First look: Warmack
by Michael J. Solender • photographs by Justin Driscoll
Comfort-food cravings and obsessive, gotta-have-it snack attacks, while known to strike at any time, are particularly acute when approaching the bewitching hour.
For Charlotte hospitality veteran and restaurateur James Nguyen, the inability to find a late-night spot in his Plaza Midwood neighborhood to satisfy longings for the foods he grew up with — piquant and earthy Vietnamese banh mi, shrimp crisps, and slow-braised pork belly rice bowls — was particularly frustrating.
“I used to live in Houston,” Nguyen says. “I could find Vietnamese restaurants open until 4 a.m. In Charlotte, if I want a banh mi, I have to get one by 8 p.m., or it’s just not happening.”
It wasn’t just the style of food he missed, but a cozy, convivial neighborhood hangout where he could unwind with his friends, share the trials and triumphs of the day, and enjoy a casual meal and a well-crafted cocktail. In late 2019, Nguyen, the former owner of uptown’s QC Social Lounge, turned to his pal Nobuaki Ishikawa, former chef/owner of 7th Street Market’s Bonsai Fusion sushi bar, about remedying the situation with a casually elegant restaurant serving a compact menu of authentic Asian dishes highlighted by a space with a late-night feel all evening long.
Ishikawa, who closed Bonsai after eight years uptown and had ended his run as chef at SouthPark’s Yama Asian Fusion, signed on as executive chef, and the seeds for Warmack were sown.
“James was looking to serve authentic Vietnamese,” says Ishikawa, who is of Japanese heritage. “I was hopeful to create a platform for Japanese cuisine that was more affordable and accessible than typically found in Charlotte. We know there is a market for dishes we want to serve, and the space here is a great draw for our neighborhood.”
Timing is everything, and shortly after starting the buildout for the 1,100-square-foot restaurant in February 2020, Covid turned the world upside down. Undeterred, the team, which includes Capital Grille veteran Stephen Tandy and Chef Christian Vina, used the downtime to winnow their menu into a manageable selection of favorites — both small plates and more substantial mains — that encourage diners to be adventuresome. A year later, Warmack opened its doors, and the restaurant is already building a fervent following.
Lovers of Vietnamese street food and the savory, sharable bar fare typically found at Japanese izakaya (similar to tapas bars) are in their happy place here as Ishikawa’s kitchen turns out umami-undertoned finger foods, bowls and mains addictive in their mélange of texture and flavor.
Warmack’s bao buns are a prime example. There’s traditional bao: slow-braised pork belly lacquered with a sticky, sweet and salty hoisin glaze stuffed into a pillowy soft steamed bun and served with a tangy Vietnamese slaw. Served three to an order, these are the ultimate Asian sliders. Ishikawa delightfully tinkers with the concept in his chicken katsu curry bao. Here, the chef takes marinated chicken thighs, lightly coats them with panko, and after a quick fry, bathes them in a mellow Japanese curry and serves them with house-pickled daikon.
Ishikawa’s deft touch with seafood shines across the menu. O” Snap is Warmack’s star offering from the sea: A whole fried red snapper is served with tomato crudo on one side; pickled cucumber, daikon and carrot on the other. Visually stunning, the plate is large enough for two when served with sticky rice and an additional side of quick-fried Brussels sprouts with a soy and miso-based glaze.
Tempura-fried salmon is tossed with a tart/sweet/hot sauce and served in crunchy wonton-shell tacos with mango salsa. This contrast of textures and flavors pairs nicely with a sunny WARgarita (Warmack’s custom margarita) from the bar.
Eggplant agedashi is a dish Nguyen insisted Ishikawa add to the menu after, on one occasion, the chef made him a quick lunch with some leftovers. The dish combines flash-pan-fried tofu, thick chunks of Chinese eggplant, shiitake mushrooms and a flavorful mushroom broth in a quick stir fry, served over rice.
Rich marinades and complex sauces lay the foundation for many of the most successful dishes at Warmack. Fuzzy’s braised pork bowl — meaty charred pork belly with pickled watermelon atop sticky rice — owes its tender texture to a marinade that blends rich tamari, miso, sherry, rice wine vinegar, ginger, garlic and lemongrass. Gyudon pairs thinly sliced marinated beef tenderloin with shiitakes, sweet onions and asparagus spears over sushi rice. Traditional yakisoba, the classic Japanese stir-fry noodle dish, sings in what the chef refers to as “Warmack sauce” — think levels of sweet, hot, salty and citrusy, all playing together in harmony.
Warmack staff members refer to their dishes as Asian comfort food. There’s no question why techniques such as grilling, slow braising and stir fry capture so much flavor while enhancing the natural essence of proteins and fresh produce.
With slick service, a sleek black-on-black minimalist setting under moon-glow lighting and a backlit concrete bar, guests find a comfortable, compact space that encourages lingering. There’s a lounge-like feel with a DJ on weekends, and the bar flows out to the wrap-around patio that stretches from a front-door conversation den to tables on the side.
Sunday brunch is a multicultural affair: Okonomiyaki, or Japanese pancakes, are vegetable-filled, rice-flour savory crepes served with chicken or tofu. Ishikawa’s shrimp and grits are made with a rich mushroom broth and Cajun-spiced shrimp. Charlotte’s most outlandish Bloody Mary — here called the Mega Mary — is skewered with a Pork Bao, shrimp, jalapeño popper, pickles, carrots, celery, olives and house-made beef jerky.
Look for brunch to extend to Saturdays and the launch of a sushi menu soon. “We’re after neighborhood-comfortable,” Ishikawa says. “We want a place where we want to hang out with our friends.”
That should be easy. Warmack is making many new friends, one evening at a time. SP
1226 Central Ave., thewarmack.com