My sister, who lives in northern Jersey where each small town is five minutes long, typically makes comments on how Charlotte is such a great deal for real estate tax (our 1.27 to her 1.45 millage). My retort is to remind her that Jersey does not have any taxes on such items as gasoline, unprepared food or clothes. That's right. No tax.
But my jealousy of where she lives stems more from the plentiful, cheap and good European bakeries. Whenever I head to New York, I stop at Natale's, an Italian bakery circa 1930 in a non-descript brick building with a ridiculously small parking lot and extraordinary pastries.
Charlotte doesn't have a multigenerational family bakery. The closest in age is Suarez Bakery (née Federal), which opened in Park Road Shopping Center in the 1950s -- and it's not ethnic. It's a Southern bakery, now with Latino verve.
Charlotte (and its surrounding areas) does have small bakery outcroppings: Nova's in Plaza Midwood; Nona's Sweets, an Italian bakery in the University area; La Patisserie, with both croissants and empanada,s in Mooresville; a Columbian bakery near Pineville; a Brazilian bakery in southeast Charlotte; Odalys Panaderia y Pasteleria, a three-location Mexican bakery; and an increasing number of San Salvadorian bakeries and coffeeshops. In addition, Charlotte has locally owned restaurants specializing in baked goods: Salara's, Ilios Noches and Waldhorn are among these.
But a French bakery has been a challenge in Charlotte, especially since European bakeries, as all bakeries, are based on the premise of daily shopping. In 2004, a French bakery, Marguerite's, opened in a hard-to-find location, one tucked into the far wall of a downtown tower on the mall level. Fortunately, that bakery relocated to NoDa and found a new customer base. But in 2007, the business fell on hard times.
Loyal customer and entrepreneur Lynn St. Laurent, however, had fallen in love with that bakery. "What got me was the 'Oh my God' reaction on the faces of the people biting into one of these pastries," she says. When Marguerite's closed, St. Laurent and partners Greg Hardee and Bill Lamb looked at locations, including SouthPark, to recreate the French bakery concept, but decided not to reinvent the wheel. May 2008, they settled into the bakery space in NoDa and named their business Amélie's ... a French bakery.
The management group hired former Marguerite's pastry chef Kelly Stegenga and Erin Stanton for the kitchen. Amélie's interior has a fanciful décor with blue-striped walls and an incomplete paint-by-number Mona Lisa hanging on a side drape. Comfortable sofas are angled in another section.
Although they do sell baguettes, Amélie's is more pâtisserie than French boulangerie. And what you buy is sent home in a traditional crisp white box with a shop sticker.
In one gleaming case are flaky, buttery and crisp croissants, pain du chocolat and sticky buns -- well, that part is not French. There's also the twice-baked almond croissants, which are like bread pudding and French toast -- an economical, yet tasty way to save day-old pastries. Worthy of note are the luscious almond tea cakes and the apple tart, which bears a perfect balance of tart and sweet. Not good was the well-intentioned Napoleon with layers of strawberries that overpowered the thin pastry turning it to mush.
The savory side is also worthy of a go. The egg and cheese in puff pastry is piping hot and golden brown while the herbaceous leek and portobello mushroom tart is equally impressive. You can gobble them whole. The downside is these are packaged in hard plastic containers, which do not breathe, and if the tart is warm, this packaging retains the moisture and causes sogginess.
Another far left counter has a lissome look yet is packed with cakes; tarts, including pear; crème brulées; mousse cakes; petit fours; and chocolate. Lots of chocolate. The shop's signature dessert is an almond sponge cake with chocolate mousse, dark chocolate ganache, peanut butter and a layer of feuilletine.
How many people does it take to support a French bakery? Bakeries are a lot like sushi bars: the more people, the more product. It's that simple. Amélie's products have that taste memory that sends your thoughts to your favorite Parisian arrondisement: Croissants are buttery and delicate while the fruit tarts are classic.
Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine events? To contact Tricia, send information via e-mail (no attachments, please).