As if arriving at the Ritz for cocktails on the 15th floor wasn’t fancy enough, there’s actually a suit-wearing doorman who grants you elevator access to The Punch Room level. It’s worth the rigamarole though, because up on the 15th floor, that’s where you’ll find Bob, Charlotte’s cocktail whisperer. No exaggeration here—this man’s cocktails are legendary. Even if you aren’t into cocktails, or if your prefer wine or beer, or even if you think mixed drinks are too darn sweet (that was my excuse of choice), Bob will listen to what you DO like and mix you up the best darn cocktail you’ve ever had. The first time Bob made me a drink he made his version of The Last Word, and it permanently changed my view of cocktails.
Leave all your punch preconceptions at the door; these are unlike anything you’ve had before with complex flavor combinations and only the slightest bit sweet. The punches come in 2, 4, or 6 person servings, and are presented to you in large, handleless glass pitchers with long glass stir sticks. It all feels a little Willy Wonka, in the best kind of way. I tried all the punches on the opening menu, and each one was delightful, but my favorite is the Top of the Hill with blackberries, Earl grey tea, and rosemary simple syrup. There’s also a full list of specialty cocktails handcrafted by Bob himself.
There’s more than just booze at the Punch Room; the small plates menu features some surprisingly good dishes, like the crispy duck sliders with date “ketchup,” pickled shiitakes, and shallots. This is my new favorite CLT small plate, and I don’t even like duck.
I’m a big fan of the oysters with collard greens, kimchee purée, sweet potato pearls, and pickled apple. That’s a mouthful. (Not complaining.) You also can’t go wrong with the Quail Scotch Egg (house-made chicken sausage and smoked paprika aioli) or the cheese and charcuterie, but you already knew that.
The Punch Room pulls off the drinking-den vibe; it feels upscale but cozy, with beaded curtains, dim lights, leather couches, and smoking chairs. Sort of like a mash-up of a posh library and cigar lounge, minus the smoke. I can see this becoming a go-to spot for all sorts of get togethers. Date nights, girls’ night, guys’ night, after-hours business meetings, etc.
Le Meridien took over the building previously occupied by the Blake Hotel. $20 million+ of renovations later, the hotel doesn’t look much different on the outside, but inside it’s nothing but modern glam, with floor-to-ceiling windows, sleek seating areas, interesting light fixtures, and bold yellow accents throughout.
Evoke is Le Meridien’s onsite restaurant, a “new-age steakhouse” featuring dry-aged prime cuts of steak, housemade pastas, and intricate crudos. I went to the opening event with fellow Charlotte food blogger Chrissie (check out her review here). Both of us agree: you absolutely cannot go wrong with Evoke’s gnocchi. Smoked pancetta, jumbo lump crab, and buttery melt-in-your-mouth pillows of dough. In my eyes, this was the standout dish. The sweet potato ravioli with browned butter was too sweet for my taste (I’m sensitive to sweet and savory combos), while the beef tenderloin madeira bucatini was good. I must say that all the housemade pastas were cooked well—toothy, just how I like it.
There are six intriguing varieties of crudo on the menu. The sea scallop with orange and toasted pinenuts is mild and light, and the peruvian ceviche is served with crunchy sweet potato chips.
The prime, certified black angus steak selections include 21-day dry-aged NY strips (with a nice salty crust), bone-in tenderloin, 36oz ribeye, and 40oz porterhouse.
Other delights on the menu: crispy fried oysters with caviar and creme fraiche; artichoke parsnip bisque with truffles and a seared scallop (poured tableside); seared scallops with butternut squash risotto, parmesan, and chanterelles; and a frissee salad served with lardons, sliced pears, a light mustard dressing, and a perfectly poached egg.
There aren’t many four-dollar-sign restaurants in Charlotte, and thus Evoke’s menu offerings stand out from the competition. It’s pricey, but you get what you pay for, and at Evoke that’s quality meats, gourmet pastas, and beautiful crudo, in a swanky setting.
I do my best to avoid making wide-sweeping statements like “this cauliflower rice will rock your world” or “this cauliflower rice will blow your mind” but dangit, cauliflower rice DOES ALL OF THESE THINGS. Since doing my first Whole30 in January, cauliflower rice has found a regular spot in my weekly meal rotation. I cook a big batch once, if not twice, each week. Did you know an entire average-sized head of cauliflower is only 150 calories? Numbers don’t lie, guys.
Since no two cauliflowers are the same size, this is one of those non-recipe recipes. I’m encouraging you to stand at the stove, and taste as you go; find the mix of seasonings and flavors that make you do a happy dance right there in the kitchen. (more…)
In my whole 30 years, I’ve never gone on a diet. Actually, come to think of it, there was that one time, back in college, when I challenged myself to eat nothing but raw fruits and vegetables for three whole days. SO.MANY.GRAPES. I also had a brief stint as an uncompromising calorie counter, and while that helped me limit the amount of food I consumed, it was more about calorie give-and-take, like having a sensible lunch so I could calorically finagle a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch for dessert.
Diet is a dirty word. It makes me think of limitations, restrictions, sacrifices and, ultimately, unhappiness. And thus, I’ve avoided all of them. Because food is my THING. My everything, really. Without it, I don’t know who I am. And I mean that literally, in the least dramatic way. Without food, I don’t know how I’d spend my time or my thoughts. I’d feel empty, physically and mentally.
Over the Christmas holiday, my mom asked my thoughts on the Whole30. I’d never heard of it, but a little bit of research told me it was basically an extreme 30-day version of the Paleo diet meant to help participants nutritionally reset–to find the mix of food and nutrients that made their bodies feel and operate optimally. This “nutritional reset” idea resonated with me because I’ve been on downward spiral since my big 30th birthday in July. Lots of travel, lots of fun, and lots of eating with reckless abandon have accumulated in a 7-pound gain I’m not planning to keep.
And so this self-declared carbohydrate connoisseur said yes to the Whole30, and gave up grains, sugar, beans, soy, dairy, and booze for thirty whole darn days. I was scared at first, mostly because it had taken me a lot of time and effort to find a mix of foods that kept my low-blood sugar in line throughout the day, and I was hesitant to mess with that “magic” formula. But I went forth and swapped my normal egg and Ezekiel toast for a veggie frittata and roasted sweet potatoes. Oatmeal got the axe in favor of coconut milk chia seed pudding. My lunches weren’t all that different–a salad with protein, just no cheese or quinoa as I’d normally use. Buh bye mid-afternoon protein bar, H-E-L-L-O roasted broccoli and cauliflower rice (OBSESSED). Dinners weren’t much different either. Meatballs and marinara over zucchini noodles, mixed greens topped with carnitas or baracoa plus guacamole, stir-fry with ALL THE VEGGIES, burger-salad-what-have-yous. (more…)
Last month, I spent a good bit of time working on five healthified southern recipes for Our State Magazine’s online food blog. For me, recipe development starts with research. I look at recipes online, brainstorm, bookmark, flip through cookbooks, and talk to my foodie friends, all the while scribbling down notes and ideas. Then comes the testing. I lay out the ingredients and get to work, jotting down notes (usually on the back of some random envelope from the recycle bin) as I go, tasting and adjusting continuously.
Obviously, one of the perks of developing recipes is eating the wares. Well, after you’ve snapped approximately 3,000 photos of each dish, that is. Normally, I incorporate whatever recipe I’m working on into my weekly meal plan. No sense in wasting food! But, at the time of this healthy southern recipes project, I also happened to have a a whole ham to cook for the North Carolina Pork Council.
Want to throw a successful holiday party? Just add ham.
Ladies and gentlemen. I gots the fever.
Barbecue pulled pork.
I blame it on Midwood Smokehouse, my favorite barbecue spot in town, which I frequent at LEAST once a week. I bounce back and forth between the pork cuban (authentic Cuban bread, hickory smoked pork, thinly sliced ham, Swiss cheese, and dill pickles… I die!) and the pork and brisket tacos. And when I’m lucky enough to have some meat leftover, I make barbecue pulled pork omelets the next morning. (more…)
Now that fall is finally here, it’s time to bust out some comforting cool-weather breakfast recipes. I’m a self-declared morning person, but when I wake up with a grumbling tummy, the less hands-on time required of a breakfast recipe, the better. That’s why I love baking eggs in the oven. Call it a casserole or a crustless quiche (or a frittata if you start the cooking process on the stove top). The method is simple: eggs are whisked with a little milk (or half-and-half or cream, whatever you have on hand) and then combined with one to two cups of the fillings of your choice—sausage, leftover veggies, cheese, whatever sounds good–and baked for 30 minutes. Breakfast done.
To take the dish up a notch, top it with a simple arugula salad tossed with an olive oil and lemon dressing. Not only does the arugula salad add extra veggies, but the tartness offers a nice contrast the richness of the eggs. Plus, look how fancy! (more…)
When I think of ribs, I think of my dad. My dear ole dad. Grilling has always been HIS THING. Even if it meant standing in the driveway with a golf umbrella during a tornado warning with occasional hail (yeah, that happened). Even in the middle of those brutally long Ohio winters when temperatures dropped so low the inside of your nose would most literally freeze. Even after that one time he got a little carried away with the lighter fluid and singed off half his beard, even then, dad was out there grilling.
When dad makes ribs, he slathers them in barbecue sauce, tucks them tightly in foil packets, throws them on his Texas-style offset smoker, and lets them hang out for HOURS . It’s a simple, straightforward technique, but it’s pretty much impossible to replicate this sort of perfection in a tiny apartment kitchen with nary a smoker to be found. Remember that first time I made mussels and they were an embarrassing abomination? Well, true to form, my first attempt at making ribs was a complete and utter failure. When I lifted the crockpot lid after ten hours of slow cooking, I found the meat had shriveled so much I could see more bone than brown. I was irrationally optimistic as I pulled a bit of meat off with a fork and sampled the day’s wares. It was, undoubtedly, the dryest meat I’ve ever laid tongue on. Ten hours in the crockpot and a little liquid smoke seemed too good to be true. This just in: it was. (more…)
Last week, at the International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle, hundreds of food bloggers from around the globe (yes, it really does have international reach) gathered in Seattle to talk blog. There were sessions on the creative aspects of blogging (story writing, recipe development, and wine pairing) and the technical aspects (like Google+ and SEO—that’s search engine optimization, totally nerdy, totally cool), plus plenty of opportunities to network with other bloggers and with national brands. I was one of the lucky few who sat down with Lesley Stowe, creator of Raincoast Crips, to talk about her career path and how her Raincoast Crisps, which started as a minute part of her business, grew to become her company’s main (incredibly delicious) product.
At the IFBC, Lesley announced their newest product, the Lesley Stowe Raincoast Flats, which come in two varieties: Lemon & Fennel and Kale & Walnut. Both the Raincoast Crisps and the Raincoast Flats are no-brainers for cheese plates and dips (check out my Cheese Plate 101 post for cheespiration), but the lemon-fennel combination immediately had me craving chocolate. I don’t know why. I’ve learned not to questions these sorts of things.
Earlier in the summer, I made Food 52’s (now infamous) Atlantic Beach Pie, which uses a combination of crushed saltine crackers, sugar, and butter as a crust. I used this same technique here with the Raincoast Lemon Fennel Flats, which resulted in a crispy, flavorful crust, the perfect base for the light and silky chocolate topping.
I’m proud to come from a family of foodies. Though some attach a negative connotation to the word (shout out to Huffington Post and Eatocracy, among many others), I use the term “foodie” endearingly. We foodies are people who, at the root of it all, love food, though it’s more than simply eating the food (or excessively consuming the food, as the case may be). Food is the binding tie, the common ground, the one thing that unites us all, family and strangers alike. It’s about sharing, and connecting, and traditions. Food is love, after all.
My foodie family is big on potluck get-togethers. Everyone brings a dish to share and the host handles the main course: MEAT. As far back as I can remember, there were two dishes we’d consistently have on hand for the hors d’oeuvre hour: potato chips and French onion dip (Lawson’s or Heluva Good only, people) OR cheese and crackers. This was my formalized introduction to the cheese plate. The preferred cracker of choice was the round, buttery kind that disintegrated instantly on tongue contact, and the preferred cheese was Colby Jack. If it was a really special get-together, like my Dad’s annual (epic) Christmas Eve parties, there’d also be some pepper jack and a little bit of Swiss. For the life of me, I never understood why they wasted space on the plate with that shitty Swiss cheese. No one liked it. And at the end of the night, it’d be the only thing left, the last cheese standing, all hard and slightly yellowed from the night’s neglect.
But I digress.
The foodie family lesson to be learned here is that when you tell your guests to “come hungry” you better have something on hand for them to nibble on til mealtime. The simpler the better, because as the host, you’ve got bigger fish to fry. The cheese plate is my go-to, and though mine looks much fancier than the cheese plates of my youth, it comes together just as fast. Plus, cheese tastes best at room temperature, so you can fix it and forget it before the guests arrive. (more…)
THE ROUND BISTRO. I don’t make it out to Gastonia very often (once a year, give or take), but I made a special trip last month to check out Chef Jack Acheson’s restaurant, The Round Bistro, and celebrate the restaurant’s two year anniversary with a wine dinner. Within minutes of speaking with Chef Jack, one thing becomes blatantly apparent: his strong passion for the history and diversity of American food. That’s what fueled him to chose American cuisine as his concept for the Round Bistro, and each month, Chef Jack develops a new regional menu that features indigenous ingredients of a specific U.S. region. Last month’s region was the Pacific Northwest, and for September, he’s taking a fun turn and featuring famous football stadium foods. Ingredients are sourced locally whenever possible, and Chef incorporates what’s in season into his regional menu planning.
The menu at the The Round Bistro is large, and spans the gamut from fondue-of-the-day to potato-crusted crab fritters, muffaleta to “Pittsburgers”, plus several salads, She Crab soup, shrimp and grits, and fresh salmon FIVE ways (including baked parmesan crusted, olive oil poached, cedar plank roasted, and blackened). In short, if you want it, they’ve got it, brunch included.
Every third Thursday of the month, The Round Bistro hosts a wine dinner. Chef Jack works closely with a sommelier to select regional wine pairings for each of the six courses, and he uses these dinners as an opportunity to showcase his culinary creativity. The menu for the wine dinner I attended included a cold peach soup with mint and cantaloupe, bay scallop over cactus and smoked gouda salad tossed in a green apple vinaigrette, cedar roasted salmon over basil tomato risotto, wine poached heritage chicken over rosemary polenta, pappardelle pasta with lamb ragu, and chocolate and raspberry mousse parfait, plus wine pairings for each course. All for just $65 per person.