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

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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.

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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}

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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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Where to eat at Charlotte Douglas Airport

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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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Uptown Charlotte’s Swankiest New Spots: The Punch Room & Evoke

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

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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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Restaurant Roundup: Elwood’s, Chuy’s, Urban Sip {Charlotte, NC}

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ELWOODS BARBECUE & BURGER BAR

Invite me to brunch, and you’ll get a look.  When I ask you “what time” ELWOODS BBQwith furrowed eyebrows, it’s because I’m trying to determine whether you’re inviting me to have 10am brunch (AKA breakfast) or 12pm brunch (AKAlunch).  I don’t do brunch.  I love breakfast and I love lunch.  Why consolidate the eating joy into one meal?

Enter Elwoods Barbecue & Burger Bar‘s new brunch menu.  Needless to say, I ate my words.  Brunch vendetta be gone.  How could I say no knowing their juicy brisket makes an appearance in several of the menu items?  Exactly.  You can get straight-up brisket and eggs if you’d like, but if we’re doing brunch, might as well get a little fancy and go with my top pick:  the brisket BBQ Benedict with poached eggs and grilled tomatoes nestled on English muffin halves and topped with their signature red sauce.  It made a brunch believer out of me.Elwoods Brisket Benedict

If you’re not in the mood for BBQ (blasphemy!), their take on chicken and waffles, with buttermilk fried chicken tenders, a homestyle waffle, and honey maple syrup is a solid choice.  They’ve also got French toast make with thick-cut Texas toast, and you can even get it stuffed with peanut butter and banana or strawberry and cream cheese. Elwoods BBQ waffles

For you do-it-yourselfers, there’s a build-your-own breakfast sandwich, with your choice of bacon, sausage, pulled pork, or pulled chicken, plus an egg, choice of cheese, and bread, PLUS a self-serve Bloody Mary bar.  Homemade, house-made, made-from-scratch–you can use these terms to describe practically everything on the menu, including the breakfast sausage.  I snarfed down my whole side of their hashbrowns–they’re the chunky, chopped potato kind (not the shoestring kind, thank god), and they serve ’em up extra crispy.

Did I mention $10 bottomless mimosas?  Who wants to meet me for brunch this weekend?

Check out my review of the full Elwood’s menu here.

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Tupelo Honey Cafe — Charlotte, NC {restaurant review}

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I’ve never been to Tupelo Honey Cafe in Asheville.  I’ve heard about it, walked by it, and stalked the menu, but I’ve never been in its doors or dined at its tables.  People RAVE about the place.  It’s where everyone who visits Asheville wants to go.  I’ve even heard it said that Tupelo Honey Cafe is Asheville, meaning Appalachian, southern, and a smidge hippy (at least from this Yankee outsider’s perspective).

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Tupelo Honey opened back in 2000, and over the past few years they’ve expanded to become a seven-store regional restaurant empire, the newest location of which is in Charlotte. Tupelo’s Charlotte location opened in the space previously occupied by Pewter Rose Bistro, which closed last year.  Pewter Rose had great ambiance; it was romantic and cozy with the low-strung lights, origami birds, and hanging plants–it felt like a grownup tree house.  Tupelo’s renovations on the space retained much of the building’s character — high ceilings, brick walls, and wood detailing everywhere.  They reconfigured the seating layout, allowing for many more tables and a large bar area, but at the sacrifice of Pewter Rose’s romance factor.

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tupelo open kitchen

Tupelo’s focus on local sourcing was a cornerstone of their success in Asheville.  Even with the restaurant’s recent expansion, they’re sourcing goods regionally (via a company that aggregates foods from farms in each restaurant’s region), and using those local products to shed new light on many old-time, comfort classics.  There are grits made with goat cheese, ribeye served with bordelaise (a French wine sauce), and crab cakes with lemon cherry pepper aioli.  At Tupelo Honey Cafe, every meal starts with a complimentary basket of their famous biscuits, served hot with a side of blueberry preserves and honey (surprisingly, I preferred the honey).

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Restaurant Roundup: Bacon Bros Public House, Passerelle Bistro, & Roost Restaurant {Greenville, SC}

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imageBacon Bros Public House has been open for less than two years, but many people in town have already declared it one of Greenville’s best restaurants.  Located on Pelham Road, a 15 minute drive from downtown Greenville, the kitchen at this meat mecca is headed up by Chef Anthony Gray (who previously served as the executive chef at High Cotton in Charleston), while the front of the house is the stomping ground for general manager Jason Callaway, who worked with Chef Gray at Coal Fired Bistro (also located on Pelham Road).  As a sommelier and mixologist, Jason is the mastermind behind Bacon Bros’ inventive cocktail list as well as the new reserve wine list offerings.  I met these two fellas during my visit to Greenville with Nichole of Gap Creek Gourmet, and was enamored with this duo of fun-loving jokesters.

The food at Bacon Bros is what I’d call farm-to-table, southern-inspired gastrofare–it’s comforting and hearty, and, sure, they’ve got the southern standards covered, but their urbanized approach has upped the ante.  Pimento cheese?  They serve it up with bacon jam.  Mac and cheese?  Theirs has bacon and chiles.  The burgers?  Made with a house-ground mixture of bacon, brisket, and beef chuck.  Jonesin for some pulled pork?  How bout pulled pork shoulder with cornmeal and country ham waffles (yep, there’s hunks of ham right in the batter), sorghum BBQ sauce, and creamy slaw?  It’s awesome, believe you me, and it was my favorite of all the dishes I devoured at Bacon Bros.

Bacon Bros - Pulled Pork w Waffles

When you’re visiting a place with “bacon” in the name, especially one that cures, smokes, and dries all their meats in house, you’d be remiss to pass on the charcuterie offerings.  The term “in-house” used here is literal–there’s a glass-enclosed curing room near the rear of the restaurant, where you can see the Bacon Bros pride and joy:  all-natural, pasture-raised meats from South Carolina farms, which they pitt smoke with South Carolina peach wood.  They even sell packs of their peach wood smoked bacon to-go for $9.  How’s that for bringing home the bacon?

Bacon Bros -- house-cured meat

There are half a dozen “snacks” (or small plates)  on the menu, including tater tots with smoked pork shoulder, sticky bacon caramel popcorn, and cornmeal fried pickles with smoked ranch.  I imagine most people come to Bacon Bros to eat themselves to the brink of meat sweats (I know I was successful in this mission), but if salad is your thing there are several interesting options, like the frisee topped with a poached farm-fresh egg, kale with grilled fig and lardo (cured meat) vinaigrette, or arugula with lamb ham, apples, and pistachios.

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Restaurant Roundup: Cowfish and eeZ {Charlotte, NC}

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Talk about good genes–two of Charlotte’s best Asian fusion restaurants, The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar and eeZ Fusion & Sushi, share a common, decidedly successful parent, Marcus Hall.

thecowfish_logoThe Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar is located down in South Park, right next to South Park Mall, and specializes in burgers, sushi, and burgushi (a non-traditional mash-up of sushi and burgers–sushi with beef and burger parts and sandwiches with sushi parts).  It’s a trendy restaurant, with a massive fish tank behind the 40-seat bar, and a large outdoor patio.  The place is always packed, which I think is a great testament to the quality of food they serve.

burgushi2Fusion cuisine is a big focus at Cowfish, and there are several over-the-top sushi roll combinations on the menu, like the filet & lobster roll, barbecue pulled pork roll with bacon coleslaw, and even a Mary Had A Little Lamb-urgushi Roll, complete with tzatziki.  They’ve also got traditional sushi covered, including sashimi, nigiri, cones, makimoni, and hosomaki.  I’ve been to Cowfish many times since moving to Charlotte, and have taken many out-of-towners there, but I’d never tried the burgushi until, on my last visit, I ordered the Nature Boy’s WOOOOO–shi BuffalOOOOO–shi Roll.  Please, PLEASE go to Cowfish and order this roll.  Aloud.  Not only will the name make you giggle, but the Ric Flair inspired sushi roll with bison, fried green tomatoes, chipotle aioli, and jalapeños will leave your belly feeling extremely happy.

The burgers offerings are equally inventive, my favorite of which is the boursin burger, served with sautéed mushrooms and onions on an onion roll.  Boursin cheese and onions?!  I die!  Heat-lovers will also love the Jalapeno Popper Show-Stopper, a burger that gets its kick from jalapeño-infused cream cheese, jalapeño bacon, and fried jalapeño garnish.  Other notables are the reuben burger, bison burger, pimento cheese burger, and the Hunka, Hunka Burnin’ Love burger topped with peanut butter, bananas, and bacon.

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Since the Cowfish menu is so LARGE, I often opt for the bento box, which gives you a little bit of lots of things:  a small roll, a mini burger, and three sides of your choice (DO NOT MISS the cucumber salad).
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Ginormous salads, appetizers, and desserts round out the menu.  The lobster and crab spring rolls, legendary blackened ahi tuna nachos, and mu shu chicken lettuce wraps are all solid options, as are the fresh berry tall cake (lemon pound cake, vanilla bean ice cream, and berries… shown toppled over (oopsie), below) and the spiked milkshakes, of course.

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Over in Huntersville’s Birkdale VillageeeZ Fusion & Sushi is serving up even more fusion fare.  The decor is Asian-inspired, with bamboo pole fixtures hanging from the ceilings, a full sushi bar, and framed Asian lettering on the walls.

 

Some of the favorites from Cowfish’s menu also make an appearance over at eeZ Fusion & Sushi in Huntersville’s Birkdale Village, including the crab rangoon dip, mu shu lettuce wraps, Thai cucumbers, lobster & crab spring rolls, and the blackened Ahi tuna nachos.

cowfish lobster crab spring rolls eez

The bulk of eeZ’s menu is dedicated to an insanely long sushi list, which includes sashimi, nigiri, hosomaki, cone hand rolls, makimono, plus fusion specialties. There’s no burgushi, per se, but they do have a filet mignon roll with avocado and scallions, and dozens of crazy sounding rolls like the tempura battered Dominatoroll with fresh yellow fin tuna and fried garlic, topped with homemade guacamole, crab rangoon dip, and sweet chili sauce.  YES.  I’ve tried the Boss (spicy yellowfin tuna with English cucumbers and wasabi mayo), Miss Moffit’s Roll (spicy tuna topped with avocado slices), and the All Eyes on You roll (spicy salmon roll topped with seared scallops and dots of sriracha), all of which I’d order again (and again).

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scallop sushi

As if the expansive sushi offerings weren’t enough, eeZ also offers pad Thai, curry, Mongolian beef, cedar plank salmon, blackened Mahi-Mahi, build-your-own stir fry, plus practically every kind of Asian chicken known to man (szechuan, sweet & sour, Kung Pao, cashew, teriyaki, etc.).  I’m a big fan of their Asian-fusion tacos.  They offer Thai curry, Mahi Mahi, and my favorite: Korean bulgogi beef.  Can’t make up your mind?  eeZ’s got a bento box option too:  one roll, one entrée or taco, plus edamame, Thai cucumbers, and jasmine rice.

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Want a little yin with your yang?  Try starting with the light and refreshing squid salad and ending with the moan-inducing Peanut Blast pie that’s jam-packed with peanut butter nougat, chocolate cake, mousse, and Reeses cups.

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The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar on Urbanspoon  eeZ Fusion & Sushi on Urbanspoon

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Elwoods Barbecue & Burger Bar {Restaurant Review — Ballantyne, NC}

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Ballantyne’s Elwoods BBQ opened back in 2009, and the reviews were, well, not great.  Things took a turn for the barbecue better this October when two brothers-in-law, Dan Anderson and Jeremy Johnson, purchased the joint.  While the face of the restaurant hasn’t changed much and the menu offerings aren’t drastically different, the quality of food being served has seen substantial improvement with the arrival of the new owners and Chef Mike Theimer, previously with the Burger Co., heading up the kitchen.  What’s in the past is in the past; nowadays, Elwoods is smoking their meats daily, grinding burgers in-house, and making everything they possibly can from scratch.

Think of Elwoods as a BBQ melting pot:  they’ve got Carolina pulled pork covered, of course, but they’re also smoking Texas style beef brisket, St Louis ribs, chicken, and (my personal favorite) the Kansas City burnt ends.  Considered a barbecue delicacy by many, some folks (especially northerners like me who aren’t akin to these little nuggets of beef) find the burnt ends crispy, tough, and dry.  I can admit I previously fell into that camp, but the burnt ends at Elwoods changed my mind on the very first bite, with a juicy, chewy texture that reminded me more of pork belly than the dehydrated meat bits I’d had from other guys in town.

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