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We Are What We Ate 

Charlotte's year in food

Restaurateurs and caterers are breathing a shared sigh of relief at the end of 2004. While Charlotte's economy hasn't returned to the high roller days that marked the end of the 1990s, local eateries and caterers are seeing a reprieve from the devastation that followed the market collapse and the events of September 2001. Pockets of Charlotteans are beginning to jingle and folks are, once again, stepping out.

One of the most welcomed spots to open in 2004 is Restaurant "i" Japanese Fusion Cuisine, 1524 East Boulevard. Pricey? Yep. Quality costs, but discerning gourmands appreciate the pristine quality of the fish presented here. Besides, everyone knows that sushi and sashimi are high dollar items. Is an itty bitty piece of fish or seafood worth a great big price tag? Absolutely. For years folks have equated the all-you-can-eat buffet lines as a great value. But America, perhaps slowly, seems to be moving away from "all I can eat" to ""I am what I eat." If this does indeed become the standard, smaller quantities of exceptional food may turn out to be what Charlotteans prefer.

Sushi itself is undergoing a significant change. Just as pizza became the venue for invention, now sushi is a new avenue for the creative mind. There's a downside there, too, however. Sushi in many establishments isn't being made by trained sushi chefs and doesn't feature high quality ingredients. In Japan culinary students train and apprentice for many years before graduating to the level of a sushi chef. I doubt these trained culinarians would combine eel, mayonnaise, cream cheese, and avocado on a single roll.

Steak lovers are also following the high ticket item. Atkinites rejoiced to find Kobe beef, the well-marbled meat from Japan that costs over $100 a pound, as well as the American-styled Wagyu beef, finding their ways onto local menus. Wa means Japanese and gyu means cattle in Japanese; American ranchers have bred the Japanese cattle with American stock and are raising Wagyu with the same feeding techniques as Japanese ranchers. Typically, Wagyu shows up as a menu special in area restaurants.

Japanese influence can also be felt at the bar. While martinis still reign as cocktail king, premium Sakes are gaining fans. Far removed from the inexpensive hot sake served in puny plastic cups, these sakes have moved from the dining table to the bar. Premium sake is served cold and is expensive since milling and polishing the rice used to make it is very exacting and costly. The unique feature about sake is the double fermentation that allows for a higher alcohol level, no doubt another popular bar feature.

While Japanese influence has been pervasive in Charlotte area restaurants, a forceful Latino impact on our local gastronomy can be felt as well. Charlotte has Latino butcher shops and bakeries as well as dozens of Latino restaurants. Of note, 2004 was the year the government of Mexico asked UNESCO to declare Mexican cuisine a "masterpiece of the intangible heritage of humanity" since many of its regional cuisines predate the Spanish (European) influence.

Cheese continues in popularity, particularly artisan cheeses. Just as Starbucks made us aware of a singular coffee, now a luxury must-have is a farmstead cheese. These are the cheeses made from the farm's own herd, not imported from neighboring farms. The same food lovers who embraced aged balsamic vinegar, sea salt, and Madagascar vanilla are now eschewing Brie and seeking these fresh cheeses. More area grocers are carrying a larger variety of cheese, although I've been somewhat surprised by the lack of fresh cheese coming out of the North Carolina and Virginia mountains. The fat content is higher in the milk of animals raised in higher, colder altitudes and creates a creamier cheese. The milk from these higher altitude herds tastes better, too. Try a quart of "shake before using" Homestead Creamery to savor the difference. This milk, produced in Burnt Chimney, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge, is available at Fresh Market and is sold in returnable glass bottles.

You've heard me whine before about the plethora of wine tastings around town. Heck, I'm surprised Park Lanes hasn't announced a wine tasting in their bowling alley soon. But there are some worthy places to go for wine tastings and one is up I-77 to the Yadkin Valley. The North Carolina wine industry constantly adds new players, such as Richard Childress' (no relation) new vineyard near Lexington, now the largest vineyard in the state. Another is Raffaldini Winery along the Swan River (near Highway 421, west of I-77), which is planting Italian and French varietals and some Italian varietals not planted elsewhere in the US. The Raffaldini family chose North Carolina after an extensive search throughout the US. The Raffaldinis have been landowners in Mantua, Italy, where the poet Virgil grew up, since 1348. Their Tuscan-styled tasting room is open Thursday and Saturday from 12noon until 5 pm; Friday from 12noon until 6 pm; and Sunday from 1 until 5 pm. Winter hours may vary so call first, at 336-835-9463.

Another sign that the no-carb, low-carb craze is waning is the newly franchised Beard Papa. This Japanese company offers freshly baked cream puffs, best described as the Asian love child of a Krispy Kreme doughnut and a profiterole. The company uses a mechanized production line similar to Krispy Kreme's doughnut line to bake, not fry, these sweet, carbo-laden treats.Also emerging in popularity nationally are whole grains foods and the high fiber diet. College students everywhere can appreciate the opening of the all-cereal cafes, exclusively serving boxed cereals. Also off the charts in popularity is Splenda, a brand name for sucralose, a sugar-based sweetener that is many times sweeter than sugar, with little aftertaste, and can be used as a sugar substitute in baking recipes.

Other ingredients you should be sure to watch in 2005 are blueberries, oysters, and Meyer lemons. Blueberries soared to fame last summer as word got around about their antioxidant properties. Oysters are also seen on more menus, especially Pacific oysters. Just as we learned to differentiate wine appellations, now we want to order oysters with names like Sinku, Royal Miyagi, Shalanno, Belon, Golden Mantle, Skookum, Hama-Hama, and Hog Island. Meyer lemons continue to be in style. Fortunately, you can grow your own in Charlotte. My prolific three-year-old Meyers lemon tree winters inside, yet produces dozens of lemons each season.

What were the overkill food stories of 2004? Frustrated Hospitality and Business students at Johnson & Wales University have been dismayed by the amount of coverage the Charlotte Observer has dedicated to the culinary department of their university. The consequence for these students has been the need to explain to many Charlotteans that there are three colleges at Johnson & Wales University and only one is the culinary school. Food Editor Kathleen Purvis told me during last fall's Charlotte Shout that the Observer had assigned Johnson & Wales University to be covered by the food department, thus the disproportionate food coverage.Even though 2004 was a better year for restaurants in general, some restaurants did not make it. Red Star Tavern, a Chicago-based chain, closed their Dilworth location abruptly this month, leaving Christmas party hosts scrambling to find substitute restaurants. Downtown Charlotte continues to be the stage for innovative Modern American cuisine while SouthPark adds another steakhouse when Morton's opens their second location at SouthPark Mall. Another bright spot on the culinary horizon is Mooresville and the northern end of Mecklenburg County. Across the region, the major food trend is raised standards. Farmers' markets are selling out of desirable produce earlier in the day and consumers are demanding better product selection from area grocery stores. While I do not predict impending doom for the "load the plates high" places, I do see Americans, in general, being more concerned with the prospect that we, indeed, may be what we eat.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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