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Of Comfort Food, Cheese and Chefs

Looking back at cuisine trends in Charlotte


The events of September 11, 2001 had a profound effect on the food and wine industry. Local restaurants experienced an unprecedented, unexpected slowdown in the immediate weeks following the attacks, while grocery stores, prepared-food outlets, and take-out restaurants experienced a surge. But despite September 11 some cuisine trends in Charlotte have become evident. The biggest local food story of 2001 was the increase of consumer awareness in locally grown products. Lines were longer this year at the local farmers' markets I frequent and the selections had grown as well. "Locally grown," "heirloom," and "field" appeared on the menus of many prominent, locally owned restaurants in the city. Honey enjoyed a renewed popularity, as did heirloom apples. Also on the menu were cranberry beans, Manila clams, and foie gras torchons. Macaroni and cheese started showing up in restaurants other than the Southern Country ones, but with an "upper end" take by using a half dozen cheeses.

Also seen on menus was "crusted" and meat done "two ways." Even before September, we saw a return to comfort foods. One personal favorite from 2001 is poached free range eggs. Nothing compares to the flavor of rich, lustrous orange yolks on an early Saturday morning.

Cheese was the food of 2001. While the debate still exists whether the US should allow the importation of unpasteurized cheese, the variety of cheese offered in restaurants and at the cheese counters has grown exponentially. One of my favorites is an Irish blue, Cashel Blue, which is made from the milk of closed-herd Friesian cows.

Hand in hand with the popularity of cheese was the increase in wine consumption. According to an informal survey of local wine distributors, it appears that Charlotte may be consuming more of the better wines than those folks in the Raleigh/Durham area. This is a first for Charlotte. This increase in wine appreciation can also be gauged by the Charlotte Wine & Food Weekend, which has already sold out some of their April events. Last year was also the first year Charlie and Ed Shelton, owners of Shelton Vineyards in Dobson, NC, began bottling their first North Carolina estate wines.

But we still have an identity crisis in Charlotte. Recent rumors flew around town that both Patricia Wells (author of cookbooks including the new The Paris Cookbook and restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune) and Alice Waters (one of my personal heroes who established Chez Panisse in Berkeley, authored many cookbooks, and helped establish edible gardens at inner city elementary schools in Berkeley) would be visiting the Raleigh/Durham area but not Charlotte. This news was on the heels of author Peter Mayle's near miss with Charlotte. Mayle was scheduled to stop in Durham and Asheville for his spring book signing tour, but not here in the state's largest city. This oversight came to the attention of Heidi Edidin of The Leader who successfully convinced Mayle's publicist to allow him to stop briefly in Charlotte, which he did. I had a chance to lunch with him, one of my most memorable meals of the year.

Charlotte's lack of identity seems to affect other fields as well. A friend tells me that on the map used during NFL football game broadcasts, Charlotte is located up near Asheville. So here's a thought: if you know anyone in the publishing business in New York City, maybe you should drop them a line about Charlotte, maybe with a map, and something about our demographics. I have had producers from the Food Network call me to inquire about the best restaurants on our wharf. Seriously. This is a problem we need to tackle as a city.

On the national front, Copia, The American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts opened in November in Napa, CA. The $50 million, 80,000-square-foot center located on 12 acres fronting the banks of the Napa River will feature a food and wine hall of fame.

The importance of chefs is still on the rise, and chefs are now a new source of entertainment: Charlotte will finally have the Food Network broadcast here by Time Warner; Chef Emeril Lagasse had his own sitcom (although it's been put on hiatus for now); and UPN's version of Iron Chef is hosted by William Shatner.

This year saw the opening of a number of homegrown restaurants: Zebra Restaurant and Wine Bar, Upstream, and Southern Comforts. Fuzion Bistro & Wine Bar opened at Lake Norman. Chen's Bistro followed the trend of the large format Oriental restaurant. Of the new ethnic restaurants, Woodlands Pure Vegetarian South Indian Cuisine and Siboney Cuban Restaurant are two of the best. Other fun restaurants are El Loco Pollo, ASAHI Japanese Restaurant, and Planet Noodle, Global Noodle Bowls. Sante opened in Matthews; Adam's in Ballantyne. Red Mountain Management opened a spate of restaurants including Firebirds and Uncle Sal's Old Neighborhood Italian Restaurant. Chains showed up here, too. The Northeastern Friendly's and the Californian Johnny Rockets have spots up off I-77. The Triad's Noble's Restaurant opened in SouthPark.

We saw a second helping of the Melting Pot in the University area, Mickey and Mooch in the Arboretum, Miro's Spanish Grill in Quail Corners, and Carlo's Italian Grill downtown. Even more Mellow Mushrooms sprouted up. And Charlotte seems to be going to the dogs: new are EarthDogs, a downtown pushcart; Poppa's Hot Dogs in Mooresville; Chicago Dogs in Mint Hill; and Spotz in Phillips Place.

Not one, but two Ethiopian restaurants opened during 2001: the small 33-seat Red Sea Restaurant and Bar and the larger Ibex Ethiopian Restaurant.

A longtime Charlotte favorite, Chelsea's Cafe, moved to Dilworth and became Vittorio's. The Penguin reopened in Plaza Midwood and Brent Murphy restyled Providence Sundries, a Myers Park neighborhood establishment since the 1970s.

2001 was the time to say good-bye to many restaurants. Gone is the best dinner deal in SouthPark: Barclay's Cafeteria. Also closed, among others, are Crawfords The Urban Bistro, Marais, Zydeco, Jack Straws, Ocho Rios Cantina, Deano's, Harry Bhasin's Harry's Chicken Delight, superb chef Axel Dikkers' Pastis, Axel's Bistro, Atlantic Beer & Ice Company, The Silver Cricket, The Lamplighter, Big Sky Bread Co., Mezzaluna, Cookers, La Vecchia's Seafood Grille at Lake Norman (Note: the downtown location of LaVecchia's is still open), Zanzibar Hardwood Grille, and Tango Argentino, A Culinary Love Affair.

Many of the restaurants which opened during 2001 are locally owned ­ in contrast to the corporate restaurant invasion we saw a few years back. Also, the city is attracting a higher caliber of chef. In the kitchen, stacking and misplaced ingredients are on their way out. Simplicity and the classics are coming back. Time to dust off the Escoffier and prepare for 2002.