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Heritage Food and Drink is just right

Chef Paul Verica's farm-sourced space is spot-on

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From the minute you enter Heritage Food and Drink, you feel at home. This unassuming little spot in Waxhaw has everything you look for in a restaurant: an inviting interior, an attentive wait staff that loves food and assumes you do too, and a chef/owner who has designed a space to be small enough — only 36 seats — so he can visit with his customers. And then, of course, there is the food.

Chef Paul Verica opened Heritage, his "dream," in November 2013. Verica has a lengthy resume that includes stints in France, his hometown of Philadelphia and here in Charlotte, most recently as executive chef and director of food service at the Club at Longview in nearby Weddington.

Verica, who credits the design talents of his wife, has breathed new life into a rather vanilla strip center. The bi-level space is crisp; chairs of various styles are painted black, including a long, cushioned pew along one of the white walls; local photos populate another wall, a bookshelf another. While not located in one of Waxhaw's historic buildings, Heritage has the feel of a charming yet thoroughly modern wine region eatery that toes the local-and-seasonal line.

First and foremost, there is something refreshing and surprisingly restorative about a simple method of food preparation that allows the food to speak for itself. But Verica owns technique, too, and deft seasoning, and gorgeous plating and, well, fun. Take, for instance, one night's tempura spring vegetables starter with fried local spring onions — roots and all. Gotta love that. The dish also has crispy, vividly veined whole beet leaves, tender stalks of asparagus and rainbow carrots. Yum. A smoked trout cake arrives with a tangle of herbs and greens, slices of beets, and flowers. Even simple salads of baby greens, arugula and goat cheese are thoughtfully embellished — arugula with strawberries and baby lettuces with walnuts, fresh figs and aged balsamic.

The beauty of Heritage is not that Verica has an inventive daily menu with local farmers' produce spotlighted — which he does. He acknowledges almost a dozen local producers, including Barbee Farms, New Town Farms (of which I am a CSA member) and Kim Shaw and her Small City Farm, for produce and the flowers on the tables and the peppery nasturtiums on the plate. The beauty of Heritage is you can treat it like a casual neighborhood joint instead of a special occasion extravaganza. So the lucky folks in Waxhaw, or neighboring areas, can just drop in on a whim or with reservations on the weekends.

Heritage's continually changing menu, listed on Facebook with loads of photography, is not lengthy, but choices are difficult. You will want it all. Verica nods to place with country ham in a pasta dish, as well as grits and collards sided with chicken. Entrées range from $17 to $30 for a steak. The wine list is well chosen, and the beer list contains local craft options. Cocktails are available, too — people tend to forget that Waxhaw approved liquor by the drink a mere three years ago.

Main courses are uniformly generous, sharable and destined to crowd your mobile photo storage. The seared tuna on sautéed spinach with slices of honeycombed morel is delicious. Verica's light touch extends to an Asian seafood entrée of Gulf shrimp stacked on forbidden rice with a whimsically blended sauce of bourbon and teriyaki. Like the savory dishes, desserts at Heritage are simple but pack a punch, like the improbably delightful chess pie. If you have never had chess pie, you should. It's about as hard-wired Southern as they come. Verica also pays respect to his neighbor, the Waxhaw Creamery, by including its ice cream on his dessert list. Nice.

Considering Verica's breadth of style — and I cannot say enough about the local farmers' produce — you will want to return time and again. With Heritage Food and Drink, Verica has a rock-solid dining formula that I hope lasts for a long, long time.

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