Chef Without a Toque 

Does The Chef really earn its capital "T"?

Does The Chef really earn its capital "T"?

Any restaurant which calls itself The Chef raises a few questions right off the bat. For starters, when you hear “The Chef,” do you think of Charlie Palmer and Daniel Boulud—or is it Boy-Ar-Dee who comes to mind?

Does the name suggest a lack of imagination, or is it an exercise in brevity? Is The Chef a generic term or one that implies distinction—emphasis on The?

An on-site inspection of The Chef Restaurant offers few answers. Unless you happen to be in the medical-supply business, the location—on a gritty block of 18th Avenue North near Charlotte—is a little off the beaten path. The large room, outfitted with a counter and some seen-better-days tables and chairs, isn’t exactly awash in atmosphere. And I saw no one wearing a toque or any other element of traditional chef attire on my visit.

But you don’t have to eat there to investigate the mysteries of The Chef Restaurant or its vast repertoire. A simple phone call discloses that the owners are A.J. Sankari and his brother Mohamed , who also own Sahara downtown. They serve as The Chefs for The Chef, which opened in May.

The eatery is perhaps best suited to carry-out. However, its delivery area is far-reaching (Music Row, West End to I-440, downtown, Vanderbilt, Belmont, and Hillsboro Village) and free of charge with an $8 minimum order.

After picking up a menu one afternoon, I placed a large and complicated order over the telephone and asked for delivery the following day at 11:30 a.m. Our lunch was delivered error-free and exactly on time. What’s more, everything that was supposed to be hot was hot, and the bags included all the napkins, utensils, and condiments we needed. (Don’t you just hate it when you drive away from the take-out window, only to discover the “associates” have forgotten the straws, napkins, and ketchup?)

The Chef must be awfully busy in The Kitchen—the menu goes on and on. We skipped the appetizer section, which is devoted to such chain-restaurant staples as fried cheese sticks, stuffed jalapeños, chicken tenders, potato skins, and artichoke-spinach dips. Thus we moved right into the kabobs, which I was betting would be The Chef’s specialty.

There are eight to choose from; with the exception of the lamb, none came on the skewer. Instead, the selected meats were arranged with grilled vegetables over a bed of moist saffron rice. The beef and spicy chicken were our favorites. Each kabob plate (priced from $5.49 to $8.49) was also accompanied by a side of salad-in-a-bag and half a pita. We were all puzzled by the mound of “potato dip” on each plate—watery mashed potatoes topped with a pool of olive oil and lemon juice, then sprinkled with paprika. We tried eating it by the forkful, dipping a wedge of pita in it, then dredging a cube of meat. It just didn’t work for us.

The moussaka—which we calculated at about 1000 calories a mouthful—was an acceptable rendition of the Greek comfort food, though far from classic.

Vegetarians will like their own special platter—cubes of eggplant, zucchini, and yellow squash, cauliflower, onions, peppers, and potato chunks cooked in a spicy tomato sauce with plenty of oregano. Less successful was the falafel: the big patties were dry and crumbly. The pita sandwiches—gyro, chicken, falafel, and eggplant—were good, but unless you’re planning to eat them immediately, I’d ask for the yogurt sauce on the side; the dressing made the bread too soggy to pick up. The subs were sub-par: the bread was too soft, and the fillings were unexceptional processed meat product.

The Chef also serves several pastas—ziti, lasagna, stuffed shells—that follow the time-honored formula for feeding a crowd: boil some pasta, add cheese and tomato sauce, then bake. Nothing above the ordinary, but tasty, filling, and budget-priced ($5.49 each).

We did not sample the pizza, but the stromboli stuffed with green peppers, onions, ham, and cheese was excellent. (With a salad, the one sized for two at $9.99 could easily feed a family of two adults and two children.) The calzone, fat as a blimp with fresh spinach, ricotta, romano, and mozzarella, was simply fabulous. A plain cheese or chicken version is also available.

The menu pledges, “We believe in quality and in serving generous portions and giving our customers a good, honest value.” That’s The Word from The Chef—and you can bet on it.

Little Italy

A couple of weeks ago I came home from dinner starving—never a good sign for a restaurant review. Thank goodness I had visited Marie and Carlo Giordano earlier that day at their Taste of Italy market and restaurant on White Bridge Road. I pressed my face up against their refrigerated case, and, as usual, I didn’t walk out empty-handed. In fact, I took home all that was left of the seafood salad, the Taste Treat of the Week. Forget what you know of southern seafood salads, which toss a few boiled shrimp (and maybe some crab meat) in among the mayonnaise, celery, and chopped onion. Carlo’s uncompromising version combines as-fresh-as-it-gets shrimp, squid, scallops, and lobster meat, marinated in oilve oil, lemon juice, and fresh parsley. It is sublime, pure culinary sanctitude. I took it out of the refrigerator, poured a glass of chardonnay, and savored every last morsel. Available only on Friday and Saturday, it is priced at $16.99 a pound, and worth every blessed penny.

I have a feeling many more taste treats are in store at Taste of Italy, which is now serving private dinners for parties of six or more if reservations are made at least two days in advance. When you call, Marie or Carolo will discuss the options for your four-course feast, prix fixe at $39 per person. Here’s one that will whet your appetite. Start with orange scampi fritters, followed by either an Apulian mussel soup or homemade ravioli in a meat or cream sauce. Then select a main course of either beef tenderloin in green pepper sauce or marinated swordfish in a tomato sauce with pine nuts, capers, and black olives. Glazed peaches with zabaglione polish off the meal. (The menus are written in Italian, which makes it all sound even better.) For a $5 corkage fee, you can bring your own wine.

In a few weeks, the Giordanos hope to begin serving dinner six nights a week from a limited menu. And then, as God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again.

Taste of Italy, 72 White Bridge Road, 354-0124

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