High marks for Palmetto’s Low Country cuisine
There´s a party going on at Palmetto Low Country Cuisine, and I’m late. Inside, a sea of soulful faces moves through an elegant dining room with mammoth mirrors and tables dressed in white. The L-shaped wooden bar area is alive and well with a cover band rocking the house. Folks have been doing this for the past few hours as the sounds of live go-go music tear through the normal Saturday night, downtown Greensboro buzz of drunken laughter and police sirens. Call-and-response lyrics replace monotone dialogue. Besides that, the only other verbal exchanges are those that involve the transaction of delectable foods and potent drinks from servers to guests.
Head chef and owner Carlos Brown paces back and forth between the kitchen and the front door clad in his white coat with black custom embroidery. He wears a tapered Mohawk and wide smile but is quietly checking every minor detail. His eyes touch every table on his way back to the kitchen and lead his hands to pick up discarded plates. While reaching for the dishes, he inquires about the dining experience of his guests. Everything must be perfect.
This isn’t my first time here. The last time, the restaurant was quieter.
It was midday during the business week with no band and no pomp. Laughter wasn’t spilling out of the front door and the servers weren’t scrambling to fill incomplete requests. Even so, Chef Brown was still doing his thing: a routine walk-around, checking for empty plates and glasses, chasing perception.
Palmetto celebrated its second, more widely publicized, grand opening on Saturday to a restaurant full of vibrant patrons. A day prior, Brown held a ribbon-cutting ceremony alongside city officials and his consiglieri, consisting of his wife, LaShawn, partial owners Rik Dalton and Ezekiel Jiles and his employees. Jiles, whose stage name is “Freekey Zekey,” is best known as president of Diplomats Records and owner/CEO of 730 Dips Records. Guilford County Commissioner Bruce Davis and Downtown Greensboro Inc. President/CEO Ed Wolverton were also in attendance.
Brown, a Charleston, SC native, comes from a family entrenched in their gullah/geechee roots. When he decided to practice the culinary arts, he immediately looked to his upbringing for inspiration.
“There’s a lot of joy in the culture and the food,” says Brown. “I just took what Mom and Grandma used to make and made it fancy.”
Brown has worked in the Charlotte Omni Hotel’s food service department, provided catering at the High Point Furniture Market and was head chef on the set of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective starring Jim Carrey. His first restaurant, Gullah Gullah Cuisine, closed in September 2010, only a month after the soft opening of Palmetto.
On Saturday night, Brown places a sampler plate of popular dishes in front of me and holds a comfortable posture in his chair on the other side of the table. From left to right, two-bite portions of shrimp étouffée, shrimp and grits and bleu cheese salmon decorate the parsleyconfetti-ed plate. The Creole-style étouffée consists of cooked shrimp over white rice and topped with peppers, onions and a spicy cream sauce. The shrimp and grits is the centerpiece and described as “straight Charleston” by Brown. Grated parmesan rests atop the shrimp that sinks into the grits like quicksand. The bleu cheese salmon is one of Brown’s creations, with crumbles of bleu cheese, mashed potatoes and an Asian sauce akin to hoisin.
I think it’s rare for anyone to walk into a restaurant, order a meal and dive in while the owner and head chef’s calculating eyes dig deep into your facial expressions while eating his signature dishes. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to feign any emotion. The dishes taste familiar but prepared with a certain pizzazz that forced my face to contort.
“This is really good!” I exclaimed. “Just good?” Brown asked. We shared a laugh as I cleaned my plate and looked for seconds.
The very capable culinary staff at Palmetto hold the fort down as Brown shakes hands and micromanages the restaurant from anywhere in the building. He returns to the kitchen and falls in rank with the rest of his cooks.
Palmetto Low Country Cuisine 223 S. Elm St. Greensboro
A sampler includes shrimp and grits, etouffee and bleu cheese salmon.