'Cork is a bistro that will happily remain afloat as the restaurant tides turn in this current economy" - those were my words in 2010 when I reviewed Cork Bistro.
Cork Neighborhood Bistro
Cuisine: Southern + Eclectic
Representative Dish: Smoked chicken wings, Cannon burger, sweet tea-braised short rib
Address: 1067 East Montague Ave., Park Circle, North Charleston
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday.
Bar: Full service bar, specialty cocktails and drink specials. Happy Hour Tuesday-Friday 3-6 p.m.
Food: 2 1/2
Service: 2 1/2
Costs: Starters $8-$16; salads and soups $5-$12; sandwiches $9-$13; entrees $12-$26; sides $3-$4; daily specials MP
Vegetarian Options: Yes
Wheelchair Accessible: Yes
Parking: City streets
Other: Carry-out, special events, oyster roasts, Lowcountry boils, barbecue, open mic, live performances, daily specials
It had all the elements of local success story. An owner whose roots are deep in North Charleston. His grandfather was known as the "mayor without a city" as North Charleston sought a referendum to become an incorporated city in its own right. His parents are graduates of North Charleston High School and they, along with Gibbs (Tradd Gibbs, owner), continue to reside in Park Circle.
Since then, Cork underwent some major changes. In May 2013, Heather Edwards, a Johnson and Wales honors graduate and North Carolina native, was brought on board as executive chef. She tweaked the menu and made her mark with an unconventional moonshine pairing dinner, an homage to her heritage.
But last summer, Gibbs and Edwards responded to a culinary casting call.
It seems the Cooking Channel was launching "Belly Up," a show touted on its website as, "Eddie Russell is going to change the way America experiences pub food. He's on a pilgrimage to enlighten the cooks, the barkeeps, and grillers of the nation's watering holes that today's bar food can be both delicious and sophisticated." And along that way, change came to Cork Neighborhood Bistro.
The transformation took place in early 2014. The name was changed to Cannon Trattoria, Bar + Kitchen. A trattoria is an Italian term for a casual, inexpensive, neighborhood eatery, usually family-owned and operated. Cannon is the name of Gibbs' son.
The launch menu was tightly scripted: cheeses, cured meats, olives, giardiniera, crudo, flatbread, pastas and a few entrees.
The menu moved to "Take Two." And although it did contain arancini, penne, polenta, pepperoni and prosciutto, it would not be thought of as "Italian" by any stretch of another canon.
The new Cannon boasted a more imposing storefront with the removal of Cork's awning, and the new signage above the door is dramatic and visually arresting. But in mid-April, Cannon came down and a "Cork Neighborhood Bistro" sign awaits installation.
The interior footprint remains the same. The walls now cloaked in vermillion red paint, and what we thought were the artifacts of the renovation - layers of paint and wallpaper and stucco "revealed" by peeling off the strata of wall treatments - is actually a "faux" print framed and used throughout the dining room.
The rear dining room is shadowed by Edison bulbs and spotlighted by floodlights, both contributing to awkward illumination. The fabric panels that partition the doorways and frame the openings lack sufficient weight and heft to perform their function. The one touch of fancy is the dining chairs whose backs are fabricated as forks and spoons.
The feel is a bit art deco meets urbane Victorian with a side of "let's repurpose these beer taps" as wall art.
The tabletops have been tightly wrapped in mock "skins" and studded into place. An artful touch of texture in a brighter space but here they act to filter the continuing layers of dark, from the rafters, to the ceiling fans, to the walls, to the tables, to the floor.
The ambience is somber and contrived, not the organic authenticity and energy that trattorias or bistros tend to portray.
The current menu now draws from many influences and presents a modern mix of eclectic dishes. There is Southern, both Italian and American, and the arancini of Cannon are replaced with a fritter of grits lined with pimiento cheese and served with red pepper jelly. There is a French brioche and croque "panini," pesto and demi-glace; house-smoked pulled pork and risotto bound with Gouda and jalapeno.
It is a menu both polyglot and playful. The offerings are balanced for the bar and the dining room. The smoked wings are not to be missed: juicy, crisped, smoked and buffed with a dry rub of spices that flies right. Cornmeal-crusted fried oysters play well with beer; the deconstructed Caprese salad is a cold pizza pie. And regional Southern mainstays have returned, such as fried chicken shrimp and grits and hush puppies.
An aioli gave faint praise to its garlic flavoring and its "fried" capers accents had little crunch or coloring to enhance this French garlic mayonnaise. This garlic emulsion spoke of such flavor promise as it accompanied competently fried oysters, but its temerity of seasonings disappointed.
The sweet tea-braised short rib layered meaty goodness over a roasted cauliflower puree at one visit and this same dish is now partnered with smoky and spicy risotto.
Soups are quirky and made from scratch. Devotees of the tomato bisque will find "it's back."
Hot food was served hot and kudos to the staff to keep those plates moving from the kitchen window pass to the guests.
Cannon opened with its new trattoria menu in February. Regulars were caught off guard. The initial menu re-vamp was limited: in line with Russell's bar food mission but sparse compared with Cork's bill of fare.
By spring, eating equilibrium seems apparent: Sandwiches and entrees with favorable pricing expand the menu's range and have been consolidated into one menu. Cannon popped a new Cork.
Belly Up has no airing dates posted for this show on The Food Channel website. The continued menu tweaking seems to indicate that chef Edwards and Tradd Gibbs are not going to let their enterprise in the Olde Village of Park Circle belly flop.
They even returned "Cannon" to its original moniker, Cork, with a message to its fans: "The social experiment is over."
Friends of Cork, it is time for you to belly up to the bar.