Chow down with John Batchelor at 1618 Midtown
Casual, familiar dishes, conceived and prepared with imagination and skill
Long bar fills up shortly after work hours; lots of familiar interaction
Daily bar specials add to the equation.
Ratings range from Not Recommended or Acceptable to one (satisfactory), two (good), three (very good), four (excellent) or five (truly exceptional) stars.
Most recent visit: Aug. 24
1618 Midtown occupies a middle space, both figuratively and geographically, in the 1618 culinary empire. 1618 Seafood Grille was the initial entry, at the upper end of the market, from managing partner Nick Wilson and chef-partner George Neal. 1618 Downtown, the third installment, holds forth from the requisite central location.
The midtown property is relatively casual in look and feel. A long bar (where food is also served), helmed by Max Barwick, fills up not long after work hours with what appears to be a pretty regular crowd. Bottle displays, as well as the cocktail menu, are quite impressive.
Elevated seating occupies the rear, with a banquette and chairs of conventional height upfront. I perceived a lot of interaction between guests and staff, who often seem to know each other.
Stacy Land is the general manager and a Certified Sommelier that curates the wine list. That list, international in scope, is quite extensive, especially for a place this size. On the one hand, there are lots of opportunities for adventure here. On the other hand, few selections are likely to be familiar to most patrons, so this is a “trust me” list. By the glass selections can be sampled (gratis), however, and small, medium, and full-sized pours are available. My wife and I liked everything we tried, so I concluded that Ms. Land could indeed be trusted- a compliment I seldom pay to sommeliers.
This is, however, much more than a bar with food. Lots of places serve similar dishes, but 1618 Midtown tends to use better, fresher ingredients, prepared with more imagination and higher skill levels.
Tacos migrated out of Mexican restaurants a generation ago. Here, the Hot Chicken version is crisp and flavorful, fowl flavor upfront, augmented by sweetish honey aioli and vegetables pickled in rice wine vinegar, whole grain mustard, and garlic. The Fish Taco used Mahi the night we tried it (fish varies according to what is available fresh). A chili pepper aioli, all hosted in Romaine lettuce, with a black bean and corn salsa, rounds things out.
I predict yet another government investigation, this time focusing on Dirty South Nachos, based on their obviously addictive nature. Moist, fresh, pulled chicken is tossed in homemade barbecue sauce of fire-roasted Poblano peppers, tomatoes, onions, and chipotle peppers, joined by diced shallots and tomatoes. A chipotle laced cheddar cheese sauce adds intensity, best sampled with crisp fried wonton chips. Fried collards (friends who don’t like collards will delve into these with gusto) top the assembly.
Although Mussels are listed in the starter section of the menu, my wife ordered them as an entrée. We found an ample serving, sharable as a first course, plenty for a main. They taste fresh, bathed in beer, shallots, bacon, and garlic served with pretzel bread, which does a great job of soaking up the broth.
Trying to be good on at least one visit, we started with a Brie and Berries Salad. The brie bears a light crust, fried quick and crisp, so the cheese is softened. Raspberries, along with orange slices, burst with complementary flavor, while roasted pistachios lend crunch. A dark cherry Champagne vinaigrette dresses the mixed lettuces. I wouldn’t consider this dietetic, but it sure tastes good. Can we deduct calories for good intentions?
I experienced one misgiving when we ventured into the entrées. The Bacon Wrapped Rainbow Trout is a whole fish, split and deboned, the center filled with sage pecan pesto. I don’t like to eat fish skin, and the way this is presented makes for awkward eating. I had to cut a piece away, pull the skin off, then eat the flesh. On balance, it is worth the effort, especially given the enhancement from bacon and roasted tomato sauce. This is presented over grits, with slivered zucchini, squash, and carrots on the side.
At first glance, Ramen Braised Short Ribs seemed to be missing the expected ramen noodles. Our server explained that the ribs are braised in ramen broth, hence the title, but placed over risotto. The meat is tender in that unique way that long, slow simmering produces, exuding rich depth of flavor, supplemented by cilantro-curry rice and pickled vegetables. Fried pork rings scattered on top lend visual impact as well as crunch and flavor of their own.
Herb Crusted Pork Tenderloin is lean and firm, yet still tender to the bite, excellent pork flavor emerging from a pleasant crust that’s laced with strawberry balsamic syrup. Bacon braised collard greens, obviously fresh, are the perfect vegetable match. Two wedges of cornbread, one placed vertically, establish the angular presentation. They contain pieces of sweet potato, a brilliant concoction.
We ordered Tomato Penne Pesto Pasta with Shrimp, which turned out to be deveined and tender, well-matched to the flavors of the host ingredients. Grilled Shrimp and Scallops, a more elaborate dish, are placed in smoky tasso ham cream sauce, flanked by grilled asparagus and a crisp fried gouda cheese potato cake: another excellent conception and polished execution.
The Rock Shrimp BLT is the most casual entrée on the menu, but it’s a winner in its own right. The shrimp are not overcooked, their flavor marries well with both bacon and tomato, and the host French bread, made from scratch in house, is noteworthy as well. Homemade potato chips are crisp and dry (that’s a compliment, as in not greasy), but they need a little something else for proper effect. A bit of blue cheese dressing does the trick!
Desserts from pastry chef Cherish Cronin are available in single portions or in combinations. I regret that weight restrictions prevented me from trying any, but that condition will be ameliorated on a future visit when less of me will allow more of them. Steven “Rooster” Jones is chef and a Greensboro native who grew up with the restaurant business in McPherson’s Bar and Grill, owned by his father. He attended the University of North Carolina at Wilmington before entering professional kitchens, where he eventually worked his way up to executive chef at Liberty Oak before moving over to the 1618 family in March 2018.
This is the quintessential 3-Star (Very Good) restaurant. Everything is enjoyable, you pay reasonable prices, and you feel like you’re visiting family and friends.
John Batchelor has been writing about eating and drinking since 1981. Over a thousand of his articles have been published. He is also author of two travel/cookbooks: Chefs of the Coast: Restaurants and Recipes from the North Carolina Coast, and Chefs of the Mountains: Restaurants and Recipes from Western North Carolina. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or see his blog, johnbatchelordiningandtravel.blogspot.com
1618 Midtown, 1724 Battleground Ave., Greensboro. (336) 285-9410. 1618midtown.com
Hours: 5 p.m.-12 a.m. Monday-Saturday
Appetizers: $7-$19, Salads: $7-$9, proteins additional $4-$6, Soups: $6/cup-$10/bowl (fall and winter, usually), Entrées: $14-$30, Desserts: $4