It's Saturday morning, and Bonnie Warford is checking the shelves and greeting customers in her creatively furnished food emporium, Earl's Grocery and Urban Provisions. Warford and her co-owner and sister Tricia Maddrey opened Earl's, named for their late father, last July, only a stone's throw from their iconic 25-year-old Carpe Diem on the ill-fated Elizabeth Avenue. Orange cones and construction barriers have plagued some of the city's most resilient entrepreneurs on that street for years now. But challenges have never stopped this duo, who opened their first Carpe Diem in 1989 in the old Ratcliffe Flower shop on South Tryon Street, at a time nightlife languished in Center City and in a building destined to be moved, twice. Long story.
But today, Warford is busy. The 50-seat dining area is filling. And while most customers pop into Earl's for a bottle of wine, breakfast, lunch or coffee drinks, the real find is on those shelves Warford attends to so assiduously. Food is often the object of a quest, and for food lovers, finding the exact ingredients to recreate the authenticity of a dish is essential. For many, Earl's will prove to be the end game.
Take beans, for example. While some regard beans with the same suspicion as day-old leftovers — since, on the whole, most chefs overcook them into a mushy mess — bean aficionados will find heirloom Rancho Gordo beans at Earl's. There they are: the elusive thin-skinned cassoulet, or Tarbais, beans, a pantry mainstay for cold winter nights and an essential bean to create dishes from southwestern France.
Artisan crafted pastas such as Rustichella's trofie (short and twisted) and garganelli (quill-shaped) made in the Abruzzo region are sold by the pound in bins. Condiments such as Brooklyn Delhi's tomato or rhubarb ginger achaar, and Marshall's Haute Sauce Red Chili Lime, a sweet bento chili sauce, are shelf-mates with barbecue sauce from Chicago. Three Little Pigs sausages from Brooklyn are on hand, too. The pickle bar has preserved lemons, and turophiles will delight in the cheese counter. Maraschino cherries free of high fructose corn syrup are included in a stunning collection of mixology syrups. Not surprisingly, each month CL-award-winning mixologist Bob Peters hosts a Mixology Lab.
Earl's showcases local products, some iconic Southern foodstuffs, too, like Geechie Boy Mill Grits, made from heirloom corn, from Edisto Island, South Carolina, and Rosa's Cheese Straws from Advance, North Carolina. New products are available as well: Roots & Branches crackers from Asheville, and Garnet Gals' jams and preserves (from Megan Lambert, chef instructor at Johnson & Wales University). Of particular note are the spectacular heirloom products from Anson Mills, including its Carolina Gold, an heirloom South Carolina rice. Earl's is the first retail store in Charlotte to carry Anson Mills. If you can't find a product, Warford says she will order it.
For prepared foods, credit goes to chef Marc Jacksina, formerly of Nan and Bryon's, Halcyon and LULU, who has forsaken the fine-dining circuit in order to prepare foods for the fast casual crowd, with dishes served in recyclable brown boxes. Both breakfast and lunch menus change daily. The lunch menu, at times, has had various renditions of a burger, pimento grilled cheese, a chicken salad wrap, wedge salads, a Cuban sandwich, soups and a re-envisioned (and by that I mean inspired by, not authentic) banh mi. While no one has been able to explain to me the inexorable rise of the kimchi taco, the pair of Korean breakfast tacos here is outfitted with layers of thickly sliced pork belly and fried egg backed by a chorus of mellow kimchi. Definitely a fork and knife affair. In juxtaposition of old to new is a goat cheese quiche bolstered by sundried tomatoes and arugula, and a Southern biscuit with chorizo-flecked gravy.
As the holidays approach and with gift-giving in mind, shopping for edible gifts is a cinch. Earl's has themed and edgy gift baskets. Friend with a broken heart? Gluten free? Recovery (Earl's is next to a hospital)? They have it. Celebratory ones, too, such as baby and holiday baskets. Or you can fill a basket yourself. The only difficulty will be not including everything.