My first trip to Charleston and the recent one-year anniversary of my move to Charlotte — followed closely by my debut Queen City Nerve column — got me thinking about what exceptional food experiences I’ve had in Charlotte over the last year.
What is great food? It’s not an easy question to answer because taste is subjective, so I can only tell what the definition is for me. My days are spent fantasizing about my next meal, especially when I’m trying a new restaurant or visiting a food destination.
Recently, for my birthday, I spent a weekend in Charleston, South Carolina. A few weeks before going, I made reservations at Husk, a restaurant well-known on the culinary circuit. I’m not going to knock it, but it didn’t knock my socks off either. The food was good, but I was searching for extraordinary and nothing that passed my lips qualified. The service was also lacking for such a haute destination.
There were other meals in town, but one spot stood out — and it was for the most unlikely of reasons. I had brunch at Millers All Day — named such because it serves breakfast all day — and ordered the Millers Plate, a basic breakfast consisting of two eggs, bacon, a choice of grits or home fries, and a biscuit. Everything was cooked perfectly, but there was a small little container on the plate with an unknown ingredient hanging out near the biscuit, which the server identified as strawberry butter.
My wife and I slathered it on our biscuits and experienced an unexpected burst of flavor. We gasped simultaneously; it was that good! A little unforeseen surprise can go a long way, elevating an already excellent meal to new heights. And the service was stellar! That’s what makes an exceptional experience for me.
On the local scene, there have been some dishes that have made my taste buds pop and I still salivate thinking about them. Here are my best Charlotte food dishes after one year — while I look forward to much more to come.
I had the good fortune of heading over to Camp North End recently and trying out Leah and Louise. The food was excellent, but one dish took it to the next level. It was a shrimp dish with the unique name of “On My Way Home.” If I could make this at home, I would never have a reason to leave.
These “big assed gulf shrimp,” as the menu described them, were so fresh it’s like they jumped out of the water onto my plate. They were swimming in a lemon, butter, Worcestershire sauce that I wanted to drown in and fortunately, they were accompanied by a few slices of grilled cornmeal brioche bread that were just as tasty and perfect for sopping up every last drop of that decadent sauce. I can still taste it every time I look at the mouth-watering photo.
It was just my second night in Charlotte when I ventured into Dogwood Southern Table and Bar with my wife to celebrate our anniversary, and the whole team there made it an experience to remember.
I ordered the special for that day, the Lane Red Snapper. It was pan-seared in herbs and butter and came with shishito peppers and meaty trumpet mushrooms. At first bite it was like Pop Rocks bursting in my mouth with explosions of flavor, and it only got better from there. The fish had a nice crunch as I bit into it and the perfectly sautéed flesh offered a tsunami of flavor with every bite. As it started disappearing before my eyes, I already began to wax nostalgic, knowing I wasn’t going to forget my first venture out into the Charlotte food scene.
No meal is complete without dessert, and that’s one aspect of food in Charlotte that has been a wasteland for me. When it comes to satisfying my sweet tooth, however, there is one spot that gave me a sugar rush worth the calories.
This pleasant surprise came at Fin and Fino in Uptown. It’s part of the Rare Roots Hospitality restaurant group, which I only mention because my fave dessert is on the menu at each of their five establishments. It’s simply called Mom’s Cheesecake, which only begins to give an indication of how much love was put into it. It is, in fact, RRH cultural guru Jon Dressler’s mother’s recipe, and if my mom baked like that, I wouldn’t be able to fit into my pants.
It was the lightest cheesecake I ever had the pleasure of eating. Normally I stay away from cheesecake because it tends to feel heavy on you after you eat it, but with Mom’s, I felt like I was floating on air. It was so good that by the end my wife and I were fighting for the last taste.
As we were leaving, she asked our server if they serve the cheesecake to go, as we live within walking distance. Fortunately they do, so when the dessert urge comes, we know where to go.
An added treat
Coming from Chicago, where the winters are seven months long if you’re lucky, comfort food is a must, and there’s plenty of comfort food in Charlotte. Perhaps nothing says comfort more than chicken pot pie. Luckily, I found a local establishment that makes a killer version. The Roasting Company has a couple of spots in Charlotte, and if you’re a pot pie fan, you’re going to love these.
It’s a generous portion and features a crisp, flaky crust cooked to a nice crunch as you break through to the tasty goodness waiting beneath. It was chock-full of tender chicken, carrots, peas, celery, and potatoes in broth so savory it invades every pore of your taste buds. It’s nicely seasoned throughout and you won’t be hungry after until it’s time for your next meal.
I’ve had many a pot pie that disappoints. This was not one of them. My only disappointment is in the fact that it’s a lunch special and you can only get it on Wednesdays while supplies last, so get there early so you don’t miss out.
A couple of other honorable mentions from my first year in the Queen City include the Kao Soy from Rai Lay and just about any of the sandwiches from Lincoln’s Haberdashery, be they breakfast or lunch.
One thing in common the restaurants had aside from excellent food was great service. Southern hospitality is no myth. It can make or break a restaurant, and elevate a good spot to something special with the right touch. Another year beckons on my journey, and I can’t wait to see what I discover, and I can’t wait to share it with you.