We were surprised the first time we walked into Ware House 518 (518 N. Charles St.,  869-3381, warehouse518.com). It was in part because of the interior—from the outside you can’t tell how sweepingly high the ceilings are, with gold and green-gray accent paint adding to the drama. But in large part, it was because of how empty the restaurant was: It was a little after 7 p.m., and there was one table of four at the front window and two people at the bar. Six patrons.
Sure, it was a Tuesday, and the restaurant had only been open since the beginning of October, but considering that it’s owned by the same mother-son duo that owned Ware House 518’s predecessor, Creme, and that the new iteration was meant to be a “more inviting” version of the space, according to co-owner Ezra Tilaye’s interview in The Sun, one would think that it would be at least a little more bustling.
It may be in part because of Ware House 518’s hours: 5-9 p.m. during the week, 5-10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday. It doesn’t exactly encourage leisurely dining or lounging at the bar beyond happy hour. (Thankfully, business picked up on our second visit on a Saturday, but it still wasn’t exactly overflowing with patrons.)
Like its previous iteration, Ware House 518 “draw[s] palettes from the contemporary south,” according to its menu, although it tries to broaden its fare to leave more room for interpretation. It’s in this attempt to reinterpret and redefine dishes that Ware House 518 often fell flat.
From its small-plates menu, for instance, we ordered the blackened scallops ($12), and received three scallops presented with a side of tomato cream. The scallops themselves were perfectly cooked, but the tomato cream merely muted the scallops’ fresh flavor. The tomato and crab bruschetta ($12), presented on three large pieces of toast (a nice change from the usual tiny baguette slices bruschetta is presented on—let’s be honest, no one can eat those tiny slices elegantly), was decorated with tomatoes, basil, and pieces of jumbo lump crab. The crab meat was obviously high quality, but it seemed a waste to scatter it on toast without any seasoning aside from olive oil, as the flavor of the crab became nearly indiscernible.
There were similar misses on the entrees menu. The pan-seared rockfish ($28), presented atop a roasted corn tomato maque choux, was beautifully cooked, but the maque choux, a dish traditionally from southern Louisiana, felt far too heavy and lacking in vibrancy for the white fish.
The biggest disappointment was the autumn vegetable ratatouille ($19): Sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and acorn squash were cooked in a tomato sauce and presented with a scoop of farro. I’m usually a sucker for winter squash, but the poor vegetables had been cooked to near mush and any of their sweet flavor was completely lost in a sauce that tasted like tomato paste. Indeed, we were joking around the table that perhaps the chef had gotten a deal on canned tomato sauce and then decided to throw tomatoes into every dish. And the farro, overcooked and underseasoned, had our dining companion up in arms: “Farro is an ancient grain and it deserves better than this,” she huffed.
But perhaps Ware House 518 is just off to a slow start. It didn’t even have the full menu available on our first visit, and on our second visit there were signs that they were still tweaking the decor—the candles on the tables, which had been repurposed liquor bottles that felt too bulky for the table on our first visit, had been replaced with more delicate tea lights. And there are several successes on the menu: The cider-braised pork belly ($11) on the small-plates menu was magnificently tender, and the apple cider jus, caramelized apples, and “autumn vegetable mash” (mashed sweet potatoes, according to our server) that it was paired with made for an interesting, complementary flavor combination. The grits, which were available as a side and were included with the shrimp and grits ($24) and braised Creekstone Farms brisket ($26), contained horseradish and goat cheese and showed real ingenuity. And the crab cake ($25) was near perfect: The plump, succulent crab meat was held together with just enough filling to allow the crab flavor to shine, with a dusting of Old Bay on top providing a slight kick. I couldn’t stop stealing bites of it off my dining partner’s plate.
Hopefully Ware House 518 will learn to play more to its culinary strengths, especially because the impeccable service alone would be worth returning for. Thomas, our waiter on both visits, was charismatic and gracious, and Tilaye, who introduced himself to our table on our second visit, was eager to please and more than happy to make cocktail recommendations. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for fewer tomatoes and better pairings on some of the menu items (and more diners) when we go back for another crab cake.
Ware House 518 is open Tuesday-Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-10 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.