Food Adventure : Charlotte NC

A recent comment I posted on a Facebook post, somehow led to a weekend trip to Charlotte, NC to visit a friend who lives there and another who was traveling there for a business trip.  With all the negative things we hear about social media, I have to say it has led to many a personal connection for me with people I rarely see in the most unexpected places.

The weekend begins….

I had been to Charlotte a few times in the past, but always for business and only for one or two days during the week.  So, I was not only excited to see my friends after many months, but also to have an actual weekend in this city that I had heard so many great things about.

As with any other vacation, my focus begins with finding great places to eat and new foods to try at my destination.  Lately, I’m also on the hunt for great cocktail bars.  The experience is even better when you’re with friends who are equally obsessed with food. Our list was long and our time short, but we had a wonderful time exploring the various neighborhoods of Charlotte including South End, NoDa, Uptown, Matthews, and more.  The amount of ground three determined women can cover in two days is astounding.  I even managed to meet a former co-worker/friend for dinner one night.

Living so close to New York City, one tends to dismiss the culinary scene in smaller cities in the U.S.  Having traveled a fair amount, I know better and have learned that great chefs are everywhere and sometimes the smaller cities can surprise me when I discover a place that is on par with or better than any New York City restaurant.  Charlotte, NC is most certainly one of these cities.  Would I move here? Likely not. Would I come back for the restaurants? Absolutely!!

From my brief experience, I learned that while Charlotte is growing like crazy, there really isn’t much to do in Charlotte, but restaurants are aplenty in every neighborhood.  So, we spent most of our time eating and drinking our way through the city for two and a half days.

Here’s where we ate and drank………..

Friday night

Blackfinn AmeripubBallantyne Village – A great neighborhood feel restaurant near our hotel with an energetic vibe. The food and service were very good. We loved the Cauli-tots and Ying Yang Shrimp which we shared as appetizers. I had the Chicken & Biscuits (it’s required when you’re in the South) for my entree and it was delicious. Not bad for a pub style restaurant with multiple locations in NC, VA and IL.

ZinicolaBallantyne Village – We went here for cocktails in the late evening and did not eat any food. Bar staff was very friendly and we enjoyed discovering a Bourbon made in California called The Burning Chair. It was different than Kentucky bourbons; a bit sweeter and mellower that felt like, well, California.

Saturday

Trade & Lore – NoDa stands for North Davidson and is an up and coming district in Charlotte that is reminiscent of SoHo in New York City the way it used to be many years ago before the designer shops and galleries moved in. It has an artistic, eclectic feel along with some wonderful cafes and eateries. With many of the brunch restaurants not yet open, we decided to spend some time in this cafe which is an interesting concept – they rent space for part of the day in an establishment that turns into a bar after 5pm. My friends ordered cappuccinos and I ordered a turmeric & ginger tea. Both were made with such precision and care that it was evident in the taste. My friends declared it the best cappuccino they’ve had and I’m now on the hunt for this tea. The barista also offered us a taste of their cold tea and coffee that they serve from beer taps and are an option in the evenings when the bar is open. Both are non-alcoholic, have a bit of fizz and tasted delicious.

Crepe Cellar – After our Coffee & Tea, we moved on to our brunch destination which specializes in what else but crepes, but more specifically we were looking for buckwheat crepes. We were not disappointed. This was a delicious meal which we started with some local blue cheese served with spiced walnuts and a plate of fresh burrata cheese served with caramelized Meyer lemon. Both were simple perfection and we asked for more bread to sop up every last bit. Then we moved on to our buckwheat crepes, mine filled with spinach and wild mushrooms, topped with a fried egg and accompanied by a red cabbage slaw. Despite eating far too much cheese and bread, I finished my plate and especially enjoyed the red cabbage slaw which had a hint of horseradish. We walked off our meal in the neighborhood and enjoyed the beautiful sunny day before moving on to explore more of the city.

Bardo – This newer restaurant in Mint Hill was our favorite of the weekend. Everything from start to finish was a wonderful experience – friendly staff, inventive cocktails, interesting & delicious food and a lively ambiance. We sat at the bar since we had no reservations and the restaurant was packed. I prefer to sit at a bar any way because it allows me to mingle with the bar staff and others. I ordered a spicy gin based cocktail which was delicious and we decided to share a hand full of dishes so as to try as many as possible. This included Oysters, Steak Tartare, Spanish Octopus, Hamachi Crudo, Lamb Neck, and Tempura Maitake. We loved the oysters so much that we ordered another plate. Every dish was perfectly executed and had a wonderful balance of flavors. The open kitchen allowed me to see chef/co-owner, Michael Noll & his staff in action and speak to him for a few minutes. The Managing Partner, Jayson Whiteside, stopped by to talk with us and insisted we try the Kabocha squash dessert which of course we did. As he had claimed, it was different and excellent and I was happy we veered from our usual no dessert rule. The talented mixologist, Amanda Britton, gave us samplings of various liqueurs and concoctions. What a fun evening and an experience I will not soon forget and makes me want to go back as I write.

Buona Vita – After walking around for a bit in downtown Charlotte (which they call Uptown), we made our way back to the hotel but realized that we were hungry again. With very few options at that hour, we stopped at this restaurant that primarily serves pizza. You will likely never find me seeking out pizza in Charlotte and this was nothing to rave about but the place had an old time diner feel to it, was very clean and the pizza was better than your average pizza chain. More importantly, it satisfied our hungry stomachs.

Sunday

La Belle Helene – Our final food destination before heading to the airport for our flights home was brunch at La Belle Helene. This French restaurant serves a very classic French brunch with pastries, eggs, croque monsieur/madame, etc. I had a croque madame which was very good, but my favorite thing here was the Golden Mary which was a twist on the traditional Bloody Mary made with a fresh pressed yellow tomato juice, and a touch of honey. It was a fun surprise and the right cocktail to end our fun, food filled weekend!!

Next time you find yourself in Charlotte, check out some of these restaurants and enjoy their Southern hospitality!!!

Shakshuka – Baked Eggs

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The origin of this dish maybe debatable and controversial, but I’ve found it’s always a crowd pleaser and a wonderful option for brunch that can mostly be prepared ahead of time.  Recently made it for a brunch celebrating the engagement of the daughter of good friends and was asked for the recipe.

Accompanied it with grilled Greek flat bread (pita) topped with olive oil & Za’atar, brioche French toast, fresh fruit and Bloody Marys (not from a mix).

Shakshuka

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Middle Eastern baked eggs perfect for brunch

Make ahead: The entire recipe up to the point of adding the eggs can be made ahead up to a few hours. Just reheat to a simmer before adding the eggs when ready to finish.

Za’atar is an herb & spice blend found in Middle Eastern markets containing thyme, marjoram, oregano, sumac, toasted sesame seeds and other ingredients.

Ingredients

  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 lb ground chorizo (remove from casing if using sausage)
  • 1 medium onion, halved and sliced thinly
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced thinly (seeds removed)
  • 3 cloves garlic finely chopped
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp hot paprika
  • ½ tsp cayenne
  • 4 ripe plum/Roma tomatoes diced
  • 1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • 8 large eggs
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro

Directions

  1. In a large sauté pan, heat 2 Tbsp of the olive oil on medium heat.
    1. Add the ground chorizo and brown thoroughly using a wooden spoon to break up into small pieces.
    2. Remove the chorizo using a slotted spoon and set aside
    3. Add the remaining 2 Tbsp of olive oil to the sauté pan and heat for 1 minute
    4. Add the garlic & onion and stir till softened but not browned
    5. Add the bell pepper and stir
    6. Add cumin, paprika and cayenne and stir
    7. Cook until peppers have softened – about 5 minutes
    8. Add in the fresh & canned tomatoes, stir well and bring to a simmer
    9. Reduce heat to medium low and continue to cook until well cooked – about 20 minutes
    10. Add reserved chorizo, stir and simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes
    11. Using a wooden spoon, make small holes in the sauce and gently crack and place one egg at a time into the pan. If easier, you can crack each egg into a bowl and then gently pour it into the sauce.
    12. Sprinkle each egg with freshly cracked pepper
    13. At this point you can either reduce the heat to low and cover the pan until the eggs are poached – about 8 minutes or you can finish by placing the pan in a preheated 375F degree oven for 10- 12 minutes to finish. I prefer to poach rather than bake but either way results in a very yummy dish
    14. Garnish with the cilantro and serve with warm grilled flat bread.

Quest for the Best : Coffee

I grew up with parents who drank tea so very rarely was coffee a part of my life, and when it came up, it was almost always of the instant variety.  When I went to college, I had a friend who loved to meet at “the diner” for coffee or our lunch would often be a piece of cheesecake at Juniors and coffee – I was lucky enough to attend college across from the iconic cheesecake restaurant’s original location.  I drank decaf at first but slowly converted to full test as my schedule allowed for less and less sleep and the caffeine became necessary.  When I entered the working world and also attended graduate school at night, I found myself drinking more than a dozen cups of coffee per day until my doctor finally told me I needed to cut back.  Since I have a tendency to do everything in extremes, I quit cold turkey.  At the time, I didn’t care for the taste of tea.

Several years later, I married someone who drank tea and I began to do the same.  While I have always preferred the taste of coffee, I continued to drink tea (with the exception of an occasional espresso after dinner) until my recent trip to Europe.  I’ve been to Europe before, but always stuck to my tea, primarily because one can get a great cup of tea there unlike in the U.S.  On this trip, I opted to drink coffee, primarily because there was a Nespresso machine in every home and hotel room we stayed.  I was hooked all over again!! #juniors #nespresso #coffee

The coffee I drank everywhere, from the Nespresso machines in friends’ homes to cups expressed from fancy machines, was so much better than anything I’ve ever had in the U.S. especially Starbucks and other chain coffee shops.  Even better than my American favorite, Stumptown Roasters in Portland Oregon.  It was smooth, flavorful, balanced; not bitter & acidic.  And thus began this quest to find the best coffee.  I drank espressos, americanos, cappuccinos, cortados and marocchinos over a course of three weeks in three countries.  My favorite style – the Cortado (2 parts espresso, 1 part steamed milk).  My favorite Cortado, or Tallat as it’s called in Catalan, was the one in the lobby cafe at the Renaissance Hotel Fira in Barcelona.  Runner up was the Marocchino (dark chocolate, espresso & a shot of milk) at Fabrique du Cafe in Limoges. #stumptown #cortado #tallat

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The Winner – Tallat at Renaissance Fira Hotel Lobby Bar

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The Runner up – Marocchino at Fabrique du Cafe in Limoges France

And all the coffees I loved along the quest……..

There’s no place like Home!!!

I awoke early on our last day in Madrid, left my son sleeping peacefully in his bed, and decided to go for a long walk before the streets filled with the hustle and bustle of a Monday morning in Madrid.  It was also our last day of vacation before leaving the next day for our journey home after this wonderful three week European adventure filled with visits with friends, amazing sites, hikes, relaxation and culinary expeditions.

A part of me is sad to leave as I have loved every minute of this experience, but there’s another part that is absolutely starving to be home. As I stopped for a quiet cafe-con-leche in the middle of my walk, I wondered why? Don’t we often wish we could be on a permanent vacation?  Would we, could we really be happy in such a state? I’m not so sure.  Because what I realized is that there is something to be said for this place called “home” which got me thinking about what that word really means and why my son and I were feeling homesick despite having a marvelous trip.  As we continued our journey home, I realized that home is much more than just a physical place, it is a state of being or a feeling. And it takes spending time away from it to truly appreciate.  The phrase “home is where the heart is” had finally made sense to me.

A cancelled flight had us stranded in Zurich, Switzerland which is one of my favorite cities in Europe and despite wanting to enjoy this added time, our hearts were simply not cooperating.  We made the best of it and had fun, but I cannot describe the joy of finally boarding the airplane, the view of the New York skyline during landing, seeing my mother’s car pull up at the airport, walking into my house and sleeping in my own bed .  A few days earlier, I had asked my mother if she would please cook some of our favorite foods when we arrived and she happily obliged.  As we sat and ate this food for dinner that evening, I truly had the sense of “Home”!!!!

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Chicken Kheema, Chapati, Cauliflower, Moong Dal & Cucumber Raita

Last Stop : Zurich – A Special Place

In closing out our European adventure, we were scheduled for a 17 hour overnight layover in Zurich Switzerland.  This was not by design, rather just the way our flight worked.  But I was excited to be back even for a short while.  Zurich is one of my favorite cities.  It is the German influenced area of Switzerland and is just a beautiful walking city with a large lake and a lively old town area called the Niederdorf.  For ease of travel, I had booked the Radisson Blu hotel in the airport for the night which is a short train ride from downtown.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), our original flight was delayed by a full day due to mechanical problems and we scored one extra day in this beautiful city.  While it meant moving to another hotel for the second night, there are many many worse problems in life and thus we opted to take full advantage of our “luck”.

So, why is Zurich so special to me?  It was my son’s first international destination when he was only five months old.  It was his first flight, first stamp on the passport, first European adventure during which he visited Germany, France, Austria and so much more.  More importantly he was clearly a true blue traveler at that young age and enjoyed the experience thoroughly.  We had returned again when he was 18 months old for another summer of travels in the region.  So, the coolest part of the two days for me were the memories of those days (seems like yesterday), of mixing formula and baby food or feeding him his first bites of cheese and sausage contrasted by sharing a beer with him on this trip while he inhaled yet another plate of wurst in all varieties.

On this trip we spent our time walking around the Niederdorf, ate gelato, drank beer near Lake Limmat, and revisited some favorite dining spots from the past trips – Zeughauskeller and Sternen Grill.  The Zeughauskeller is an old restaurant that has been in Zurich for ages and is a classic beer & wurst kind of place.  The waiters are no nonsense but friendly and have been there forever.  The sausages (wurst) here accompanied by spicy mustard (senf), potatoes and vegetables are delicious.  Washed down with a not so cold (Europeans prefer beer that is not ice cold, as do I) and life is just about perfect.  It truly was an unplanned yet perfect ending to an amazing three weeks of wonderful memories that we will hold onto forever.

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