An under-the-radar restaurant in South End is serving up some of the city’s most creative drinks and dishes.
Over the summer, one of the city’s best new chef-driven restaurants quietly opened in South End’s emerging Gold District. It didn’t have the local chef star power of other new spots like Paul Verica’s The Stanley or the multi-million dollar build-out of Uptown’s La Belle Helene. But as the flurry of the season’s openings began to slow, there was a buzz about the creative dishes being served at a tiny newcomer led by a notable former Chicago chef.
Bardo began as a dream between two friends. Its owners, Jayson Whiteside, 38, and Chef Mike Noll, 36, originally met in 2009 through their wives who were college friends. At the time, Whiteside was living in Phoenix and Noll was in Chicago, where he worked as a sous chef with Chef Jake Bickelhaupt at underground dining club Sous Rising. (If the name sounds familiar, it’s because the club eventually led to Bickelhaupt’s famed Michelin-starred restaurant—the subject of a recent documentary, 42 Grams.)
Whiteside and Noll had talked about opening a restaurant together for years, and when the two both landed in Charlotte after making moves for their families, they saw an opportunity. “We looked at the market and saw that there was potential,” says Whiteside. “We felt there was a chance to try something new with food.”
The pair picked the South Mint Street location for its intimate size. The 45-seat restaurant feels in some ways like a large home with an open floor plan and an oversized dining room. One narrow dining area stretches back to an open kitchen with a view to each table. White brick walls lined with soft grey seating, green moss art, and stylish lighting give the space a relaxed but modern vibe. “We wanted to keep it casual and light and cozy,” says Whiteside. “And in this size space, Mike can be a part of the detail that goes into every plate.”
Diners will also find attention to detail in the drinks. Award-winning local mixologist Amanda Britton, 32, is the one behind the bar and behind the creative cocktail menu at Bardo. Her drinks are smooth and potent, and tend to push the envelope when it comes to flavors. “I love seeing people trying things they haven’t tried before, like Fernet Branca,” says Britton, pointing to Cool Beans, one of her favorite drinks on the menu—a chilled sweet and minty mix of the Italian herbal liqueur, rum, cold brew coffee, housemade horchata, vanilla, and cinnamon.
The cocktail list, which includes fewer than 10 drinks, is intentionally short. “It’s not a big place, which means we can be thoughtful about everything,” says Britton. “I knew I wanted to do a smaller menu.”
That menu pairs well with Noll’s equally concise selection. Filled with shareable small plates, dishes range from the simple—charred shishito peppers soaked in a toasted sesame and vinegar sauce ($9)—to the more complex, such as the ricotta tortellini ($15). The housemade pasta dish appears Italian, but has all the flavors of an Indian dish with peanut, coconut, and a green curry sauce gently poured over it tableside. It’s adventurous in its unexpected fusion of flavors and it works remarkably well, which means that for now, it stays on the menu.
“If something isn’t being perceived well, we’ll take it off or change it,” says Noll, who notes that the restaurant’s size allows him to be nimble in his choices in the kitchen, both in discovering what patrons enjoy and in ensuring the dishes reflect the best ingredients. “The big thing here is freshness. We have a seasonal focus on both produce and protein.”
Vegetarians will appreciate that the menu has several vegetable-focused dishes, such as a tempura mushroom with brown butter ($13) and smoked beets topped with creamy goat cheese and pistachios ($10). But meat lovers needn’t worry. A tender dry aged ribeye ($23) served with kimchi butter and the beef tartare ($18), which is accompanied by dollop of egg yolk jam, has been the menu’s most popular item. And save room for dessert. Noll plays pastry chef as well with innovative sweet treats like a carrot cake ($10) served in chunks over sweet cream cheese and topped with delicate slices of candied carrots.
The name Bardo comes from a Buddhist term meaning the transitional state between death and rebirth. To Noll, this meaning is very personal. “As a chef, when you’re not doing that job, a piece of you is gone,” he says, referencing the period before opening the restaurant. “For me, in a lot of ways this restaurant is a rebirth.”
It’s a birthday Charlotte should be celebrating.
Photography by Michael C. Hernandez