by Brian Clarey

I first met Diego Gomez, fittingly, in a restaurant.

It was in the summer of 2002. I had been in Greensboro about two years and was supplementing my freelance income — which at that point was about five grand a year — by tending bar and waiting tables at whatever restaurants would have me. I worked at Trilogy that summer, hustling thick cuts of meat and fancy wine to whomever happened into the place. And one evening I heard a local publisher had reserved a dinner table. I made sure I got that table, and after the meal I laid my resume on the guy, tucked in with the check. The guy was, of course, Diego Gomez and the monthly magazine he started that day, In the Spotlight, was where I worked as associate editor until 2003. We’ve since gone our separate ways, but I still run into Gomez on occasion. We’ll lift a drink to the old days in our downtown offices, which stood in the space that is now Center City Park, the many fumbles and successes of the magazine in its fledgling year, the changes time has wrought in Greensboro and elsewhere. So when I heard Gomez had taken over operations at the restaurant now known as Level 2, I pledged to go in and check it out for myself. The restaurant’s name conveys its location on the floor between the Much Martini Bar and Heaven rooftop nightclub — both of which are in for big things in the coming weeks, Gomez says. And two of the other principals — Araya Wossen, formerly of Montego Bay Caribbean restaurant, and Mark Freedman, who used to own Mark’s on Westover — were regular advertisers in Spotlight back in the day. So when I walk through Much’s big, brass doors the whole thing has this sort of homecoming feel. Diego’s by the bar; Mark’s working the dining room. Hell, Evan Olson is setting up in the lounge — throw in a Sofa Bar reference and I’m right back in the past. Up the steel staircase, the dining room has changed a bit since original owner Joey Medaloni concieved the original Much restaurant up here and subsequent owner Rocco Scarfone built Carmine’s around homecooked Italian fare. Gauzy curtains surround the large banquettes and the color palette is darker, more serene. Black linen napkins, which won’t leave harsh lint on black clothes, line a field of square, linen-covered tables. An area by the staircase has been converted to a sofa bar — another touch from the early oughts.

The wine list shows a lot of quality — a select few at the lower price points, but some fabulous mid-range bottles and a cache of high-end sparkling and still wines. I’m not sure how many $700 bottles of Krug Ros’ Brut Diego’s moving, but it’s nice to know it’s out there. I was a big fan of Freedman’s food at Mark’s, which I wrote about in the pages of the Spotlight, natch: Southern-rooted fusion cooking based on impeccable ingredients and learned technique. He can sear a scallop like nobody’s business. His current menu includes a few bar-friendly courses like hummus, vegetable pizza and a Kobe beef burger along with some of his more showy stuff. There are classics here: roasted chicken with a pomegranate-molasses reduction; cowboy steak with Tempura onion rings, chops of pork and lamb. A Caesar salad is prepared tableside, and the classic steakhouse wedge salad comes with candied pecans and gorgonzola dressing. There are bargains, including three entrees under $16. And Freedman still has a penchant for great side dishes: Entrees came with things like potato or root vegetable terrine, smoked gouda mac and cheese and grilled figs. My own entr’e — duck breast, cooked medium, under a bing cherry-zinfandel sauce — is a fine take on a fairly common ingredient. But put it together with an imaginative side dish, in this case manchego cheese tater tots, and the whole thing is enhanced. When I ask about them, Freedman shrugs. “It’s what I do with my leftover mashed potatoes,” he says. My wife orders the teriyaki salmon, which comes in a generous portion and hits all the right notes. And as we ease back in our curtained banquette, we debate over placing a dessert order or joining my old boss at the bar downstairs.

We’ll have to come back for dessert another time.

113 S. Elm St., Greensboro 336.691.8020

Highlights of Level 2’s menu include the area staple of duck breast under a dense fruit reduction. This version is ingeniously paired with manchego tater tots.

Chef Mark Freedman can sear a scallop like nobody’s business. This Asian-style appetizer came atop a homemade slaw. (photos by Brian Clarey)