"What's your favorite cuisine?" and "Where do you go to eat?" are two questions I get a lot. My answer generally annoys some since the response is spontaneous, not preset. I do not have a favorite restaurant or even a style of cuisine. I am not one for tedious meals or uninteresting chefs. Nor should you be. Today's American chefs take a multifarious approach to their dishes. American cuisine has morphed into a highly textured tapestry of multi-ethnic influences tempered by regional sensibilities and products. You don't have to take exploratory road trips to find some talented chefs making flavorful dishes in Charlotte. Just look in your neighborhood.
But there are some dishes that I continuously recommend, and these foods are as varied as Central American tamales and Indian spiced lamb chops. Some of these dishes may be humble, but they will surprise you with flavor: gorgeousness and good food don't always mix.
What follows is a roundup of 20 dishes (and that includes BSA Troop 33's sensational barbecue). So here goes:
• After my first visit to Ilios Noche in 2004, I wrote, "The best part of what I do is the unexpected discovery of a restaurant which delivers, even when there were no expectations. The rarity of this, week after week, year after year, makes that excitement of discovery even more exquisite." Since its opening, the space has increased and owner-chefs Stratos Lambos and Angelo Kaltsounis have opened several other concepts. But I return to Ilios Noche for the wood-grilled octopus appetizer, which is similar in every way to the grilled octopus I had at sunset at an outdoor café sitting on the edge of the island of Santorini. (Ilios Noche, 11508 Providence Road)
• The downside of my business is I'm continuously seeking the newest spot. One of my regrets is not being able to eat at Chef Bruce Moffett's Barrington's Restaurant more often. Although the menu is seasonal, Moffett's sea scallops are pure perfection. A quiet dinner at Barrington's offers all sorts of reaffirming pleasures. (Barrington's Restaurant, 7822 Fairview Road)
• The key to Musashi is the Japanese menu printed on the back of some of the menus. These are not items found on the regular English menu. Some of these dishes are vaguely translated into English: You will see words like "squid" and "snails" here and there. But all these dishes are excellent. If you are the adventurous type but cannot read Japanese, just randomly point. Some of the servers will give you a discouraging look. Some will also refuse to give you certain condiments with a dish. But trust them. (Musashi Japanese Restaurant, 10110 Johnston Road)
• Any of the dishes from the "Modern" portion of the menu at Copper is worthy of multiple visits, but the Kashmiri chili-fennel roasted lamb chops are an impeccable example of delicately enhanced flavor. Plus, Copper offers wines specifically selected for the cuisine. (Copper, Modern Cuisine of India, 311 East Blvd.)
• Typically, bar salads are as perfunctory as bags of greens found on grocery store shelves. Dressings are equally unimaginative and muffle greens in a swampy mess. But at The Peculiar Rabbit, Chef Geoff Bragg spins garden flavors into a sensational salad. Bibb lettuce has never been better. (The Peculiar Rabbit, 1212 Pecan Ave.)
• For a brasserie-styled frisée salad with bacon and a poached egg with a roasted shallot vinaigrette, I go to Georges. (Georges Brasserie, 4620 Piedmont Row Drive)
• Even if you are not a vegetarian, or in need of a gluten-free diet, Fern has so many creative dishes on its roster, what's not to like? A few weeks ago, the folks there put together a dinner with local brewery Birdsong and offered turnip "scallop" ceviche. (Fern: Flavors from the Garden, 1323 Central Ave.)
• Not surprisingly, The Wine Room at Dean & Deluca has an intriguing cheese selection on the menu. After all, its cheese counter is the best in town. The menu selection changes, but each features three cheeses from one region. Go with the Spanish. Garrotxa is a sensational Catalonian goat cheese. (The Wine Room, Dean & Deluca, 6903 Phillips Place Court)
• My favorite chicken salad, complete with Tabasco-charred spring onions, can be found at Halcyon. (Halcyon, Flavors from the Earth, 500 S. Tryon St., in the Mint Museum Uptown)
• With barbecue, smoke matters. So, if you missed the Boy Scouts of America Troop 33 annual barbecue event on the Friday and Saturday of Super Bowl weekend (across the street from Sardis Presbyterian Church, 6100 Sardis Road), you can still find smoke at the Old Hickory House, the only place in the state with the barbecue pit in the main dining room. (Old Hickory House, 6538 N. Tryon St.)
• The menu at Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar is simple and sharable, while the atmosphere is relaxed and fun. My favorites include the house-smoked salmon pizza with thinly sliced red onion and dill crème fraîche and any of its fabulous salads. The wine list offers many affordable selections, too. (Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar, 6706 Phillips Place Court)
• Whenever I go to Ben Thanh, I order the crispy quail appetizer. But Ben Thanh has produced excellent Vietnamese dishes — curry spiked with shrimp, yellow rice flour pancake filled with shrimp, hot pots, and charbroiled chicken in lemon grass — since it opened. (Ben Thanh Vietnamese Restaurant, 4900 Central Ave.)
• The roti canai with curry starter at Cuisine Malaya is a lot of flavor for four bucks. (Cuisine Malaya, 1411 Elizabeth Ave.)
• Many go to Las Delicias Bakery for the best churros in town. Some go for the conchas, or the flaky empanadas, or the freshly baked Mexican-styled teleras. But the chicken, or pork, tamales wrapped in banana leaves steal the thunder. If you usually have corn husk tamales, try these. These leaves imbue the masa with a subtle, yet sweet, flavor. (Las Delicias Bakery, 4405 Central Ave.)
• Chinese cuisines are problematic in Charlotte. Restaurateurs often fill their rosters with invented-in-America dishes like General Tso's sweet and fried chicken, or they produce a mix and match of the "best" of China's eight (perhaps more) regional cuisines. But at 88 China Bistro, the shredded duck breast with stir-fried leeks and mushrooms with plum sauce and a moo shu pancake seems airlifted from northern China. (88 China Bistro, 1620 E. 4th St.)
• Some say — OK, it was me — banh mi is the best sandwich in the universe. At Le's, French baguettes are baked to the owner's specifications: soft on the inside with a thin crunchy crust. Loaves are layered with meats, spears of pickled daikon radish and carrots, slim slices of jalapeno and sprigs of cilantro. The best are the grilled pork, barbecue pork and sardine. (Le's Sandwiches & Cafe, in the Asian Corner Mall, 4520 N. Tryon St.)
• High quality tuna — and any fish for that matter — is expensive. Last January, the highest grade of bluefin tuna brought in $3,600 per pound at the Tokyo market. And anytime you want to really taste the fish — like eating it raw — quality is important. That's why I like the tuna tataki with cucumber wakame salad with ponzu sauce, and the Hawaiian-styled poke on the starter list at AZN: Azian Cuisine. The Hsu family has consistently shown preference for high quality, flavorful fin fish. (AZN: Azian Cuisine, 4620 Piedmont Row Drive)
• The best spot for weekend dim sum is at a grocery store: Grand Asia Market in Stallings. Around 11 a.m. on Saturdays, a still warm batch of egg custard tarts are brought out to the already burgeoning shelves of this first-rate Chinese bakery within a store. Nearby steamers are filled with Cantonese barbecue pork buns. (Grand Asia Market, 4400 Potters Road, Stallings)
• Late night? The lines at Amelie's can get crazy, but that's half the charm of Charlotte's legendary bakery. The other half is the pastries. (Amelie's French Bakery, 2424 N. Davidson St.)
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