We’ve all hit the drive-thru lately, even if we did it sheepishly, after dark, and without telling our friends. We’re ashamed, because we know the freshly thawed drive-thru hamburger isn’t the true modern meal; it’s a modern imitation. Thankfully, since 2013, Cotswold restaurant Block & Grinder has been showing Charlotteans, dish by immaculate dish, how to really eat meat. The chopping, curing, and grinding of meat provides the foundation for both a retail and a dining component, under one revolutionary roof. In this bold, soulful marriage of butcher shop and southern kitchen, meat isn’t on the menu; it is the menu. And for founder Jed Kampe and Chef Ben Philpott, meat is inspiration.
It’s an art, really. In the beginning, the meat is without form, and void…sort of like Jed Kampe’s conceptual genesis of a butcher shop-restaurant three years ago. After devoting thirteen years to Atlanta’s sports broadcasting industry, Kampe moved back to his home state to try something completely different, “trading in an office for a set of knives” along the way. Eventually settling in Charlotte with a vague notion of the city’s cultural emergence, Jed discovered the demand for great beef grind during his time with a small butcher shop franchise. The gourmet burger, having recently become a mainstay of the Queen City foodscape, also fittingly became the cornerstone of Jed’s restaurant.
Jed mutated the butcher shop archetype into a dining experience, but he doesn’t maintain the retail element solely for nostalgia’s sake. The butchery has its own meaty role in the daily process. “We use 3 different cuts of beef to compose our burger grind, all of which begin as whole pieces on the butcher block before they go into the meat grinder,” Jed explains. “We do it every single day…often more than once a day.” Jed’s restaurant offers more than just a cool place to eat. It’s a restaurant “built around a butcher shop.” Here, you get the whole show, a fully operational homage to meateaters past and present.
And for those meateaters in the present who find themselves in search of a hearty meal, Jed’s second-in-command should prove a well-equipped guide. The tall, redbearded Ben Philpott is an unmistakable presence in the kitchen, but he insists that he’s always been chef second and meateater first. Head Chef and manager of B&G, Mr. Philpott is a firm believer in the importance of consumption: You’ve got to be good at eating before you can really thrive in the kitchen.
I fill the menu with the kind of food that I like to eat.
When mulling over his sources of inspiration for his dishes, Ben intones with a southern drawl and a shrug, “I fill the menu with the kind of food that I like to eat.” Luckily for Block & Grinder patrons, Ben Philpott likes to eat well. A lunch favorite as simple as the BLT sheds all conventionality as Ben furnishes fresh Carolina Artisan Bread with house-cured pork and a variety of local tomatoes — the latter of which, he says, “can make or break a BLT.” Naturally, this summertime mainstay is dropped from the menu just as the last heirloom tomato of the season is picked. The various burger grinds, from lamb to bison to the wild game grind of the day, are quite possibly without rival in the city. And while choosing which North Carolina cheese will adorn your sandwich is a predictably existential challenge, the house made pimento cheese is actually to-die-for. Don’t worry, it can be purchased by the jar. Little jars of heaven.
Of course, there’s more. The dinner menu is another beast entirely, with its own beginnings. Chef Ben comes from a family of people who eat — and live — the right way. His Uncle Mel’s seven-course meals in New York City taught him about upscale etiquette and fine dining, and his grandparents’ Alabama farm taught him respect for where the food comes from. His career and his food, then, are the organic results of these profound lessons. Ben says he and his wife settled in Charlotte due to the southern “small town feel along with the big city amenities,” and this might be a fitting narrative for what Block & Grinder’s kitchen serves up. The biggest, finest dishes on this menu are graced with indulgent southern flare. The pork chop, a mountain range of B&G succotash, smoked tomato gravy, and Heritage Farms pork, is stuffed with cornbread: Yes, the South is at the center of every dish. Even the small plates are like concentrated southern meals. They’re flawlessly presented on their own tiny wooden stages, and the star of the show is Ben’s chicken liver mousse. Its robust, quintessentially country flavor will remind you why you live down thisaway.
Conveniently, it also comes in jars — and that’s the point. This food is good, and the success of B&G’s retail portion is evidence. The shop is always there, affording fresh ingredients for the kitchen, but also challenging guests to try and create their dish (or their own variants) at home. Each facet of Block & Grinder complements the other. Restaurant and butcher shop, ground together, create a place where big city commitment to gourmet dining meets a small town-bred sense of community. Jed Kampe and Ben Philpott bank on the promise of good food and good function, making the butcher shop more relevant, perhaps, than it’s ever been. Carnivores — rejoice!
For a bit more info: www.blockandgrinder.com