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Undercurrent overwhelms

by Alex Ashe

 alexa@yesweekly.com

Iknew what he meant, but don’t fully understand until I sit at the table.

When I asked Ben Roberts, owner of Greensboro’s Undercurrent Restaurant, why he thought our readers’ chose it as the best in the Triad, he responded quickly.

“We’re not just a restaurant,” Roberts said.

“We take care of people. It’s about more than just food. It’s about hospitality.”

That’s a prevailing sentiment when dining at Undercurrent, but that’s not to say the food, a palate workout, comes secondarily.

Roberts, who hails from the outskirts of Charleston, SC, attended culinary school at L’academie de Cuisine outside of Washington DC. He served as the executive chef at the Twin City Club in Winston-Salem for more than six years, but he realized his dream in 1998 in the Gate City.

“My goal was not to be a chef, but to own my own place,” said Roberts.

That place was located on the corner of South Elm and Lewis and at the time, was called Undercurrant, a nod to the berry. Roberts and his wife Susie revamped the restaurant’s spelling, as well as its menu, which has since consisted of contemporary American cuisine prepared with French techniques.

He served as head chef at the Elm Street location until 2006 when Undercurrent moved to the current space on Battleground Avenue, in between the downtown Marriot and NewBridge Bank Park.

“It gave us a bigger bar, a private dining room and a patio area,” Roberts said. “Plus, we wanted to be closer to our lunch customers.”

When Undercurrent moved, Roberts stepped out of the kitchen and into an all-encompassing managerial role. He now performs day-to-day tasks from booking the restaurant’s private dining room to making social-media updates. He admits that he sometimes misses the kitchen.

“If you have a bad carrot, you can just throw it away,” Roberts said. “If you have a difficult customer, though, you can’t do that. You’ve gotta coddle and take care of them.”

Chef Michael Harkenreader now leads the kitchen at Undercurrent, to Roberts’ delight.

“Michael does a wonderful job,” said Roberts.

It’s time to find that out firsthand, as my mom and I sit down for dinner.

The Robertses aim to create an elegant, comfortable dining room atmosphere and absolutely succeed. They compensate for the room’s high ceiling by incorporating large columns, and continue the Roman theme with marble sculptures positioned throughout the restaurant. Remarkable black and white photos by Billy Cone grace the tan walls, which, combined with the room’s soft lighting and large windows, produce a light, soothing ambience. Between the easy-listening music and the neighboring conversations, the volume level is ideal. Undercurrent’s atmosphere is undeniably upscale yet it remains extremely welcoming.

Best of all, multiple alluring aromas fill the air.

Our gracious server, Laura, starts us off with a basket of homemade bread that serves as a great sign of things to come, leaving a savory aftertaste of parmesan and red pepper.

One of Undercurrent’s best aspects is its perpetually changing menu, which creates an inspired revolving door of clever, unusual flavor combinations. Harkenreader changes the dinner and dessert menus each two months and forms a new lunch menu every other week.

My mom orders the Moroccan carrot soup, which is presented with a swirl of mint-honey yogurt that leads to some grilled shrimp in the middle. The mint notes make for a really unique taste without superseding the carrot flavor.

Seemingly every dish at Undercurrent features some type of curveball like this. I go a fairly conventional route, ordering the grilled tenderloin, cooked to medium, giving it a slightly crispy exterior and a remarkably tender center. The delicious tenderloin is served with a red-wine bordelaise sauce, parmesan-roasted new potatoes and grilled asparagus. The twist comes in the form of a dollop of cherry-almond pesto on the top of the food pile. Though I’m still unsure how it qualifies as a pesto, the delectable concoction adds an unexpected sweet and nutty facet to the plate, accompanying the fresh, crunchy asparagus especially well. It’s such an unusual creation that not even Google has heard of such a thing.

My mom’s colorful crab-cake plate is gorgeously presented along a seared tomato/ sweet pea couscous, curry-roasted cauliflower, crispy leeks and a tzatziki sauce. She’s blown away by the quality of the crab cake, which is especially telling given that she’s a Maryland native.

Each of the five dessert options are enticing, but we opt to split the caramel-pistachio tart, which features a terrific dark-chocolate glaze and is served with vanilla ice cream. It hits all the right notes, serving as a perfect cap to an outstanding meal.

As exquisite and unique as the food is, Roberts is spot-on in emphasizing the atmosphere and service as well. All three elements coalesce into a simply euphoric dining experience.

WANNA go?

Undercurrent Restaurant; 327 Battleground Ave., Greensboro; 336.370.1266; undercurrentrestaurant.com

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