Food & DrinkFood Features

L’Ostrica Is a Masterpiece in Three Acts

Creating culinary experiences by blending tradition and modernity

a portrait of Chef Eric Ferguson from L'Ostrica preparing food
Chef Eric Ferguson at L’Ostrica (Photo by Rico Marcelo)

At some point amidst my multiple visits to L’Ostrica — which opened just south of the iconic Park Road Shopping Center in November 2023 and is already among the very best restaurants in Charlotte — I was struck by a sense of the theatrical, as though it were the inspiration for a three-act play. Curtains rise. 

Carrots set the stage

The carrots arrive at the restaurant from Barbee Farms in Concord. They arrive as carrots do, so humble they’re dowdy; they need a good wash and peel. Unbeknownst to them (or to anyone in the dining room), they are poised to become legend.

Chef Eric Ferguson sees to their proper ablutions. He runs them through a grinder — yes, a meat grinder. This is far from a joke. This is the method to his madness. Risotto is notoriously fussy, and even more so when it isn’t made with rice. Running the carrots through the grinder, you see, gives them an Arborio-like texture, or at the very least, gets them ready for what’s to come.

Meanwhile, the shrimp are smoking. “Old school,” as he calls it. He does it right on the stove with wood chips, the Florida rock shrimp in a perforated pan. Focus is essential. Any longer than a quick two minutes and the flavor of the final dish (just wait until you see it!) will be overpowered. 

Then back to the carrots, primed as they are for transformation in a pan, with butter and then water to sweat them down. Risotto with rice takes about 30 minutes; this will take barely eight. He cooks them, stirring constantly to build up friction and more texture; this is what writers mean when they marvel at a chef’s “technique.” The carrots, finished with more butter and a handful of Parmesan, are now ready for their moment.

They go into a bowl, and then Chef Ferguson tops them with wee dollops of creme fraiche, fennel pollen and fresh cracked black pepper. The shrimp? Don’t worry. They’re next. Placed on top and finished with dill fronds and fresh greens.

But then comes the plot-twist of Act One. If only the audience in the dining room could see this coming, they would gasp.

Chef Ferguson, not in any threatening fashion but as a man with great talent does when the lesser mortals around him might consider his next move an act of magic, pulls out a robin-egg-colored vaporizer and gives the bowl a few spritzes of cardamom bitters. 

This achieves certain objectives. One, it shows there is no line dividing the kitchen from the front of the house at L’Ostrica. The bitters were the bar manager’s idea, an otherwise left-of-center addition to the mix but one firmly rooted in the traditions of mixology: between sweet and salty, licorice and herbal and a final whiff of spring, the bitters provide balance.

Chef Eric Ferguson at work. (Photo by Rico Marcelo)

But even more than that, the bitters are a throwdown. Technique at the cutting board or stove is one thing. Any good restaurant can achieve that. A great restaurant will take those techniques even further, and maybe even show the most experienced diners something new. Some might dismiss those as gimmicks, but at least to this lesser mortal here, the bitters are magic. Queen City chefs are hereby put on notice. What do you get with shrimp, carrots and cardamom bitters? Is that bacon I taste? Or a gloriously smoked ham? 

Yes, exactly those, but also so much more. Just look at the final dish! “Carrot risotto,” for lack of a better name, is the very best thing currently on any menu at any restaurant in Charlotte.

Pickled Raisins take the spotlight

The food at L’Ostrica is many things, but single-word descriptors fail no matter how fitting, even for a writer like me. And lest the name fool you into thinking the food here is Italian — “l’ostrica,” in Italian, means “oyster” — going in with high hopes of pasta and red sauce would be unfair, both to you and to the kitchen.

It would be fair, however, to expect oysters. 

On the current spring tasting menu (but not for much longer, as the tasting menus here are seasonal to the millisecond), the oyster is baked. It is covered in pancetta bread crumbs and topped with Korean gochugaru aioli. As any good amuse bouche should do, it does what words cannot, announcing immediately on the palate L’Ostrica’s global perspective, distilled down not into one word, but five: “Stop trying to define us.”

Consider the oyster, then, since it has a point.

That confidently conceived opening salvo is salt, sugar, alkali and acid; hot, cold, plump but with crunch; unknown, but by god, familiar. How can one word capture all that comes to mind, when each new word cancels out the one that came before? Nature and Charlotte diners abhor a vacuum — the cuisine here is not nothing, and it is also far from “Italian” — and subtleties hardly satiate the hungry, so where on the Queen City stage does that leave chef Ferguson?

Wherever the hell he wants to be.

Enter stage left: white asparagus, which Chef has cast in the role of “Spring.” That season may be the one and only thing that all parts of this dish have in common. From Belgium, white asparagus, sweet at the peak of its short time on any tasting menu worth the price of admission. A savory stripe of nori there to temper sweetness, by way of East Asia. A plating aesthetic of two muted colors; of foam and aioli, dotted with fresh flowers — that is straight from Scandinavia. 

The carrot risotto comes together. (Photo by Rico Marcelo)

This is no more Italian than North Carolina cannabis laws are still relevant in 2024. It is a thought exercise, offered to a chef who reaches for the stars and can practically touch them: how to make a diner taste one of the best vegetable preparations in town while also offering up on a plate, at 8 p.m. dinner service, the greatest sunny spring day of their lives?

This theorist is also a general. Entering triumphantly from upstage center: an army, led by Chef, but one of Sunday dinners. These dinners are from the south of Greece and from a British pub; they feature anything from spring greens to prime ribs. I even ate at a French bistro.

Diners who seek solace within the confines of a seasonal tasting menu, beware. Sunday dinners at L’Ostrica are up to the whims of the whimsical. 

a photo of the fine dining restaurant's interior located in Charlotte, NC
Inside L’Ostrica (Photo by Rico Marcelo)

At the bistro, I started with a French 75, the classic gin and champagne cocktail, made by someone that day with lemon drops on their mind, albeit ones dressed in their Sunday best, fresh from learning they had just come into an inheritance. This was from the same bar that brought me cardamom bitters, which told me that the bar team are masters at setting the mood, whatever that may be.

On that Easter Sunday, the mood was a picnic lunch on a grassy hill, or somewhere sunny, stage right, in Freedom Park. Porcini mushroom tartlet (delicate, heady), white asparagus “parfait” with soft-boiled egg (Sweet Oblivion, take my arm and guide me to Thomas Keller) and a most exciting preparation of chicken ballotine, which chef whispered he had deep-fried gently to add a few extra sensations on the palate (this is what writers mean when they marvel at a chef’s “technique”). On a day like that, with a menu like that, where does anyone see anything remotely Italian?

For those solace-seeking diners downstage, however, never fear. On these special Sundays, occasionally things can be unmistakably Italian. There was even one dinner called “All That Pasta.” But nuance, in the right hands, can be even more filling. One recent menu — called “Primavera” — sought to evoke springtime in Italy. But then that would have been too easy.

Cobia on that day’s menu was dusted in flour and briefly seared then covered in onions, fresh laurel and pine nuts. There was something else there, though, something akin to a splash of ice wine, or maybe not — I was confident I knew what it was, but it also tasted so new to me, in the context of a cooked fish dish, that I thought for sure I was being gaslit. 

“Are these … pickled raisins?” I asked. “Where exactly have you taken me?”

“You’re either gonna love it, or you won’t,” chef Ferguson smiled. “It’s kind of how we roll.”

And not solely because of, but due in no small part to, those pickled raisins — quod erat demonstrandum, as they say: the curtain thus closes on Act Two, while all notion of being able to distill everything about L’Ostrica into a single word — up to and including its food, which is peerless in Charlotte — exits, pursued by a bear.

The closing act

This play — performed daily on Mockingbird Lane along the outer edges of Montford — shall end with comic relief.

If you look closely at the hanging art, for example, you might find satire before dessert.

a photo of Chef Eric Ferguson sprinkling salt into a saucepan
Chef Eric Ferguson preparing food (Photo by Rico Marcelo)

L’Ostrica is located in, of all places, the first floor of a luxury apartment building. The crew, however, have made the best with the space, turning it into a gallery of sorts. The building’s giant, structural concrete pillars that jut into the dining room are thus less intrusive than they are, in this context, Guggenheim-ian. 

The open kitchen is its own exhibition, organic in its design and seamlessly coexisting with and in the dining room. But look closer at the art. It is fiendishly clever, created by a Korean-American female artist with searing wit. Just what is going on with that geisha, and how many social media app icons can you spot in flagrante delicto?

Or: the French 75 cocktail on Easter Sunday. It came with a yellow Peeps marshmallow, impaled by a straw. I was mortified. Pulling the thing off was a whole sticky ordeal — but then again, anything for The Risen One, right?

Or: Cat Carter, chef Ferguson’s wife and L’Ostrica’s other half. On my first visit, I was seated next to an entire wall of wine, where I spotted and immediately ordered a J.J. Prum Riesling. Cat, also a J.J. Prum fan, asked me later why I picked this one over the other J.J. Prum she had. The other? 

Sure enough, the bottles were identical, but for a few words on the labels. “I would have ordered the other one had I known!” We laughed, we cried; I planned my next visit.

(There’s a certain amount of privilege buried in that last sentence, which I acknowledge, but for even more laughs, isn’t schadenfreude funnier when at the expense of someone who spends so carelessly on something to which other diners might apply more caution?)

a photo of L'Ostrica's entree item, Carrot Risotto
Carrot risotto at L’Ostrica (Photo by Rico Marcelo)

Or: Cat Carter again. Lamb, on the current Spring tasting menu, is unlike any lamb you’ve ever had in Charlotte. This has nothing to do with the flavor, which is aromatic to a degree approaching infinity and is referential to the entire Indian subcontinent, or at the very least, to Gaggan Anand. 

It has to do with the texture, which in my meals at L’Ostrica has been the single most controversial proposition so far. Don’t get me wrong. I loved it. So tender I could cut it with a sigh, but I did say halfway jokingly to Cat, “The lamb is so raw that it’s still screaming, Clarise.” She could pass for Clarise. We laughed, we cried; I planned my next visit.

On one of those next visits, I brought a photographer. He asked chef Ferguson to pose, arms crossed, “like a chef.” The thing is, but for the red hair, he looks very much like Marco Pierre White. Temperamentally, he is the exact opposite. Wholesome, calm, brilliant — you would do well not to try and find a single word to define him. “Is this chef-ing?” He balks at being photographed in that pose.

Or: quantum physics, always funny, says that the mere act of observation changes the thing that is being observed. Perhaps that explains Chef’s aversion to pose for pics. Or maybe it has more to do with the label “chef.” 

In my mind, chef Ferguson is from that line of great chefs, like José Andrés, who are important social fixtures more than they are mere cooks. There’s also a market at L’Ostrica that sells the best sandwiches in town, thanks to executive sous chef Jason Newman, chef Ferguson’s secret weapon in the kitchen. He is also a mentor, bringing out the best in everyone at the restaurant, from the back of the house to the front, all to the benefit of the local community that he is there everyday to feed.

For the purposes of this play, though, he is deus ex machina. 

Before the curtain closes on this final Act — after the carrots are eaten and the next Sunday dinners are planned; after the wine is rearranged on the shelves in an order that makes sense to a food writer who loses all sense of decorum, or ability to read, when enraptured by a restaurant that rivals the best in our country from coast to coast — chef Ferguson descends onto the stage at L’Ostrica, in media res, the entire Charlotte food scene in mad disarray, ready to save the day.


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One Comment

  1. Tim is one of the best food writers in any city I’ve lived in, period. He has both perspective and style, but he also is knowledgeable and takes his role as a critic seriously. I do hope he sticks around.

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