A sign hangs over a big red door, but that's not the entrance. To find Zero Café, you need to trespass upon Zero George Hotel's main courtyard, space that until a month ago was reserved solely for the boutique hotel's guests. The property, owned by former Orient-Express president Dean Andrews, has been open since February, quietly garnering rave reviews ever since. In June, Travel + Leisure named it one of the world's best new hotels for 2013. Expectations for the recently opened cafe are similarly high, and chef Randy Williams easily rises to the challenge with a seasonal menu of small plates and unique takes on classic cocktails.
Although the decor embraces the casual luxury style currently in vogue, its fixtures and furnishings evoke a feeling of simple elegance rather than vintage industrial, better suited to sophisticates than hipsters. An exposed kitchen greets guests in the first room, and depending on the night, there may be a cluster of guests hovering nearby swapping trade secrets with Chef Williams. A short hallway leads to a second room that houses the small wooden bar. A third, in the back, holds several tables while on the patio there's plenty of room for al fresco dining.
The list of craft cocktails features seasonal interpretations of classics, like the Bespoke Manhattan ($12), made with smoked maple syrup in the place of traditional bitters. Black currant and basil are added to the Anson Fizzle ($12), the house's take on a classic gin fizz. The wine list is short but offers a well represented variety of regions and varietals, along with sparkling rosé and cava.
Recent small plates included an autumn roast vegetable salad ($12) of roasted cauliflower, baby carrots, and beets served with a pear purée, which was bland and not sweet enough to draw a distinct contrast to the vegetables. Luckily it didn't matter. The cauliflower stole the show with its intense, slightly charred flavor. Another delicious starter was the frisée salad ($10) with aged cheddar, pumpkin seeds, and a deceptively light lemon mustard vinaigrette.
Skewers of lightly grilled shrimp ($15) were prepared with a roasted garlic and lime marinade and served with a honey chile sauce. The combination of garlic and lime perked up an otherwise boring protein while the accompanying sauce was good but unnecessary. The house-cured duck confit ($14) consisted of a generous pile of Carolina Gold risotto speckled with bits of butternut squash and walnut pieces and topped with pieces of duck. The dish included a bit of aged maple syrup that almost overtook it but was kept in check by the flavor of the duck.
For dessert, sage and honey ice cream ($8) came topped with a pear and pecan compote and chai spiced honey. A big, up-front flavor of sage was gently twisted to the sweet side of the palate by a hint of honey.
In a town where locals tend to leave hotel restaurants and bars to the tourists, it remains to be seen if Zero George Café will become a bustling weekend hangout. A couple of factors work against it, including its location, far removed from the nightlife bastions of either the Market or King Street. Also problematic are its hours. The café is only open Thursday through Saturday from 6 to 11 p.m.,
Despite these drawbacks, the Zero Café is a chic little spot to start your night off right before heading out to a show or movie.