by Eric Ginsburg
The sautéed, brie-stuffed chicken breast hardly stands out on the menu, listed right after the New Zealand venison and the strangely named Mongolian Australian lamb chops. Hell, a tandoori kangaroo dish served with succotash comes right after that. The trick is to view the stuffed chicken breast on its own, in all its glory, with bits of prosciutto and shiitake mushroom stacked on top of a line of asparagus and a pillow of pureéd potatoes. Better yet, show up when it is half off.
The dinner entrée was just one of 28 dishes around downtown Winston-Salem last week offered for half price, part of the annual Big Eat event put on by the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership to promote restaurants on their off nights during the slow season.
And by this week’s installment on Tuesday night the chicken special was back on the regular menu at Bernardin’s and replaced by something else entirely: A seared ahi tuna with soba noodles, baby bok choy, shiitake and a tahini sweet-chili sauce.
While it may not have appeared under the flashiest headline, the sautéed brie-stuffed chicken breast was anything but an unremarkable or average meat and potatoes dish. Even at the nominal price, the two hunks of deliciously seasoned chicken were more than enough to make an appetizer seem unnecessary. Every bite justified the white tablecloth and the well-groomed, upscale reputation of Bernardin’s.
The restaurant, which has a sister location in Charlotte, occupies a picturesque, two-story house at the West End neighborhood edge of downtown, unassuming though directly across from Mozelle’s on Fourth Street. For a brief moment it seemed horribly amateurish to have shown up without a reservation, but the Big Eat is purposefully scheduled on Tuesdays in January to give restaurants a bump during traditionally weak times. After a brief wait in the foyer, an open table for two turned up.
Most of the action is upstairs, in a large room with an unlit fireplace, a fine spot for a romantic evening. A pair of old friends across the room took advantage of the special, an opportunity to glimpse an upper-crust venue at bargain prices.
The Big Eat options successfully ran the gamut in terms of restaurant type, though a number put forward chicken or salmon dishes. The majority of choices were entreés, such as Downtown Thai & Sushi’s yakisoba and noodle soup, the slow-cooked pork shank with bacon and sweet potato at Spring House and braised boneless short ribs at District Rooftop Bar & Grille. But other restaurants veered away from the main course, like half-off Westbend Vineyards wines at Corks Caps & Taps, a marinated-artichoke salad at Augustine’s Bistro or Twin City Hive’s signature iced drinking chocolate.
West End Coffeehouse offered a dessert, too: a massive brownie sundae served with a whopping chocolate brownie cut into pieces and arranged around the patron’s choice of gelato, all under a helping of whipped cream and drizzles of chocolate, raspberry and caramel.
The proprietor, a warmly personable guy, insisted on the importance of trying a bushel of gelato flavors before settling on a decision. Despite falling for the panna cotta and enjoying several other options, an initial bent towards the peppermint gelato proved to be the best call.
West End Coffeehouse, which used to be Caffé Prada, boasts an enviable view of downtown at night, but it isn’t open late enough to make it there after dinner at another Big Eat location. Even grandparents might miss it on a Tuesday, with a 7 p.m. cutoff.
But the best way to approach the Big Eat — especially with only one week left — is to hit as many new places as possible, and since take-out is against the rules, an early start might be the wisest plan of attack. Then again, overdoing it might make it hard to readjust the week after, when the nearly 30 establishments rotate back to their regularly priced menus.
Jan. 27 is the last night of this year’s Big Eat. Visit dwsp.org/bigeat.htm for more info.