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Year in Review: Fun is back in Charlotte's food scene

2013 rocked and 2014 holds promise



The year 2013 was the best of times and the better of times for the Queen City. Good times were had by food and beverage aficionados, as many restaurateurs finally exhaled after holding their collective breath since 2008. Nationally, the unemployment rate fell under the 7-percent mark, and recent news of the Federal Reserve's optimistic drawback of stimulus spending caused the stock market to soar. And 2014 looks even brighter. Only our farmers lost out in 2013, with the spate of rain in June and July. Those heavy rains ruined the tomato crop, flooded fields of delicate herbs and left cantaloupes and watermelons soggy.

But assuming the economy stays healthy, some exciting things should be happening here in the coming year. As we start off 2014, let's look at where we stand, what we left behind, and what we can expect in the months ahead.

As it turns out, 2013 was the year of the vegetable. The Brussels sprouts on the stalk at Trader Joe's were frequently sold out, and at our farmers markets, more vegetable varieties arrived weekly. From rainbow carrots to pink-eyed peas, bins of locally grown lemongrass wedged next to baskets of dinosaur kale, cool-looking vegetables, beans and herbs popped up everywhere. But vegetables weren't the only things that grew in variety. Paleo-diet meats were available from area ranchers, and more food trucks arrived at or near the markets. The markets became fun — and crowded.

For beer drinkers, 2013 roared. The locally owned brewery count stands at 11: Olde Mecklenburg, Four Friends, NoDa, Birdsong, Heist, Ass Clown, Triple C, Unknown, Free Range, District 9 and Sycamore Brewing. If 2012 gave birth to the beer boom in Charlotte, then 2013 spawned the spirit revolution in North Carolina. Just across the Catawba River in Belmont, Robbie and Caroline Delaney opened Muddy River Distillery, with the first rum stills in North Carolina since, umm, Blackbeard? The Delaneys produce two rums: Carolina and the yummy Queen Charlotte's Reserve, first released in October 2013.

Other regional distilleries are flourishing on cocktail menus across town. Covington Vodka, made in Snow Hill, N.C., hosted a cocktail contest at Johnson & Wales University, which was judged by local mixologists Stefan Huebner of Heist Brewery, Bryan Danehy of Charlotte Country Club and Maggie Ruppert of Halcyon. These mixologists and others are the reason for our thriving, albeit nascent, creative cocktail culture.

Among my favorite restaurants to open in 2013 is BAKU Robata-Bar-Sushi in SouthPark, an ambitious place putting style back on the plate and clean flavors on the tongue. The other is Kabab-Je Rotisserie & Grille, the first Lebanese restaurant to open in the Charlotte area that serves Lebanese cuisine as it is meant to be. In other words, a place I could take my Lebanese in-laws without their inspecting the hummus and asking what it is — as they have done in several area restaurants. Trust me: Order the hummus and the kibbeh.

Moreover, ethnic food outlets are thriving. Doan's offers some of the best Vietnamese soups in the city, and the bakers at the Golden Bakery bake pita into the night. Honduran restaurants and bakeries are proliferating, and the food outlets in the ethnic grocery stores are diverting. You can create your own "America as a melting pot" cuisine by ordering a bowl of Korean bibimbap, a steamed Chinese barbecue pork bun, and hot churros from the Latino bakery all at Super G Mart (7323 E. Independence Blvd.).

Last year also brought new places into the mix. In the fall, both locally owned Nan and Byron's (1714 South Blvd.) and Asheville-import Tupelo Honey Café (1820 South Blvd.) opened in South End. The folks at Ilios Noche unwrapped their second spot in the (finally) refurbished Quail Corner Shopping Center. Across the state line in Fort Mill, the culinary scene is heating up: Chefs Jon and Amy Fortes opened The Flipside Café, and chef Luca Annunziata, of Passion8 Bistro, has The American Cafe & Lounge.

During 2013, we said goodbye to the Pewter Rose; Harvest Moon Grille; Chinese Dynasty and its stunning dim sum on Saturday mornings; Tomi, Charlotte's only outpost for gourmet Taiwanese cuisine; tiny Mueller's and Dave's award-winning burgers; Zink. American Kitchen; Encore Bistro & Bar; Delta's; Nana's Uptown; and Pure Taqueria.

Yet in January 2014, we will welcome two locally owned spots in Myers Park. Liberty partners Matthew Pera and chef Tom Condron open Lumiere (1039 Providence Road), serving upscale French food with a modern twist. Ironically, Lumiere is located a stone's throw from the site of the former Etienne Jaulin's Townhouse, a longtime spot for French cuisine in Charlotte. The second is chef Bruce Moffet's third restaurant, Stagioni (715 Providence Road), featuring Italian fare and pizzas from a wood-fired oven.

Speaking of all these local chefs, I'd like to thank the readers who reacted to my call to action for Charlotte's own to be nominated by the James Beard Foundation in my story "The Elusive James Beard." Here's hoping that a local talent will be recognized at long last. The JBF winners will be announced in May. Stay tuned.

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