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Very thierry

Small bistro makes big scene

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They say you become a "native" Charlottean when you have lived here 20 years. For people who have worked in Charlotte's culinary circles since the late 1980s, they have seen it all. Restaurateur and native Parisian Thierry Garconnet is one such person. And Garconnet uses all that he learned in Charlotte's better dining halls -- from Café d'Artist (ironically located where the admissions office to Johnson & Wales University currently stands) to Pastis and Toscano -- to shower his customers with good food and attention at his Terra.

As another European hybrid (this one French and Italian) Terra bends an intimate space, only 40 seats, into a neighborhood restaurant along the lines of something you'd find on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But, this is not exactly a high-density neighborhood. Rather, Terra is located in Charlotte's premier zip, 28207, in tiny Eastover, a neighborhood that has been engulfed by the better known and adjacent Myers Park. Nevertheless, this part of town is populated with finicky and demanding clientele -- traits that were probably honed over generations of having the best food in town.

Terra first opened in November 2006 with another owner. After a few weeks of neighborhood disappointment, the owner decided to return to Connecticut and sell Terra -- name intact -- to Garconnet who had also looked to open a restaurant in this space. Myers Park/Eastover, however, is a challenge intimately familiar to Garconnet, who quickly worked out the flaws. His staff consists of people he has worked with for a decade or more, and the kitchen is headed by his friend Chef Chad Beckerink who has also been in Charlotte's better kitchens: Myers Park Country Club, Pewter Rose and Zebra.

Terra's streamlined menu features refined, yet somewhat inventive French and Italian fare, which changes with the whims of the season. The risotto dish and the seafood change daily. The wine list is short, too; well chosen, but not cheap. Terra is a true bistro, but unfortunately that term has been overused and misappropriated, and its uniqueness in the hierarchy of restaurants has been blurred. Terra's menu features items that are familiar and well-executed -- classically modern eurofare, which includes, but does not emphasize, pastas. The dishes here -- either French or Italian -- meld the flavors of those respective cuisines with refreshing vigor.

Garconnet, both gracious and charming, greets everyone personally and attends to the dining room. The dining room is so small that the specials sell themselves: "I want what she's having," exclaimed the woman at the next table as our server delivered the head-turning risotto special dotted with large diver scallops.

The kitchen's knack for seafood is also delectably revealed in two appetizers. A large bowl of bistro-styled steaming mussels arrives in a bath of white wine accompanied by a paper cone of hand-cut fries. (I tried to compliment Garconnet by saying they tasted Flemish. The response was a Gallic "Mon Dieu" pause. I guess there is a reason they are called French fries -- and we'll leave it at that.) In any case these are possibly the best fries in town. For something a little more experimental, try the carpaccio du jour, especially if it is octopus. The carpaccio is a delight: the embodiment of rarely achieved octopod tenderness. Normally, only the Greeks can achieve this kind of melt-in-your-mouth feel by slamming the poor creature against the sides of buildings, but here the meat is marinated, seared, finely sliced and dressed with olive oil.

The kitchen at Terra abounds with more good food. A couplet of salads, perfectly composed with straight-from-the-garden greens, is complemented with either goat or Roquefort cheese. One lamb entrée is offered two ways: lusciously rare urban lamb chops paired with an echo of rustic braised lamb cannelloni on a leek fondue. Desserts, all house-made, are equally satisfying, especially the classic French apple tart.

Entrée prices range from the teens to the high 20s with some items at market price. But this is the kind of place where you can do some apps and a bottle of wine on the patio or a full-blown meal depending on your appetite. "I am not fine dining," insists Garconnet, and in Charlotte, who would want to be pigeon holed "fine dining" which, in this town, translates as "special occasion" rather than any occasion. You can see he understands the area well.

With Charlotte's decade-long predilection for grandiose, multi-million upfit chain restaurants with size "00" hostesses whisking customers through sprawling, frenzied dining emporiums, Terra feels like the proverbial breath of fresh air: a favorite restaurant from another era when a great restaurant meant big flavors served in a welcoming environment. My first reaction, and lasting impression, of Terra is relief.

Eater's Digest

On Tuesday, June 26 at 6 p.m., The Levine Museum of the New South will present "Global Dish: Children of Abraham," with a dinner and discussion about the region during the time those religious traditions took shape. The event will be led by Davidson College's Dr. Jonathan Berkey, Professor of History. I will be there to speak about Charlotte's Middle Eastern cuisine connection. Cost is $25 for Museum members; $30 for non-members. For reservations call 704-333-1887 ext. 501. The series is presented in partnership with the Mayor's International Cabinet; sponsored by Creative Loafing.

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