An enormous, nonfunctioning steel clock, forever stopped at 5:15, greets you at the entrance of City Kitchen.
And like a stopped clock, City Kitchen is right—sometimes.
Located at the former Spice Street in the University Mall shopping center, City Kitchen is operated by the long-standing Giorgios Hospitality Group. GHG's stable of restaurants includes Bin 54 in Chapel Hill, and in Durham, Vin Rouge, Parizade and the now-defunct George's Garage. In other words, this is not GHG's first rodeo.
CK's décor offers the eye plenty to look at—ooh, shiny!—from mid-20th-century totems à la American Pickers to life-affirming aphorisms such as "Art Hope Food Love" inscribed on the walls.
Wood, stone and metal surfaces provide an earthy counterpart to the high ceilings that lend the eatery the lightness of an aviary. Trendy funnel-shaped lighting fixtures hang above the tables as if they could beam diners from their table to another universe—perhaps Planet Pinterest.
On a recent Saturday evening, CK teemed with aqua-clad UNC boosters, so we sat at the bar, where the metal stools are square, well-cushioned and comfy. I generally enjoy the camaraderie of a restaurant bar; CK's vibe was chatty and cordial, likely enhanced by our communal contempt for Alabama football, whose loss to Texas A&M played out on several well-placed televisions.
Our affable bartender provided us with complimentary bread and tomato sauce, dotted with white and black sesame seeds. Ragù? Prego? I couldn't quite place it.
Dismayed and hungry, we ordered the stone-baked spinach spread with house crackers ($7): spinach stirred into melted parmesan, mozzarella and local goat cheese, accompanied by fried crackers. My husband, chewing, turned to me and said, "Industrial."
Geez, did we take a wrong turn and wind up at Applebee's?
Thankfully, the main courses proved we did not.
We opted out of the raw bar—in my view, fish should either be alive and swimming or positively dead, not cryogenically preserved—and instead chose the trout ($17) and the salmon ($22).
Both fish were well-cooked, yet juicy and tender. The former came with capers in a lemon butter sauce, topped with steamed spinach that retained a satisfying crunch. Like a lovely still life, the entrée rested on the plate next to a wispy cauliflower purée. Braised, the salmon was capped with a vibrant horseradish-mustard sauce. The sauce lacked the kick—a head-clearing burn—but the green beans, like the spinach, had been perfectly cooked.
The custard texture of the vanilla ginger crème brûlée ($6) felt light on the palate, but the dessert suffered from the same identity crisis as the horseradish-mustard sauce: It lacked a dominant flavor.
The word among friends is that CK does lunch well, so on the last warm day of the year, I stopped by. I had my choice of outdoor tables, and even though I was partially obscured by a brick pillar, my attentive server did not forget me. He did bring me another of those damned tomato sauce-and-bread combos, which I pushed aside.
The steak salad and hamburger have received high praise from red-meat eaters I trust. But for me, the grilled portobello mushroom sandwich with herbed goat cheese spread was among the best I've eaten. CK knows how to cook vegetables—unlike fish, they should be partially alive—and the sandwich featured a wonderful combination of asparagus and beets.
So City Kitchen, ditch the tomato sauce and you'll get it right.
Correction: The fish was trout (not flounder).
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hold the tomato (paste)."