Housed in the iconic Front Street home of the former Caffe Phoenix, 9 Bakery and Lounge offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, consisting of baked goods, tapas and a full bar. Most impressively, it does all quite well.
I admit I was skeptical of 9. Any new restaurant which tries to take on too much usually does some of it poorly. Not here; 9 seems to have found its groove quickly, with excellent options throughout the day.
Settling into lunch, a remarkably tall and very friendly waitress offers the specials. Through sheer willpower, the peach French toast—an all-day breakfast option—had to take a backseat to the cheesesteak that caught my eye instead. The cheesesteak comes with a delightful surprise: steak—honest-to-God steak! Gone is the shaved beef which passes on many-a-sandwich. Tender and juicy, with a mild rub seasoning to accent the beef, it is worth the $10 price tag. The thin, crispy fries taste delicious as well. Garlic is a common French fry seasoning, but in most cases it comes from garlic salt. 9 uses visible pieces of diced garlic to accent the potatoes, and the difference is stunning.
Dessert could not be passed. The peanut butter brownie blends perfectly, as peanut butter and chocolate always do. Though, a touch dry, I blame it on the corner piece. Traditionally, it’s the driest in the brownie pan. I’m willing to give this one another shot if someone will promise me a center slice.
Dinner comes as an even bigger treat. 9 offers a number of hot and cold tapas items, and I carved my way through as many as I could in one sitting. A handsome Bahamanian waiter led me through the options. The pan-seared scallops are among the best in town. With a perfect sear and tender flesh, the mild fishy taste comes coupled with a beautiful pesto and a bit of pancetta. The salty meat accents the sweet shellfish nicely. The plate only holds two, but I would have gladly eaten a dozen.
The Thai basil chicken satay might have been a touch bland, but the juicy chicken slides off its spear nicely. The peanut sauce doesn’t wow but is pleasant enough. Perhaps something a bit spicier would prove more memorable, but the dish is likable as is.
The beef carpaccio tastes lovely. Bright red and bursting with flavor, this is carpaccio done right. As a matter of personal taste, I might have skipped the dijonnaise served alongside it and gone for the pure grain mustard. Still, I certainly appreciate the subtlety of the milder accompaniment, and it doesn’t detract from any enjoyment.
9 offers three different styles of hummus. The spinach and garlic comes surprisingly at room temperature, but with hot pita points. Bold and flavorful, the spinach makes the earthiness of the chick peas more deep, with the traditional garlic bursting through the spread.
The only misstep I could dictate from 9 are their stuffed Anaheim peppers. The green peppers, served with a lovely char on the skin, come stuffed with garlic cream cheese and bacon. The elements are there, but the execution lacks. The peppers contain much more cheese than necessary, so there’s no balance. The flavors are lovely but the texture drops. Something chewy or crispy could make this one a real winner.
How we found room for entrées I’ll never know, but we couldn’t help ourselves. Choosing the special of the evening, a bone-in chicken breast with Jim Beam-barbecue sauce and smoked grits, is lovable all the same. The chicken retains a mild flavor in the spicy, bourbon-scented catsup. The rich, smoky flavor on the stone-ground grits pair well. If anything, I’d expect the sauce to be smokier. The grits provide an extra oomph as a side dish, making each bite better when containing both meat and side item.The pork shank is worth the drive downtown on its own. The chef at 9 cooks the pork for four hours in an apple beurre blanc with carrots and onions. The meat glides off the bone. The rich, succulent flavor of the pork, mixed with apple and onion, tastes like autumn.
For a moment, I thought the dish was a throwback to 1998. Served without any starch, I was reminded of my own table-waiting days, when the ubiquitous Atkins diet forced many a restaurateur to adjust his menu accordingly. Still, though a potato wouldn’t have come amiss, I can’t say the pork suffers from any lack of carbs.
Much has been made of 9’s baked style of doughnuts. While many love them, others consider them circular cakes, unworthy of the name “doughnut.” I choose not to weigh in on this controversy, seeing relative merit in all forms of pastry (for the record, I won’t be taking a side in the NY-style vs Chicago-style pizza debate either). I prefer to find value in differences, rather than select one over all others.
What I will say on the subject of 9’s doughnuts is. Don’t miss the Aztec. Chocolate with gentle hints of cayenne, it’s a fun take on traditional pastry and well worth a bite.
Rent on Front Street isn’t cheap, and while I think 9 offers reasonable prices for the quality they provide, it isn’t an inexpensive evening. Still, the service is excellent and the food is far above the average.
Look for 9 to become a fine dining staple in the evenings. If my experience is any indication, then they will double their loyal following in no time. Count me among them already.
9 Bakery and Lounge
9 S. Front Street • (910) 523-5913
Lunch: Mon.-Sun., 9 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Dinner: Mon. – Sat., 5 p.m. – Midnight
Bottom line: Go there any time for a taste of something great!