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Encore brings casual upscale dining to Way-South Charlotte

If you keep driving south on Rea Road, past Highway 51, Piper Glen, I-485 and Stonecrest Shopping center, you suddenly cross the Mason-Dixon line and end up in the middle of Ohio.

Really. I'm not kidding.

In those 10 miles or so on land, which until recently had cows and horses, the environment has changed. Now houses and apartments have mushroomed and the people who populate the area have distinctly non-Southern accents.

The epicenter of this part of town is the new Blakeney center, a Crosland development with a large Teeter, Target, and retail choices like White House Black Market and Coldwater Creek. Other dining spots in the center include 131 Main, Five Guys and Brixx Wood Fired Pizza.

Many of my Charlottean friends -- actual natives -- do not venture south past I-485. Heck, Highway 51 is a stretch for them. What attracts the folks who live out in Way-South Charlotte is the affordable housing, large acreage, and of course, the never-been-bused CMS, and Union County, schools. Thus children are often part of the dinner equation.

The 170-seat Encore Bistro & Bar opened in the Blakeney center last June. This is the fifth Encore nationally and the first in North Carolina. The concept is owned by Ohio-based Ed Rogerson who owns three Encores in the Cincinnati/Dayton, Ohio area and one in Naples, Fla. The Charlotte store is managed by Robert MacDonald.

During the wait -- and yes, there is typically a wait -- was when I noticed the absence of Southern accents. I checked out the Teeter and a few other spots and suddenly I realized that a large percentage of that much touted 80,000 people who move to Charlotte annually must have relocated near Blakeney.

The "snowbird" (i.e. Northerners) influence is also apparent among the servers. One server noted that he was the token Southerner -- and he was from Virginia. All the rest were from New York state and Ohio. The customers' fashions also had that Northern twinge: a guy wearing a Yankee ball cap during dinner and the faded jeans/sneakers ensemble of middle-aged diners.

Encore is family-friendly. The booths are large and spacious, and I stepped over a few crayons thrown out by a budding artist while on the way to my table. But this Encore also seems to be a refuge for recently relocated couples, too. I heard conversations about recent Charlotte discoveries and MacDonald noted that since there is "no bar out here," Encore filled that niche immediately. He also said Encore attracts women since there are a lot of "divorced single moms and widows" in the area and how diners frequently find a Panther player among the guests.

At the helm in the open kitchen, equipped with a wood burning oven, is Shae Vannemiller, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University's culinary program, Providence, R.I., campus. Vannemiller previously worked for The Cheesecake Factory. Encore's dinner roster is designed to please everyone, no matter where you're from: mojo prosciutto or apple walnut pizzas, gumbo and corn chowder, house-made potato chips served with blue cheese dressing, burgers, red chile-rubbed ribeye steak, seafood, and pastas. Entrees range from $14 for chicken and basil Alfredo to $24 for osso buco or the ribeye steak. The Tapas bar also offers small plates.

The tequila barbecue ribs are nearly perfect and play a starring role on the combination appetizer platter which also includes smoked chicken and andouille fried Asian rolls, chicken wings basted more of the rib's barbecue sauce and served with a blue cheese (hold the cilantro, please) sauce, and a feta cheese dip which sounds more enticing than it tastes. All this for $15.

Main courses are in rhythm with the dining room's hum: roasted half chicken, rack of lamb and parmesan crusted grouper. But the surprise was finding Encore's crab and shrimp cakes. Recently crab cakes have become susceptible to popularity and rarely rise above mediocrity. But Encore's perfectly pan-seared hefty threesome is ramped up with a spicy remoulade, delivering a knock-out taste. The lobster ravioli, another hearty choice, is a flavorful medley of minced lobster packaged in black (squid ink) and white pasta. The wedge salad is predictable and again has the cilantro in the blue cheese dressing. Portions here tend to be huge, something to keep in mind if you typically order a sweet at the end.

MacDonald noted that hiring experienced servers is difficult in South Charlotte. He noted that when Encore opened in the summer, they were staffed with experienced servers, but these servers departed for their universities once fall arrived. Now the Encore staff shows its inexperience in the large crowded dining room. They're sweet and well-meaning, but suddenly they appear with bread -- and then poof, they're gone. Then they're back.

Nevertheless, restaurateur Rogerson has crafted from the darkness that once was South Charlotte, an extraordinarily welcoming and smart space which seems a perfect fit. No wonder the neighborhood has embraced it so quickly.

Eater's Digest

About a year ago, I wrote that Charlotte didn't have a Turkish doner sandwich but had great Lebanese sandwiches at Ghali's Deli & Grill. In a strange twist, Charlotte now has doner sandwiches at Sofram Contemporary Turkish Cuisine (8652 Pineville Matthews Road), but Ghali's has closed. I'll miss you, Mary, and your excellent chicken shawarmas.

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136, or e-mail tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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