By Shari Dragovich
Tad Braun stands at the edge of the bar, scanning his restaurant's guests while simultaneously listening to preparations behind the swinging kitchen door. He is perfectly positioned to stride either forward, toward a confused customer, or turn heel to triple check an upcoming order. His three-piece suit, wire-rimmed glasses, perfectly trimmed moustache and goatee, and tall frame complete the classically sophisticated yet romantic feel of his surroundings. His contemplative observations give seriousness to the restaurant's vision. He knows guests will sit down, glance at the menu and have questions. After all, no other restaurant in the Sandhills is making such a big deal over small plates.
Rue 32 is owner Mark Elliott's third and newest restaurant offering to the Sandhills, and this one takes inspiration from European street vendors, chefs who set up shop along city streets, making gastronomical magic in a 4-by-6-foot space. He envisioned a restaurant where guests could treat their palates to wide samplings of cuisines, coupled with excellent pairings of wines. The menu would be urban international. The wine collection would include 32 selections of wine sold by the taste, half glass, glass or bottle and housed in an extensive closed-wine preservation system. Patrons of Rue 32 would walk the streets of the world (the word "rue" means street in French) while being educated on the exquisiteness of fine food and wine.
At Rue 32, small is not synonymous with simple. Dishes are broken down by country. Choose Spain and feast on croquettes de pollo, fried flounder, Devils on Horseback (sherry-marinated apricots wrapped in cured bacon) and beef roulade. Or country hop by sampling butternut ravioli from Italy, rutabaga from the Carolinas, escargot from France and octopus from Central America. Everything is served in petit portions, allowing your palate to explore without having to commit your pocketbook to one entree. With some expert guidance from Braun, menu selections may be paired with Old World or New World white or red wines. "Fantasy Four" wines, bottles priced at $100 and up, are sold by the ounce, expanding food and wine horizons to the heights of kings at a fraction of the price.
The restaurant's design is the quintessential expression of Elliott's personality.
"My gift is having an absolute capacity to learn," he says. "I don't get hung up on what we get wrong." He purposely creates an environment of learning at every level, customer to dishwasher to restaurant manager. Customers not only sample international cuisine but receive a lesson in sustainability. Elliott strives to use as much local produce and meat at all of his restaurants as possible - he even has an extensive garden at his original restaurant, Elliott's on Linden.
"Mark says he's a learner, but he's also an amazing teacher," Braun says. "He allows us to fail, but not all the way to failure."
Braun's personal investment in the restaurant was so important to Elliott that Rue 32 would have remained an idea had Braun not been on board. Braun began working at Elliott's on Linden as a server 12 years ago. Elliott recognized Braun's zeal and aptitude for all things wine. Over time, Braun became EOL's wine manager, thriving under Elliott's tutelage and his own growing initiative. By the time Elliott was ready to launch Rue 32 last August, Braun was primed to serve as the restaurant's primary manager. With recent changes to Elliott's management team, Braun is training an additional manager, Kenny Ross, on his patrons' palates. Braun's physical presence at Rue 32 may diminish as he takes on extra duties, but he will continue to expand Rue's strong vino culture.
New executive chef Erika Weisflog completes Rue 32's cultivated personality. Weisflog grew up surrounded by excellent family cooks who taught her a love of land and creativity with what's on hand. Her cooking style and passion for investing in local sources pairs perfectly with Elliott's customer and community-focused ideals. She enjoys the challenge of creating petit samplings of food with big presentation.
"The details are so important," she explains. She also laughs at how trendy sustainability has become. "It's the way I have always been - cooking, hunting, gardening and learning to use it all."
On a recent morning, she plucked fresh greens at Bent Pine Farm that wound up in one of her specials that night. Weisflog easily caught Elliott's vision for the restaurant.
"(Mark is) very focused and contagious and inspiring," Weisflog says. "We're going to be unstoppable, once people know we're here."
"Rue 32 is a place for someone who wants to expand their horizons with food," Elliott says. "They will learn about food and learn about flavors. It's a place to explore."