Back in Ohio, I had a lot of things. A house. A yard. Shrubbery. The whole kit and kaboodle. Sure, most people save downsizing til they’re empty-nesters, but me? Oh, no. I cut ties with three-quarters of my belongings at age 26, leaving behind my beloved hedging shears, lawn gnomes, and my beautiful propane grill (complete with double burners), and headed south. Since then, I’ve dreamed of the day I’d once again cook over an open flame, just me, my meat, and the great outdoors.
I spent the Memorial Day weekend at home in Ohio, and one morning I convinced my dad to teach me how to light a charcoal grill. As a soon-to-be-thirty, self-declared independent woman, I’m ashamed to publicly announce my ineptitude in this area. But standing in the backyard, listening to him explain the mechanics of the offset smoker while the flames licked at the mound of coals put a fire in my belly.
And when I returned home to Charlotte, this:
Even before I’d taken the grill out of the box, I invited a few friends over for sausage party. I stocked my fridge full of Johnsonville brats, opened up a bottle of wine, and got to assembling my new grill.
In retrospect, it probably would have been a good idea to give the ole grill a trial run. Nothing like going at it green with a crowd full of hungry bystanders. Though my dad had showed me how easy it was to light a charcoal grill using a charcoal chimney, I was overcome with a sudden confidence in the grilling aisle at Lowes, and when I picked up the chimney to put it in my cart, I thought, “oh, no, I got this,” and put the chimney right back on the shelf. Flash forward a few hours later, with the aforementioned starving bystanders, and me with nary a chimney, shred of newspaper, or drop of lighter fluid in sight.
An hour and one burnt thumb later, there was ash-covered charcoal… sort of.
And we waited.
Several mistakes were made this day, but I did do one thing right. Friends, ALWAYS have snacks on hand. The simple Johnsonville Andouille smoked sausage and caramelized onion pizza I threw together kept my friends from rioting while we faltered with the grill. This is sausage and onions done right. Classy, even.
And after two hours of “grilling” we FINALLY sat down and enjoyed some Johnsonville original brats plus some brat-stuffed jalapeno peppers. And you know what? It was fantastic. Even with all the flubs, as long as you don’t pierce the brat with a fork and leach it of its juices, that thing is sure to be delicious.
(As soon as everyone left, I logged onto Amazon and ordered a charcoal chimney.)
I don’t believe I’ve ever fantasized about mussels like I have George’s. They’ve been on my mind and in my dreams, succulent and meaty and begging to be eaten, for weeks. Of course we’re talking mussels here, not muscles, of which George’s Brasserie offers five different varieties. The fiery style, with a delicate spicy cream sauce, was so good, I’m not sure I’ll ever find the courage to order any of the others. It was love at first dunk of their fresh French bread into that spicy sauce. This overwhelming delight was a somewhat unexpected reaction, given that French food has never really excited me (a distaste I blame on a few bad experiences I had on a trip to Paris back in college, and an overall dislike of game and heavy sauces). In contrast, Executive Chef Andrew “Drew” Dodd puts a contemporary spin on the cuisine, while still offering many signature French dishes, including bouillabaisse, cassoulet, beef bourguignon, and charcuterie. A handful of the entrees are sourced locally, including the North Carolina trout armandine, the Spring Mountain Farms chicken served with black garlic beurre blanc, and a few varieties of their large oyster selection.
Like the food, the restaurant itself is upscale yet inviting. There are cozy round booths bordering smaller bistro style tables complete with Parisian-style rattan chairs. Small touches, like the aluminum bread pails brought to each table, keep the restaurant grounded and the atmosphere friendly.
One of my favorite hors d’oeuvres is the 48-hour pork belly, which is cooked sous-vide and served with jalapeno infused water melon. Unlike other pork belly I’ve tried, George’s has a crispy skin and no jiggly bits; you can literally sink your teeth into it. Other standout dishes are the supple pan-seared scallops, served with sweet corn and saffron puree, fava beans, smoked tomato, and thyme beurre blanc and the NY Strip Au Poivre with brandy peppercorn sauce, served with a petite ceramic pot of truffle pommes frites. I’ve also heard great things about the goat cheese and caramelized onion tart, but I’ve yet to try it (next time!).
George’s is a place where Francophiles and Francophobes alike will be satisfied, not only with the exceptional food but also the extensive wine list and the attentive and impressively knowledgeable servers. And for those fiery mussels, of course.
Shortly after moving to Charlotte, I fell in love with Mama Ricotta’s. I blame it on the goat cheese and mascarpone dip, which was my first bite of food on my very first visit to Mama’s.
Mama’s is the type of place where families feel equally comfortable as couples on hot dates. The dining room is cozy with large family-sized booths plus intimate tables for two, vintage family photos, and a large wood-fired pizza oven.
If you have any Italian friends or family, you know the importance of sharing food in the Italian culture. Food is love. This holds true at Mama’s, where most of the pasta dishes are available family-style and are served in deep dishes that are passed around the table, just like at home.
It didn’t take long for me to realize Mama Ricotta’s had common ownership with Bad Daddy’s (one of my favorite burger spots in town) and Midwood Smokehouse (my favorite barbecue joint). I’ve eaten at these restaurants dozen of times, and many of those meals have ended with toasts to Frank Scibelli, the owner and man behind the amazing food.
I’m a big fan of bread, and Mama Ricotta’s bread basket alone is worth a visit. The housemade rolls are served with olive oil sprinkled with crushed red pepper flakes for dipping. As for appetizers, there’s that amazing dip I mentioned–it’s a warm goat cheese and mascarpone dip served with grilled crostini and a warm tomato basil sauce, a steal at $8.50. I also highly recommend the new house made burrata ($12). Burrata is fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream, and Mama’s burrata is soft and supple and accompanied by olive oil poached tomatoes, basil, roasted garlic, and grilled ciabatta.
I know it’s the new year and we’re supposed to be juicing and diet cleansing and sweating to the oldies plus doing three thousand crunches a day, minimum. I know I should be focusing on eating my greens and counteracting all that indulging I did over the holidays. Spinach. Kale. Brussels Sprouts. SALADS, SALADS, SALADS!!!
I know. I KNOW. But what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t share THIS with you guys?
Am I right?!
Pizza is one of few foods for which I will risk third degree burns of both the mouth and esophagus. As soon as I open the box and locate the slice with the most ample crust, I’ve got it dangling above my mouth, scalding cheese be damned. The crust is by far my favorite part, and it alone can make or break a pizza. I cannot fathom why some people think of the crust as merely a handle used to transport the pizza to their mouths, ceasing to eat once they reach that sweet spot where sauce and cheese meets bready bliss.
Pizza delivered to your door is one of life’s simplest pleasures, but leftover pizza can leave a lot to be desired. There’s always the option of eating the leftovers for breakfast, cold and straight from the box, but I crave the smells and textures of a freshly delivered pie. When years of college dorm living taught me that microwaves turn pizza crusts to rubber, I found my solution in the oven.