Perhaps one of the most highly anticipated restaurant events in recent months has been the re-tooling of Azalea — the once-grand restaurant that hosted the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton and won accolades from the national press. The wait is over — it’s now the Kirkwood Lounge. Same owner. Same chef. Same space. A mostly new concept.
Décor: Mike Hutchinson, who also owns Star Bar, closed the postmodernly plush Azalea earlier this year to open a decidedly more casual venue. Gone are the velvety black curtains spilling from the ceilings, the linen tablecloths, the hush-inducing carpet — touches that insistently signaled “fine dining.”
Instead, the enormous room reveals a more edgy and stark side. With splashy modern art and tubular lamps presiding over the sleek black furnishings on a terrazzo floor, it all seems suited to a more casual, energetic crowd than before.
Menu: Sometimes it’s bar food (burgers, a Reuben, Cobb salad); other times it’s “bar food-plus”; that is, you can get a sausage pizza, but it’s going to bring house-made sausage and smoked tomato sauce. And in some cases, North Carolina native Chef Sean Wilson continues to sharpen his Southern-tweaked culinary vision: find oysters, pulled pork, pimiento cheese and lots of bacon here.
A handful of main courses priced $11.99 to $19.99, including spice-crusted ahi tuna, grilled salmon with asparagus and shiitakes and pan-roasted pork tenderloin, offers a good selection for those looking for a substantial meal — without a splurge.
Food — first impressions: Try the bacon fat popcorn with crispy sage. Much less indulgent than it sounds, it brings a grease-free, smoky-salty essence of bacon in an airy popcorn package; crumble the sage leaves over the treat and enjoy.
The pimiento cheese brought alarmingly orange but disarmingly good cheese spread — creamy, rich, cool and sharp — made even better by slices of fried pickles and a quality flatbread.
We also enjoyed the Low Country eggrolls; the robust and pleasantly bitter cooking greens, bacon and smoked chicken played especially nice with the sweet-tart apple chutney.
A good-for-the-price piece of glistening, expertly cooked salmon and an invigorating green onion mayo lifted the salmon BLT from the commonplace.
Parting thought: The extensive menu, spacious tables and easygoing ethos invite a kind of nibbles-and-sips style of dining; order a few snacks and split a sandwich or pizza — and have a fine old time for a good price.