How we eat: Customshop’s elevated comfort


January 31, 2024

Customshop dishes with wine

Customshop dials in a comforting vibe with polished plates that celebrate the region’s bounty.

by Michael J. Solender

photographs by Kenty Chung and Justin Driscoll

Customshop in Elizabeth has been a neighborhood stalwart since it opened in 2007. But changes have been quietly underway over the last year and a half since chef-owner Andres Kaifer bought the restaurant from founder Trey Wilson. My wife and I decided it was time to check it out. What we experienced was much more than a simple succession of dishes (and a break from our own kitchen duties). 

On the menu, there’s familiarity with an international flair. Yet, there’s more on tap here than an uber-talented chef preparing dishes with heart and soul, attentive service from a staff of career restaurant professionals, and a knockout bar. Underlying each component is a rare hospitality factor — a genuine emphasis on relationships. 

Kaifer and partner and general manager Alex Bridges, longtime friends and colleagues, know the magic of deep connections. The bonds they’ve forged with their associates, local farmers and food purveyors, industry professionals, and the community ultimately translate to the guest experience. 

Kaifer was born and grew up in Miami, where his Cuba-born mother (who was raised in Spain) commanded the home kitchen. She was so meticulous, she wrote menus for every meal she served. When Kaifer began his first restaurant job at 15, his future career was set. 

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he worked in Miami, Raleigh/Durham (where he first connected with Bridges at The Durham Hotel) and ultimately Charlotte, where he was culinary director for Mac’s Hospitality Group. 

Left: Photograph by Kenty Chung. Middle: Chef-owner Andres Kaifer puts the finishing touch on Customshop’s beet appetizer. Photographs by Justin Driscoll

Before long, he crossed culinary paths with Charlotte chef and Customshop founder Trey Wilson. “I met Trey through a mutual friend, and we ended up developing a friendship,” Kaifer says. Wilson wanted to focus on his other concepts (Flour Shop and Pizza Baby), so he approached Kaifer about taking over the restaurant. “He didn’t want to sell to just anybody, as he had a sentimental attachment and had forged strong relationships in the neighborhood,” Kaifer says.

Kaifer saw so much promise in building upon the brand Wilson had developed, he decided to maintain the concept, menu and staff when he acquired the restaurant in summer 2022.

While Kaifer’s culinary point of view diverged from Wilson’s, his due diligence convinced him to keep the Customshop brand. “They survived the [Gold Line trolley] construction. That basically derailed this entire street for many months. The restaurant held up during Covid and was there for the neighborhood with takeout. I knew there was something special.”

The long, rectangular restaurant fronting Elizabeth Avenue, just north of Novant’s Presbyterian Medical Center, sports a warm, polished industrial look, yet even with a full house, noise levels remain in check. 

Menu changes came slowly. Kaifer fostered relationships with Carolina-based farmers and providers (Stone Seafood, Boy & Girl Farm, Seven Sisters Farm, Chapel Hill Creamery and others). Over the first few months, the former Italian-influenced “neighborhood trattoria” evolved into a Latin-leaning contemporary-casual bistro with a seasonal menu reflecting regional crops and ingredients. 

Each plate shares a story, and everyone from the hostess and servers to the GM and chefs take care to make patrons feel welcome. 

“Guests come for a shared experience and to relax and connect,” Bridges says. “You don’t see our menu categorized into appetizers and entrees. Our dishes are designed to share and are meant to engage our guests in conversation.”

Our first dish came for the “Small” category on the menu and paired sweet-as-candy red and yellow beets atop a whipped fromage with a smoky vinaigrette and walnut crumble. The interplay of sweet, creamy, slightly sour, crunchy and salty was a fun start to the meal and piqued our taste buds for what was to follow. 

Kaifer and partner-general manager Alex Bridges, left, met while working in Durham. Right: The flan is a variation of Kaifer’s mother’s recipe. Photographs by Justin Driscoll.

Next up was a Hamachi Crudo — slices of pristine raw Japanese amberjack bathed in a Parmesan leche de tigre with red onion, scallions and crispy corn. The dish shows off Kaifer’s approach of allowing the freshness and quality of his ingredients speak for themselves. 

Customshop’s pasta is a standout and for good reason. Kaifer is a fanatic when it comes to the joys found in these satisfying carbs. The Blue Crab Ravioli showcased pillowy crab- and mascarpone-stuffed pockets in a miso broth flecked with pinkeye purple peas and topped with salty ricotta salata and a bright gremolata. 

My wife and I fought over every bite of Kaifer’s Ricotta Cavatelli, twisty pasta curls in a garlic and shallot cream sauce punched up with house-made pork and fennel sausage. “We have fun with our pasta,” Kaifer says. It’s always going to be featured on the menu.” 

From the “Grill” category of the menu came another Customshop signature dish — Rohan Duck Breast. This hybrid heritage breed of duck is cold-smoked then grilled to order. On my visit, the duck was served over a sweet potato and miso puree surrounded by a sour cherry demi-glace and walnut crumble. The umami bomb of the smoky and savory duck balanced with the sweet and acidic sauce. No dish says more about Kaifer’s thoughtful approach to plate construction: satisfying, nuanced, yet basic and elemental. He knows flavor, texture and what resonates with his guests. 

Dessert was a variation of Kaifer’s mother’s flan. Here, the homey dish is amped up with cream cheese, lending a velvety richness to the Latin custard. A perfect end to a delightful meal. 

During the evening, I couldn’t help noticing frequent cross-table conversations and banter between guests, Bridges and Kaifer when he occasionally stepped out of his kitchen on this busy night. There’s a circular energy flow here. And while the love certainly starts in Customshop’s kitchen, there’s plenty coming back at the team here from a community who loves them just as much in return.  SP

This feature is part of a collection of stories about local food and drink trends from charcuterie boards to cocktails and tasting menus.

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