Sunday, July 1, 2012

I Heart CLT

I am living in Charlotte for the summer, in case you didn’t know. This week, I have taken public transportation everywhere and I feel as if I am a little bit more of a city gal. (However, I can’t wait to go home in a few days, pick our grapes, cook with vegetables straight out of the garden, play with my dog, grill out with my family on the back porch, read on a rocking chair on our front port, and walk around barefoot in the backyard.) Through this somewhat trying public transportation experience, I have found out that I love the light rail! Most people keep to themselves and there are a  few guys that are a little too friendly if you know what I mean, but there is air conditioning and it is almost always a pleasant trip. As a result, I have tried to go as many places I can to explore this week. 
Here are just a few of the adventures I have had: spur-of-the-moment trip to NoDa/Amelie’s with intern S, check, uptown to King’s Bakery for lunch with intern H, yep, to the Visulite Theater in Elizabeth to hear Erick Baker and Jill Andrews with interns A and H, uh-huh, random trip to Harris-Teeter, duh, and treating myself to a peanut butter blondie from Cloud 9 Confections in 7th Street Public Market, most definitely (it had been a rough day, I needed it). As you can see, many of these revolve around food, but I just wanted to take advantage of my week pass and I think I can say that I did. I am actually a bit sad that I can no longer use my weekly pass. While using the pass and exploring the city, it has made me love and appreciate Charlotte even more, the people, places, and even the relatively efficient public transit system.
Uptown Charlotte at night.
Last weekend I was fortunate enough to eat at two wonderful and swankier restaurants. Last Sunday, I reached a milestone; I ate at my tenth restaurant on the list of the “25 Best Restaurants in Charlotte”. Last weekend I ate at Halcyon Saturday night and at Customshop on Sunday for brunch. Because I have hit a small milestone, I have decided to start a series about my impressions of these places (although it may be interrupted by recipe posts to mix things up a bit). Eating at these one-of-a-kind restaurants in Charlotte has deepened my appreciation for the Queen City and made me love this place that I am temporarily calling home even more. In the restaurants, I can see the visions of their owners and I love the creativity, the attention to the quality and sourcing of ingredients, the array of different ethnic options, and welcoming atmosphere present in all of them. I will start with an overview of the last two of these restaurants that I have eaten at.
Left: scone with apple butter; right: huevos rancheros
This farm-to-fork restaurant in Elizabeth definitely was surprisingly not crowded for Sunday lunch at 12:45 but with the delicious food it is a wonder that there were few people there. The atmosphere is modern but simple with large industrial looking booths and tables as well as patio seating. Evidently the atmosphere is a bit fancier and more intimate for dinner when house made pastas are featured and are supposed to be quite a hit. We had a good server and the service was prompt. However, I specifically asked for my dish without beans and it came with beans anyway. Also, my grandfather ordered the Focaccia Panini but they had just run out a few minutes before (no worries though, he still enjoyed the short rib burger). Our meal began with crescent-shaped scones and apple butter. The mini scones were still warm and studded with dried fruit (raisins or possibly currants). It was a nice two bites to start the meal. The menu wasn’t huge but everything that I tried proved that the kitchen emphasized quality over quantity of choices. I ordered Huevos Rancheros. The roasted corn pancakes were light and served as a good base for the spicier and more vibrant flavors of the pico de gallo and sauce. The two eggs perched atop the corn cakes were cooked perfectly to my liking, poached and soft. My grandmothers ordered the  Blueberry & Marscapone French Toast and Spinach Salad, Scallops, Cottonmill Mushrooms & Warm Bacon-Mustard Vinaigrette. The French Toast was delicious and not too sweet, made with good quality bread and fresh, local blueberries. The spinach salad was a warm salad, with complex flavors from the carmelized onions, roasted mushrooms and tomatoes, and bacon. This isn’t a light, summery salad, but it was a delicious and filling meal. The scallops themselves were large and tender, seared on both sides to perfection. Customshop is known for their house made charcuterie which was listed on a blackboard by the door as well as local cheeses. Although I didn't get to try this, the wild boar was especially intriguing. I would love to go back and try their dinner selections and charcuterie/cheese selection.
The outdoor seating area of Halcyon, tucked into the Mint Museum.
Another farm-to-fork restaurant, Halcyon is located uptown in the Mint Museum. The atmosphere is true to the vision of the restaurant. There are exquisite high tables with tabletops made of a cross-section of a large tree, showing the rings. The other tables inside are intimate but not stuffy. Jerry and I sat outside, which may have been a mistake considering the humidity and high temperatures that night. However, the seating was positioned to give diners a nice view of downtown. The chairs were large and slightly reclining, adding comfort and relaxation instantly. Even the silverware and plates were in keeping with the natural theme and added to the overall ambience. Our service here was excellent, from the warm greeting by the hostess to our waiter that treated us like old friends. However, I would definitely recommend making reservations; the restaurant filled up quickly after we came for our 6:15 reservations. We were first served some bread with specialty butters, basil and tangerine. These were different but equally tasty on the crusty French bread slices. The menus here are unique in that there are grazing (appetizers), grown (salads), and raised (main course meat) sections to the menu, as a well as a libations and dessert menu. Jerry and I decided to try several different things to try to have the best experience here. We started off with the Trio of Regional and Inspired Cheeses and the Hearth Skillet Cornbread. The cornbread came hot out of the oven in a small cast iron pan. The sweet, moist bread was studded with bits of salty country ham and a dollop of blackberry butter was melting on top. The sweet and salty combination was amazing and made for a unique twist on cornbread. We literally polished off the whole pan (this was when I started to feel full although Jerry tried to tell me there was no way I was full already) before getting to the cheese board. That night there was a goat cheese, an aged cheese (reminiscent of Swiss) with cocoa nibs, and a Stilton blue cheese with sliced apples, dried fruit, and a fruit chutney. The cheeses came from Asheville, Greensboro, and somewhere in Georgia; our waiter was very knowledgeable about where the cheeses came from and the flavors of each. We enjoyed them all but the one with cocoa nibs might have been my favorite, although there wasn’t a strong chocolate flavor. For our entrée, we ordered the Lardcore Quail which came with farro and greens in a delicious jus. The quail (it was the first time I had tried this delicacy) was fried to perfection. I normally do not even like greens but these were packed with flavor and the farro was cooked well, absorbing some of the jus from the greens. All of these components made a very interesting bite with complimenting flavors and textures. By the time, we finished the entrée, we were stuffed and unable to try one of the four desserts (they change daily) which I would have been hard pressed to pick from because they all sounded so delicious. Halcyon put a new spin on old southern favorites using local produce and the appetizers are especially quirky and fun.
Top: cornbread with blackberry butter melting on top; bottom: fried quail on top of greens and farro.

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