[9.1] Leah and Louise is a triumph amongst tragedy
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had a lot to think about.
Just how deadly is this virus? How seriously should I take it? Will I get infected? Will my stubborn and immunocompromised parents be safe? Who even am I if I can't dine out or go to bars?
It's a centered conversation we all had from our own perspective. What happens to me? How will this affect me?
But in the center of this airborne whirlwind, I found myself thinking a lot about Chef Greg Collier. See, he and his wife Subrina had success when their Rock Hill concept Yolk Cafe came to 7th Street Market as Uptown Yolk. Yolk opened its doors in the shadows of a 7th Street Market boycott that'd made the popular Uptown food hall somewhat less hip to patronize. The Yolk, however, managed to stick its talons in Charlotte.
Their Camp Northend concept Leah and Louise was among the most anticipated restaurant openings of the year. Chef Greg was running off the rocket fuel of a James Beard nomination as he and his wife seemed poise to singlehandedly bring relevance to the burgeoning Camp Northend.
The conversation was so layered. These are Black business owners coming into a Black neighborhood inside a food hall less contextual commenters would consider gentrification-adjacent. This was to be a restaurant that celebrated Black culture and Black food, specifically from Memphis, while infusing music, cocktails, and dancing.
And before they could do any of it, the worst pandemic since Spanish Influenza forced dining rooms to close their doors. Five months later, we now know dozens of those restaurants, some with long-standing connections in the community, will never re-open.
That's why in the midst of the pandemic, I found myself thinking a lot about Leah and Louise. How do you open a restaurant without a dining room? How do you have a juke joint with no joint to juke in?
Leah and Louise did what most restaurants did: they packaged meals for curbside pickup. I ordered from them the first week they were open.
The seasoning for the chicken skins was dynamic when paired with the granch, and the Mud Island catfish stew was warm and creamy. The dirty grits had a great look, but weren't particularly imaginative or captivating. But I couldn't get over the fact that I was eating out of plastic containers on my dusty coffee table in a studio apartment.
When dining rooms re-opened in late May, I wrote about how the dining room is an irreplaceable experience of a dining community. Presentation, atmosphere, and aesthetic contribute heavily to our consumption of food, as highlighted in Josh Shope's narrative on Hello, Sailor [7.8].
The hype was strong enough that I felt Leah and Louise could survive on takeout and curbside, but I wasn't sure how the true vision of the concept would have a chance to take root in Charlotte until the dining room was opened.
Now, with limited capacity and masks required to move around the restaurant, we can see the struggles that preceded Leah and Louise have given way to success. Our dining scene is in the middle of tragedy as bars and restaurants face seemingly unwinnable odds to stay afloat. Somehow, in the center of that, Leah and Louise reminds us of what we're fighting for, what we can't afford to lose.
Leah and Louise is a stunning, dynamic, layered restaurant that's full of surprises. The flavors are unlike what anyone else in town is doing. Greg and Subrina have made this restaurant rise from merely impressive to important. It's deserves to be included among Charlotte's best restaurants and is a can't-miss dining experience not just in our city, but in our region.
The physical space of the restaurant reflects the architecture of Memphis. Vibrant colors sit atop exposed brick and distressed wood. It recalls the illuminated urban history of Beale Street in downtown Memphis.
You could almost imagine this as a blues club in the 1930s. You hear the echoes of Muddy Waters, B. B. King, and Louis Armstrong setup with a mic in the corner as you canoodle on the sofa.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The shared history of all great blues cities, like Nashville and Clarksdale and indeed Memphis, is one of resourcefulness and reclamation. That is also the narrative of Black food, taking animal parts that were considered useless and reimagining them into something beautiful. And that's exactly what Leah and Louise does: it reclaims space. To launch this specific restaurant in this specific food hall in this specific neighborhood is a birthright for Black Charlotteans. Repetitive mid-century modern designs are popping up like pimples in formerly Black neighborhoods all over our city, but this space is visibly and unshakably Black.
I ordered a seasonal cocktail, the Cancer Season, a refreshing rum-based beverage where the brown sugar and basil give every sip a fresh burst, and the coriander keeps it grown and sexy.
I gave the dirty grits another shot. They looked a lot different from what I'd had in my curbside order, neither of which match what they look like in the promotional photos. They're definitely dirty, but too much of the dirt is just thyme, which seemed almost comically heaped on top of the dish. It's the only thing I could taste in the dish.
The idea in my head of Memphis-style dirty grits doesn't match what arrives to the table. When I think about dirty grits, I think about heat and fat, both of which feel absent from the flavor profile here. After giving the dish two shots, I likely won't order it again.
But the Innocent Bywater is one of the best seafood dishes you'll have in Charlotte.
The pan sear is done to perfection, giving a crispy outside that gives way to a flaky and tender slab of fish. It sits in a pool of brown butter that provides a nice sweet variance to the seasoning of the fish. The squash has a fun char on it. It's such a multilayered dish with plenty of surprise and engage. I left the smoked pecans off.
The chicken sandwich, here called Bird is the Word, and comes with house made chips. I know we're all suffering from chicken sandwich fatigue after over a year of too much discussion, but I want to enter this chicken sandwich into the conversation for Charlotte's best. Finally someone realizes that the essence of a good chicken sandwich is in the seasoning of the breading, not in mayonnaise-based sauces and sweet pickles. The pickles and sauce are there, but the flavor mix of the chicken itself could stand on its own if it needed to.
The more you eat out in this city, the more you start to learn that most restaurants are pretty average. Yes, even the ones that'll run you a $150 check at the end of the night. Yes, even the ones that local media hype up for a year straight. Most restaurants are doing the same 4-5 things with only surface-level aesthetic differences. Some can even be great, but not be different.
But every now, we get a Leah and Louise, a one-of-a-kind dining experience that you can't get anywhere else. These are the restaurants that will grow our city's food scene, that will drive us to prominence. Pulling it off is hard. Pulling it off in a global pandemic? That's damn near magical.
That's what Leah and Louise is, a little taste of magic in the middle of a maelstrom. If you only eat at one new place in the next month, and that is reality for more and more people, Leah and Louise is the only choice.