvet cupcakes from SAS Cupcakes in Blakeney waiting back home with an excited two year old eager to sing his mommy a "Happy Birthday." As if we needed a reason, trying the deserts gives us an excuse to return.
With the damages tallied and tip included, we spent a little over $100 on dinner. Certainly a reasonable price for excellent meals, a charming setting and time to relax over drinks with my wife. If you're a fan of French food or looking for a new option to entertain clients, or wanting to celebrate a special occasion or life itself, I recommend Georges Brasserrie at Piedmont Town Center in SouthPark. And ask for Wade as your server. He'll treat you right.