Eating my way through Columbus

As a self-proclaimed restaurant-scouter-outer, I’m always on the hunt for new, interesting places to try.  As such, I’m constantly asking people for recommendations.  Where’s the best Indian?  Who has the best tacos?  Where can a girl get a decent breakfast sandwich?  Here are some of my recent favorites around Columbus, in iPhone-photo dump fashion.  Did I miss your top pick?  Let me know if the comments below!

Dan the Baker.  The first time I stopped into the Toast Bar, I ate approximately 17 pieces of the free sample bread at the cash register.  No shame.  All the bread is sour dough based, and the country sour is my favorite.  I try to grab some each week at the Clintonville Farmers Market!  Pictured below is the wonderful mushroom tartine available at the Toast Bar in Grandview.

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Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams!  This is, hands down, the best ice cream I’ve ever had.  You heard me.  So rich, so creamy.  My favorites include Brambleberry Crisp, Lemon & Blueberry Buttermilk Yogurt, Salted Peanut Butter with Chocolate Flecks, and Brown Butter Almond Brittle.

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6-1-pho.  I wanted to check this place out immediately, solely based on the punny name.  I’m happy to report the food keeps me going back.  Most of the dishes are based on recipes handed down from the owner’s grandmother.  I love that!  My favorites include the veggie pho and the cold noodle salad with veggie egg roll and tofu on top!

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The Refectory.  I had the privilege of enjoying an eleven course tasting menu with the #cbusfoodbloggers last month — get the drool worthy recap here.  My favorite dish was the sturgeon and gambas duet with herruga caviar blinis and sun dried tomato beurre blanc.

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Corkbuzz Charlotte: much more than “just” a wine bar {restaurant review}

My level of wine expertise falls somewhere between red wine neophyte and casual red wine drinker.  While I enjoy drinking [red] wine, just pronouncing “Tempranillo” or “Sangiovese” gives me quivers of self-doubt.  Over the years, I’ve developed some “tricks” to make it appear as if I know more about wine than I do.  In fact, I once wrote an article for Urbanspoon (on their now extinct official blog) called How to Order Wine Like a Boss.  The article consisted of 600+ words of advice on how to successfully order a bottle of wine at a business meeting without looking like a schmuck.

corkbuzz entrance

Despite this light-grade wine anxiety, one of my favorite nights-on-the-town is spent sharing wine and small plates with friends.  Recently, I did just that with Frank Vafier, co-owner of  Corkbuzz, a restaurant and wine bar in South Park.  You’d think drinking wine with a wine bar owner would be intimidating but Frank is an easygoing sort of guy.  We spent the evening talking about ping-pong tournaments, karaoke, and our shared interest in dinner parties while we tasted several dishes on the Corkbuzz dinner menu.

According to Frank, the idea for Corkbuzz was hatched by his niece, Master Sommelier Laura Maniec.  Laura is one of about thirty female Master Sommeliers in the world, and at one point in time she was the youngest Master Sommelier, period.  Despite these rather impressive credentials, the Corkbuzz philosophy on wine is relaxed, with a focus on “enjoying wine and talking about wine in a way that makes everyone feel welcome and never intimidated.”  Their approachability is exemplified by their knowledgable unpretentious servers, the restaurant’s no-corkage-fee policy, and the “ask the Master Sommelier” link on the website that invites website guests to send their wine questions Laura’s way.

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Oysters in Uptown: a look at Sea Level in Charlotte, NC {restaurant review}

We were on a family vacation to Daytona Beach the first time an oyster graced my presence.  I was about 10 years old and, needless to say, disgusted.  Fast forward twenty+ years, and here I am writing about Sea Level, a delicious new oyster bar in Uptown Charlotte.  What is it about oysters that entice people?  For me, it’s the contrast of the fresh garnishes with the cool, salty meat.  Horseradish, cocktail sauce, and Tobasco.  A squirt of lemon.  A saltine.  A traditional French Mignonette (my pick).  Sure, oyster purists like them plain, but I prefer to approach oysters as if they’re the nachos of the sea.  Who’s with me?

Sea Level Entrance

Sea Level is located uptown at the bottom of the Hearst Tower (entrance off of 5th street) and is co-owned by the same folks who brought us Crepe Cellar and Growlers Pourhouse in NoDa plus Paul Manley, who helped open Pearlz Oyster Bar in Charleston, SC.  I’ve eaten at Sea Level three times (so far), including an informative and delicious evening of oysters and drink pairings with my CLT Food Blogger friends.  While the farm-to-fork and sustainable foods concepts are becoming well represented in Charlotte, Sea Level is applying these food sourcing missions to seafood by shortening the food chain between oyster farmers and restaurants and by only purchasing non-threatened species.  Sea-to-fork, if you will, which doesn’t have quite as nice of a ring to it. . . So, since we’re talking oysters, how about sea-to-slurp?  (HOT NEW PHRASE ALERT.)

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Phyrefly: the new way to save money dining out in Charlotte

1436994445743I first heard about Phyrefly through social media stalking, and then again on Charlotte Agenda.  Then I bumped into Phyrefly founders Kaitlin and Josh Krogh at a Piedmont Culinary Guild event, and then AGAIN at #weloveclt last month, which I took as a sign I needed to try out Phyrefly already.

So, what is Phyrefly?  It’s the self-dubbed Hotwire for restaurants.  Meaning you log into the site, check out the various deals available, and select one based on location and price range.  The specific restaurant is not revealed to you until after the offer is selected, just as Hotwire doesn’t reveal the specific hotel until you’ve committed to the deal.  You can browse Phyrefly deals by neighborhood, price point, food type, user rating, and ambiance.  Bonus:  these are all local restaurants.  No chains.

Double bonus:  unlike Hotwire, Phyrefly currently doesn’t charge you upfront—which means there is no fee if you decide to pass on the Phyrefly offer once the restaurant is revealed.  (Though this will likely change in the future, once the beta stage is complete.)

This concept is exciting for three reasons.  1.) it gets diners to step outside their usual routines, 2.) it helps restaurants fill tables during off-peak hours, and 3.) it saves you money.  Boom.

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Where to eat at Charlotte Douglas Airport

Sure, everyone complains about the parking and the construction, but after spending too much time in some straight up nasty airports the last couple of years (I’m looking at you, LaGuardia), I’ve really come to appreciate and enjoy Charlotte Douglas.  After my return flight home from visiting family in Ohio last week, I stopped into the new 1897 Market and was blown away by all that they’re doing.  I mean, local sourcing at an airport restaurant?  Come on!  That’s when it hit me.  Charlotte Douglas is actually pretty awesome.

This is my third post for the #DesignCharlotte campaign, a cool program (details below) encouraging Charlotteans to share their favorite things in the Queen City.  Not surprisingly, my first two posts were completely about food.  Interested?  Check out my Foodie Guide to Charlotte and Foodie Guide to Charlotte Restaurant Week.

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1897 Market–the Charlotte Douglas Airport Game Changer

The typical airport meal is frantically grabbed from a cooler on the way to a connecting flight or begrudgingly eaten to pass hours waiting out a delay.  Which raises the question, does anyone actually like eating at the airport?  When I asked my boyfriend what came to mind when he thought of “airport food” he responded:  bags of nuts and bottled water.  This is sad.

Take a moment to ponder.  What comes to your mind when you think of airport food?  Is it chef-driven menus and hormone-free meats?  How about handcrafted cocktails and locally sourced produce?  Scratch-made pizza and local beer?  Not so much, huh?  This is precisely why 1897 Market at Charlotte Douglas Airport is a game changer. 

1897 Market Charlotte Douglas Airport

1897 Market is the newest concept launched by HMSHost, the world’s largest provider of food and beverage service for travelers.  1897 Market (named for the year HMSHost was founded) is a one-stop urban gourmet shop, with full-service dining room, raw bar, exhibition kitchen, grab-and-go, and retail marketplace wrapped into one.

Located in the Charlotte Douglas Airport Main Atrium, near Concourses A and B, this is HMSHost’s flagship store.  Whether you’re looking for a quick bite or a sit-down dinner, cocktails or last-minute souvenir, the Market is the answer to all of your gastronomic traveling needs.

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Best Charlotte Restaurants — A Foodie Guide

Best Charlotte Restaurants -- A foodie guide to Charlotte

Charlotte is one part small town, one part big city.  The people here are friendly and the pace of life is slow, but don’t let us fool you.  Charlotte is booming.  Everywhere you look, new things are being built.  Apartments, hotels, breweries, parks, restaurants.  YES, lots and lots of restaurants.

Several times a week, an email from a stranger will pop up in my inbox asking for a list of the best Charlotte restaurants.  I’ve been here over four years now, and have dined at MANY of the restaurants in the city, so these types of emails usually result in a list of two dozen recommendations I’m hoping the stranger can cram into a two-day stay, accompanied by instructions to pack their eatin’ pants.

As part of the #DesignCharlotte campaign (details below!), and for the fun of list making, I went back through those old emails and compiled a list of the restaurants and dishes that I recommend time and time again.  A foodie’s guide to Charlotte, if you will.  I anticipate this list will continue to grow and expand with time.  Did I miss your favorite?  Leave a comment below!

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UPTOWN

Where:  “Uptown” is Charlotte’s downtown area.  It’s the hub of the city and the point of reference for all other neighborhoods.  Uptown is divided into four wards, the center of which is the intersection of Trade Street and Tryon Street.

What:  Lots of banks and bankers, plus the Epicentre, all the sports (Charlotte Panthers, Charlotte Knights, Charlotte Hornets), theaters, and Romare Bearden Park.

Things to Eat:

  • Burgers:  Cowbell.  “Artisanal burgers with a side of rock & roll.”  My picks:  Big Will’s Breakfast Burger with praline smoked bacon and over-easy egg; Umami Burger with roasted shitakes, caramelized onions, and chipotle spiced ketchup; The Jett black bean burger with goat cheese and roasted garlic aioli; TATER TOTS.
  • Dinner on a Rooftop:  Fahrenheit.  Fantastic view.  Great for date night.  My picks:  Scallops with cauliflower puree, caramelized cauliflower, pomegranate molasses (best scallops I’ve had in Charlotte, no joke); Chorizo-stuffed dates; Charlotte Potato Chip Nachos.
  • Crudo & Steak:  Evoke.  “Chic, new-age steakhouse.” Gnocchi with jumbo lump crab and smoked pancetta; Escolar Crudo; Peruvian Ceviche; Diver Scallop Crudo; beef tenderloin Bucatini; 21-day Dry-aged NY Strip.
  • Lots O’ Options:  7th St Public Market.  The market’s focus is on local and regional farmers, food artisans, and entrepreneurs.  Local Loaf (Chicken and the Egg, Ham and Brie); Pure Pizza (Slap Yo Mama Lasagna, Chorizo); Hazelnuts (ALL THE CREPES); Not Just Coffee; The Sorting Table (wine); Greeneman Farms (produce); Orrman’s CheeseTanks’s Tap (beer).
  • Small Plates:  Dandelion Market.  One of my favorite uptown spots to grab dinner with friends. My picks:  Buttered scallops with toasted macadamia; cherry-glazed lamb lollipops; sausage stuffed poblano pepper; market mac and cheese.
  • Modern Southern:  Mimosa Grill.  “Global cuisine with a unique southern twist.”  Consistently good food.  Pecan crusted chicken salad with sweet mustard dressing; Iron Skillet Roasted Salmon.
  • Southern-inspired:  Roosters.  “Relevant without being trendy.”  Awesome open kitchen.  Wood-fired grill.  My picks:  scallop salad with buttermilk lime dressing; mac and cheese; Vietnamese pork sandwich.
  • Italian:  Aria.  3-course express lunch; cheese plate; all the pasta.
  • Gyros:  Little Village Grill.  Hands down, best gyros.  They even put a couple of fries inside.
  • Swankiest night out:  Dinner at 5Church followed by drinks at the Punch Room.  

PLAZA MIDWOOD

What:  One of my favorite areas to hang out on a weekend night.  Super walkable.  Funky, gritty charm.

Where:  2 miles east of Uptown, north of Elizabeth.

Things to Eat:

  • For all of the things:  Common Market.  Lovably grungy.  Delicious breakfast sandwiches, large wine & beer selection, random quirky snacks and chotchkies, happening patio, drink there or take it to-go.
  • BBQ:  Midwood Smokehouse.  Mac and cheese with big, curly corkscrew noodles; PULLED PORK CUBAN; BBQ tacos; Back Porch Tea.
  • Vegetarian food with flair:  Fern.  OM Burger with crispy fingerling potatoes; cauliflower appetizer (flavors change often, all are awesome).
  • International Cuisine:  Bistro La Bon.   Great atmosphere; interesting multi-ethnic dinner menu; SWEDISH MEATBALLS; all-you-can-eat brunch buffet. COCONUT MACAROONS.
  • Breakfast:  Zada Janes.  BUNNY RANCHEROS.  You won’t be sorry.
  • Rooftop bars:  Peculiar Rabbit and Whisky Warehouse.   Grab an order of fries, and enjoy the view.
  • Health-focused grocery:  Healthy Home Market.  “Locally grown, locally owned.”   Juice bar, hot bar, bulk bins.  Plantain chips!
  • Serbian/Italian:  Intermezzo.  My picks:  all the pizzas; house-made ravioli; steak & goat cheese sandwich on incredible house-made bread.
  • Swanky small plates:  Soul Gastrolounge.   “Innovative sushi, global tapas, and handcrafted cocktails.” Asian-glazed pork belly tacos; all the sushi; braised veal cheek ramen in a garlic cream sauce.
  • Comfort food:  Dish and The Diamond.
  • Tacos:  Krazy Fish.  “Seafood Fusion.”  CRAZY tacos; crazy décor; Szechuan salmon tacos are legit.
  • Coffee:  Central Coffee
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Uptown Charlotte’s Swankiest New Spots: The Punch Room & Evoke

THE PUNCH ROOM AT THE RITZ

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.

IMG_1211Leave 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.

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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.

IMG_1323I’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.

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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.IMG_1324

Punch Room on Urbanspoon


EVOKE AT LE MERIDIEN

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.

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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.

ScallopsThere 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.

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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.

Evoke on Urbanspoon

 

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Restaurant Roundup: The Round Bistro, Fahrenheit, Stagioni

THE ROUND BISTRO.  I don’t make it out to Gastonia very often (once a year, give or take), imagebut 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.

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Viddlz Alertz {plus a sneak peek of J. Sam’s}

I have a few food obsessions.  Yes, besides my well-documented love of barbecue, there are some foods I simply cannot go without ordering.  Burrata.  Scallops.  Caramelized onion anything.  Housemade bread.  Bread pudding.  Bread.  We all have our trigger foods.  How cool would it be to get an automatic alert any time one of the foods you’re craving was offered by a imagerestaurant?  Blackberry cobbler, softshell crab, meatloaf.  Whatever!  That would cut out, like, hours of food research a week.  Am I right?  That’s why I’m super excited about a new concept in Charlotte called Viddlz Alertz.  It’s an online tool that lets you manage your cravings by alerting you when your particular food obession is offered in the area.  Plus, the Alertz system displays daily drink and food specials from restaurants and bars you follow (you can also get daily email updates with this info), and the Viddlz app is expected to be rolled out later this month.

J Sams Charlotte Scallops

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