At Tandem in Carrboro, the chicken doesn’t lie
By Greg Cox
Review originally published 9/22/2016
The chicken told me everything I needed to know.
Exceptionally flavorful and juicy beneath a textbook crisp, golden-brown crust, it scored the poultry trifecta – a feat so rare, in my experience, that whenever a chef with an impressive resume puts roast chicken on the menu, I invariably order it as a test.
Younes Sabouh, who opened Tandem in April with partner/general manager Emma Dunbar, certainly qualifies on that score. Sabouh worked in restaurants in France and traveled the world as private chef to the Hermès family (of luxury fashion fame) before settling in the States. Locally, he has worked at the Washington Duke Inn, the Umstead Hotel and City Kitchen.
Sabouh’s pan-roasted poulet rouge (an Old World heritage breed noted for its superior flavor) passed the test with flying colors, earning extra credit for a presentation that included a downright ethereal tarragon velouté. Based on this dish alone, I might even have been willing to go out on a limb and give the food at Tandem an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
Lucky me, I don’t have to. That same night, wild-caught Scottish salmon – served over black rice and a judicious dollop of red coconut curry – was nearly as impressive as the chicken. My only quibble was with an accompanying “cucumber kimchi” that was so mild it left me wondering how it merited the term “kimchi” on the menu.
But I could find absolutely nothing to fault with the daily catch I landed on another night: a thick, pristine slab of pan-seared cobia beached on a dune of diced eggplant and surrounded by a vibrant, lemon-laced tide pool of roasted tomato broth.
At the other end of the flavor spectrum, slow-cooked lamb shank was soul-satisfying on an earthy mound of freekeh (a durum wheat cereal grain with a texture similar to bulgur) and baby turnips. Playing pungent counterpoint to all those earthy notes was a harissa-spiced jus, one of several nods to the chef’s native Morocco that are scattered throughout a menu that reads like a travelogue of his culinary career.
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture Sabouh serving his pistachio-studded duck and pork terrine — a classic rendition served with Dijon and whole grain mustard, preserved plum and toasted baguette — at a private dinner in Paris. Perhaps he’d conclude the meal with the vanilla- and lavender-perfumed panna cotta he’s been serving at Tandem, garnished with jewel-like cubes of fruit gelee and shards of Swiss meringue.
Follow the chef to America, where he elevates the Southern potluck staple deviled egg with a crown of lump crabmeat. Try to stay with him as he hops around three or four continents, gathering the flavor components of a single dish: chickpea fritters with tender petals of barely wilted brussels sprouts, slivers of Peruvian pepper and garam masala-tinged yogurt.
Hang on as he dips into his molecular gastronomy bag of tricks and pulls out a marrow bone topped with a fried oyster and horseradish foam.
Or when he presents you with an abstract still life on a black oval platter bestrewn with fresh, emerald-green peas.
At the center of the composition, a perfect poached egg echoing the platter’s shape, and a single seared scallop nearly as big as the egg. Completing the savory study of geometric shapes, two squares of pork belly (not “crispy” as promised, a rare misstep) are embellished with thin slices of grilled fennel.
And just before the sense of gastronomic exhilaration gives way to whiplash, he’ll guide you to a soft landing with a rustic strawberry almond tart or a molten chocolate cake with malted milk ice cream and honeycomb candy. Emma Dunbar, who was previously general manager at City Kitchen (where she and Sabouh worked together and decided to become partners), has put together a wait staff that’s warmly hospitable and commendably well-trained for a new restaurant. Dunbar recruited Heather Shores, formerly of Peccadillo, to head up a bar program that includes topnotch craft cocktails (try the Tandem Martini, with Beefeater’s gin and herbes-de-Provençe infused vermouth), and a versatile selection of reasonably priced wines tailored to the menu.
Tandem’s decor is well-suited to the eclectic offering, too, combining modern industrial elements with the warm patina of old wood and brick walls of the historic cotton mill (now Carr Mill Mall) where the restaurant is located. High-backed banquettes and twinkle lights suspended from steel beams soften the look of the place — though if those details have you thinking “casually romantic,” be advised that they do little to dampen the noise of a space with so many hard surfaces. Weather permitting, the patio is an attractive alternative.
Chef Sabouh plans to introduce a new fall menu by the end of this month. He’s already got a few new dishes in the works, among them butternut squash mille-feuille with celery root, king mushrooms, aged gouda and egg yolks; and Moroccan lamb with smoked butter couscous and cardamom jus.
No doubt, several of the dishes I’ve described will have changed substantially by the time you visit, and some won’t be offered at all. Based on my experience, I’d say you can feel free to follow your whim.
And you don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask the chicken.
200 N. Greensboro St., Carrboro; 919-240-7937
Prices: Entrees $17 to more than $25
Atmosphere: casual, contemporary
Noise level: high
Service: well-trained and welcoming
Recommended: menu changes seasonally; follow your whim (but get the roast chicken if they’ve got it)
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday, brunch Sunday
Reservations: recommended on weekends
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.