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Sweet spots

Desserts and portable treats in Ballantyne and Myers Park


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If you have avoided Ballantyne, I'll give you a reason to go: Salara Dessert Lounge & Bistro. Salara, a bright spot on the southern horizon, is the creation of owner Daniel Stiefel, a relocated northerner, now Charlottean (his wife Lorin and children are native Charlotteans), who is hoping to ride the wave of "sweet" success.

Dessert bars are frequently cited as a primary trend in the U.S. food industry. If you ask a handful of pastry students at Johnson & Wales, as I have, what kind of establishment is in their future, a dessert bar, such as the pastry powerhouse Finale in Boston, is their answer. But 60-seat Salara offers more than sweets: The menu includes a line of savory items such as crepes, salads, quiche and dips.

But sweets are center stage at Salara. On the left side of a sweeping granite bar, diners can observe the creation of sugar garnishes and some desserts being plated. Executive Chef Bill Foltz, the 2006 "Pastry Chef of the Year" awarded by the U.S. Pastry Competition, does presentations in the dining room on Saturdays. His ethereal sugar creations line the bar and dot the wall shelves.

Foltz's desserts are not cloyingly sweet; rather he offers creative riffs with a European taste sensibility. The plated dessert menu features blueberry fritters, cheesecakes, tarts, chocolate cake, donuts, sorbets and ice creams. A lit display case features their signature Raspberry Onyx cake, densely flavored brownies, milk chocolate éclairs, an amusing key lime tart with candied lime twist and a mousse with delicate tendrils of chocolate. Above these are jars of biscotti and marvelous cookies (only $.65 each), including an outstanding white chocolate macadamia nut. Takeout items are sold at a reduced cost.

A well-priced (most in the $20 to $30 range) wine selection is offered, many by the glass. On the menu, both dessert and savory items are paired with wine. "Some people are intimidated by wine and this gives them a suggestion, a direction they can take," Steifel says. Soon, Salara will have cordial and liqueurs pairings ("liquors that are fun," Steifel notes). Liquor coffee drinks and French-pressed coffee round out the drink list. Salads are $6.50, savory crepes are $7.50 to $9 for a Philly cheese steak crepes, and desserts range from $7.50 to $10.

About a decade ago, just as parents and school systems were trying to ban cupcakes from classroom celebrations, bakeries on the coasts were starting to feature these portable portion-controlled mini-cakes for adults. Food shows featured Sprinkles -- an Oprah favorite -- in L.A. while Carrie Bradshaw sparked cupcake mania in Manhattan. In November 2007 business partners Jennifer Chapman and Michelle Miller opened Charlotte's first cupcake emporium: Polka Dot Bake Shop. The small shop with unusual hours (closed Sundays and Mondays) offers at least six kinds of cupcakes each day.

Polka Dot is the first venture for Miller, who recently had her second child and has a degree from Purdue in Restaurant and Hotel Management, and Chapman, a CPA who has been a cake decorator for 30 years. Both families moved to Charlotte four years ago.

Each day six varieties and a baker's choice are offered. "We always have vanilla [cupcake] vanilla [icing] with vanilla sprinkles," Chapman says. Their signature cupcake is a smooth-topped cupcake with piped colorful polka dots. One early in the day sell-out is the "Tuxedo": a devil's food cupcake with a cream-cheese, chocolate-chip filling, cream-cheese frosting and chocolate shavings.

Daily chef choices have included orange cardamom, lemon and salty caramel. The Mexican hot chocolate cupcake (Miller and Chapman attended a cooking school in Mexico) with its rich oozing buttercream cinnamon icing is addicting. Other dailies include red velvet with cream-cheese icing, cookies (Oreo) and cream, carrot cake and chocolate with chocolate buttercream -- with or without sprinkles. The icing is spread an inch thick. "Moms taking the cupcakes for school events order cupcakes with less icing, though," Chapman adds.

Polka Dot has a kosher and vegan cupcake (dairy free), and the owners are developing gluten and sugar-free recipes. Cupcakes, including a take-apart cupcake cake, can be ordered two days in advanced. This month the shop will have Mardi Gras and Valentine's Day cupcakes, including the "Sweetheart," a red velvet and vanilla swirled. An important side note: Polka Dot's cardboard boxes have a clever insert so cupcakes won't side together during transport.

Soon the owners plan to have a monthly calendar of the cupcake schedule (currently Key Lime is on Wednesday), and they will also sell icing shooters: an icing scoop for an immediate fix. Cupcakes are $2.50 each; $25 per dozen.

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