If you caught my last recipe post, you already know I’ve been tricking myself to eat fish by throwing it in a taco and adding excessive toppings, like a parent hiding veggies in their kid’s mac and cheese. It’s sad but true. Of course, grilling fish makes it a little more palatable, plus nothing beats grilling in the summer (even if it is fish…). Fresh. Fast. Flavorful. And so darn pretty.
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!
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.
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 Cheese; Tanks’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.
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
I’ve been trying to learn to like fish ever since my dad brought home walleye cheeks that first time, fresh from Lake Erie, and my sisters oohed and aahed over how delicious they were. I wanted in. I desperately wanted to like fish. Every bite though… just left something lacking. It’s the texture that gets me, I think. And the fishy taste. So basically, I dislike every aspect of fish. Except, of course, for the fact that it’s good for you. So, in an effort to trick myself into liking fish, I’ve been making fish tacos all the time. They’re super simple to throw together, and if you add enough toppings, you can’t even taste the fish. I’ll consider that a WIN.
When I started this blog, I was 25 and living in Akron, Ohio, in a house I’d bought because, well, that’s what I’d thought I was supposed to do. Everyone else was settling down, so I strapped a mortgage on my back, and hunkered down. I spent my first summer there in the backyard, mulching and weeding like a good homeowner. I filled the rooms with second-hand furniture, replaced the water heater, and worried endlessly about that weird clicking noise the fridge made. The house was a fun and infinitely stressful addition to my life, but after a year or so, it lost its luster. I was bored. With the house, with my job, and especially with living in NE Ohio. And that, my friends, is when I decided to start a food blog.
I named the blog Fervent Foodie because I love food, I can be a little intense, and I love alliteration. *dusts hands off*
[mug by JMNpottery]
Since then, the word “foodie” has developed some negative connotation. Eatocracy referred to it as “the other F-word” and HuffPost Taste listed it (along with “moist” and “nom nom”) as a most-hated food word. I don’t care. Definitionally speaking, I’m a foodie.
Fervent Foodie was birthed five years ago, to the day, which is, by all accounts, the longest relationship I’ve ever been in. That’s what this blog is to me. A relationship. A life partner, of sorts. Like any relationship, there have been ups and downs, times when my blog was my priority, and others when it was a burden. But through it all, the blog was there. Every time life got turned on its ass, I poured myself into the blog. My blog became my wingman, support system, and crutch. When I wasn’t confident enough to go at it alone, I used the blog as my excuse. We’ve even traveled together, me and the blog, to Chicago, Nashville, Birmingham, Greenville, and Seattle for the International Food Bloggers Conference, TWICE (soon to be thrice).
Shortly after moving to Charlotte my birthday rolled around. I didn’t have a friend in the entire city, so I sent an email to a group of random Charlotte food bloggers asking them if they’d like to come to lunch. Guess what? THEY CAME. The food blogging community is incredible.
After that birthday lunch, I implemented a new life mantra: say yes to lunch. If someone asks me to lunch (or coffee or dinner or drinks, whatev) I just say YES. Even if I don’t know the person, or think we have nothing in common, and ESPECIALLY when I really just don’t want to go, I just say yes. This is how I built a circle of friends and colleagues from scratch in Charlotte. “Say yes to lunch” was my personal policy, but somehow it seemed everyone else was on board. I can’t think of a time when I’ve asked someone to lunch and had the invitation turned down. That’s Charlotte for you.
[#cltfoodbloggers Holiday Potluck]
Looking back over my posts in those early years is somewhat embarrassing. My views of healthy living have shifted drastically. Back then, I was the captain of Team Fat-Free Everything. The fewer calories, the better. PB2? I was all about it. For those who aren’t familiar, PB2 is basically peanut butter that they sucked all the fat out of, turning it to peanut dust, which is then reconstituted with water to a flavorless, peanut butter-colored paste. Yes, I was ALL about that.
These days I care more about whole foods than about how many calories are on my plate. Thank god, because I don’t want to live in a world without peanut butter. My cooking skills have improved drastically over the years, so it’s somewhat embarrassing when a friend mentions she looked up an old recipe post. The most popular post on this blog to-date is by far the Buffalo Chicken Dip recipe I posted back in 2010. Part of me considers this a personal failure, but ultimately, I’m just happy to contribute to game-day grubbing festivities across the globe.
[#cltfoodbloggers group dinner at Red Ginger]
It’s been five whole years of recipes, ramblings, and restaurant reviews. Through the blog, I’ve written for the official Urbanspoon blog and Our State Magazine’s Food Blog, did a series of recipe videos for Tropical Foods, and appeared on the morning news to talk about sausage, not once but twice. Yes. I’ve made friends, found inspiration, and grown immensely. It’s been a heck of a ride, these past five years. That’s the thing about anniversaries–they force you to reflect. What I’ve realized, over the past year or so, as I’ve watched friends pursue their passions and opt to take the roads less traveled, is that I’ve spent a lot of my time working toward things that I’m not necessarily passionate about, just going through the motions, doing what I thought I was supposed to do. For what? For who? For why?
My new favorite line is, “You’re in charge.” I say it to myself and to my friends all the time. Each of us is in charge of ourselves and our lives. I believe that if you don’t take the time to set your priorities, someone else will do it for you. Over my four years in Charlotte, I’ve watched from the sidelines as Charlotte’s food scene exploded. This year, I want to get involved. Get my hands dirty. Work with organizations whose missions I’m passionate about.
Because, why not? Change is coming, and I’m excited.
One of my ongoing life goals is to get better at being present and in the moment, that is to say: mindfulness.
I’m a planner by nature, always looking ahead and assessing progress toward whatever goal I currently have my sights on, and because of these innate, Type-A tendencies, life inadvertently becomes one big set of to-do lists to accomplish, tick, and account. I find myself having to make the conscious decision to let loose. To be inefficient. Meander. This is coming from the girl who just referred to her calendar as a “time budget”… I only have so much time. I can only spend it on so many things…
Thinking about this, and how I miss writing just for the fun of it, coupled with the fact that I think my creative brainwaves may (finally) be unclogging, I thought it might be useful (fun, even) to look back every so often and reflect on life in the Queen City here on the ole blog. I guess you could say I’m attacking mindfulness from the backside, which isn’t being PRESENT, per se, but I hope it will help me to improve that skillset, in a roundabout sort of way.
It’s an exciting time to live in Charlotte (well, except for the annual inch worm infestation, anyway); the city is growing rapidly and there are new things to see and do and eat everywhere you look. This past week alone, I helped judge a round of the Competition Dining Series; stopped into Ri Ra to check our their new Whiskey Room; ate lunch at Draught and met Ted Williams of Charlotte Agenda in person(!); went to Tuckfest at the US National Whitewater Center, ate some awesome tacos, and saw Jason Isbell play (amazing); got breakfast sandwiches from Laurel Market (Mercado, for the win) and ate them at a tiny table on the Sugar Creek Greenway; checked out the J Crew Warehouse sale (still asking myself WHY.); inhaled too much pizza at Revolution Ale House; spent an absurd amount of money at Trader Joe’s; dined with friends at Viva Chicken; saw Spirit Family Reunion play at the Visulite; and ate my weight in barbecue pulled pork at Midwood Smokehouse. Boom.
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.
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.
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.