Friday, July 22, 2011

Finally, Good Coffee in Charlotte

Charlotte has a new player in the coffee shop business -- Not Just Coffee. This is a very small shop, with only 5 stools for customers to sit on. But every drink is crafted with care. Beautiful cappuccinos, and pour-over coffee that is fresh brewed when ordered, not sitting in a carafe going stale. If you love great coffee, you have to visit here. If you don't know if you have ever had good coffee, you have to visit here.

The shop is not open every day, and is located in a transitional neighborhood east of Uptown.

Not Just Coffee
510 E 15th St
Charlotte, NC 28206

Wednesday – Friday, 7am – 7pm
Saturday, 8am – 3pm

Monday, May 23, 2011

What Does It Mean to Have the Best Restaurant or Bar?

I love Indian food, but I have been unable to get my wife to try a Charlotte restaurant, Copper, until recently. At dinner on a Saturday night, we were both amazed by the care of the service, the beautiful presentation on the plates, the quality of the ingredients, and the quality of the cooking.

Clearly, we agreed, must be one of the five best restaurants in Charlotte.

But what does that mean? Who are the other four?

As I have written before, Charlotte does not have very many restaurants that stand out for us. Too many of the local restaurants are for special occasions or for large banking dinners, or are just another outpost of a chain. Too few of the local restaurants show a passion for the food or for the customer.

We have set upon a mission: find the other four best restaurants. We have created a list of local restaurants that we have visited in the past and for whatever reason have not returned to in a while or we will be visiting restaurants others we trust have said are good, but have not yet visited. I will report back on this journey.

In a seemingly unrelated matter, Imbibe Magazine recently published "100 Best Places to Drink in the South," listing all of the places from Virginia to Texas and from Florida to Arkansas that you can drink a good beverage, be it wine, coffee, or a cocktail. Not a single one of these places was in the Charlotte metropolitan area. What can't I get a good drink here? What do these 100 places offer that I can't get in Charlotte?

I'm going to find out. During the summer I'm going to travel to Atlanta, Nashville, Miami, and other places in the South reputed to have a good drink and try to figure this out.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Desparately Seeking Bar for Adults

When I was a child, I spoke like a child,
thought like a child, and reasoned like a child.
When I became an adult, I no longer used childish ways.

1 Corinthians 13:11

When you are 25 years old, not much is better than sucking down multiple DayGlo-colored shooters on a Saturday night while trolling about for members of the opposite sex. The whole gang would have dinner at TGI McFunsters, eating fried foods and burgers. Good times had by all. The quality of the drink was equal to the quality of the food.

The bars that serve the twenty-somethings thrive on volume and cost control. For a small decrease in price (or a 2 for 1 happy hour) mass numbers of young patrons will move from one bar to the next. Most of the ingredients are pre-prepared, such as margarita mix, which might contain (as does one popular brand):

Water, corn syrup, sugar, citric acid, natural flavors,
sodium citrate, sodium benzoate and potassium
sorbate (to preserve flavor), cellulose gum,
polysorbate 60, gum arabic, glycerol abietate and FD&C yellow no. 5

This is a far cry from the classic margarita, made of triple sec, lime juice, tequila and a little sweetener.

On a recent trip to George's Brasserie, my party of four was thrilled to sit in the beautiful bar and have a cocktail before dinner. From my last visit, I knew that the kitchen was highly qualified and used great ingredients. Why should I expect less from the bar?

My wife and I arrived first. I asked for an Aviation Cocktail. First I was asked how to make it. They didn't know it. After I explained the recipe, I was told they did not have maraschino liqueur. I then asked for a gin and tonic with Hendrick's gin. It should have been simple, but it was undrinkable--it was cloyingly sweet, coating my entire palate with an unpleasant aftertaste. This was the type of drink that has sent gin into near oblivion, until its more recent revival.

My wife ordered another simple classic, a vodka gimlet (vodka and Rose's lime juice), which also disappointed. It was poured without measuring and had too much Rose's lime juice. It was also not shaken very well --shaking makes it cold and dilutes the alcohol a bit to make it more drinkable.

I gave up on the G&T, and asked for another easy drink, in which the quality of the ingredients is known: a Negroni, made with equal parts of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. The barman knew what I needed and proceeded to collect the bottles, none of which had a speed pourer. Instead, he poured each ingredient free-hand from the open bottle into a steel cocktail shaker. He had only a splash of gin left, so he opened a new bottle and continued his pour, again without measuring.

The resultant cocktail was an undrinkable mess--overly bitter and unbalanced. Although the Negroni is a simple drink, it has to be carefully measured. The bartender needs to ensure that the sweetness of the vermouth and the bitterness of the Carpari are in harmony. Alas, I pushed my second drink to the side.

About that moment, our friends joined us. Although they are not cocktail crazy like I am, they know what they like. One of my friends asked for a Gin Gin Mule, a relatively new cocktail that has quickly gained fans around the country. Again, the bar staff asked how to make it. I told them; they didn't have ginger beer. She ordered a mojito instead, a great drink of rum, mint and lime juice that is available in nearly as many restaurants today as the margarita (for good or bad). This drink was a unbalanced mess, with a poorly muddled mass of mint in the bottom and was made too sweet.

Our other friend ordered a gin and tonic. After a sip, he too declared it undrinkable.

The chef at George's would never use frozen french fries in his steak frites; nor would he use bouillon cubes in his beef bourguignon. The sous chef would always measure the ingredients that he would use in his fine sauces (and he would be tasting what he is making to assure that he is spot on with the flavors and balance). Why are we at the point that we expect less from the bar? We paid $10 a drink and received the quality and care that would be given a drink intended for a college kid on a night out. However, the kid's too smart to pay $10 for just a drink.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

McNinch House (Best Restaurant in Charlotte?)

Our friends wanted to celebrate a business success and asked if we wanted to join them at the McNinch House for the celebration. McNinch House is rated the best restaurant in Charlotte by Zagat (subscription required). When I made the reservation, I was told I would receive a menu approximately a week prior to our reservation so that we could pre-order our meal at least a day in advance. In addition, were were to tell the restaurant about any dislikes or allergies prior to our arrival. (I was asked multiple times via email and phone whether we had dislike or allergies.)

On the Monday before the Saturday reservation, I received another email with a menu, offering three different pre fixe meals, ranging from four to seven courses each, and priced from $60 to $90 per person. Or we could choose the Chef's Table, with 10 to 12 courses chosen by the chef, for $109 per person. We threw caution to the wind and asked for the Chef's Table. I hate having to choose on a menu and the best restaurant experiences that I have ever had usually resulted from telling the chef to just "bring your best."

The restaurant is in a late 1800s Queen Anne home near Uptown Charlotte. We were greeted at the front door and told to take a look around while we waited. However, looking around was awkward--the entry room had a love seat and two chairs that were already occupied. We awkwardly looked at some paintings on the wall while we stood waiting. When our friends arrived, we were encouraged to admire the dining room, where other parties were enjoying their dinners. Again, were awkwardly looked at a few paintings on the wall in the dining room, then retreated to the entry hall to chat while we waited to be seated. When the party seated on the love seat was shown to their table, we are invited to sit on the love seat and offered cocktails.

After we had finished cocktails, were were ushered into the butler's pantry where we were to be served dinner. The butler's pantry was a room just off of the kitchen that was about 12"x15" in size, surrounded by counters filled with wine and liquor bottles, and cabinets filled with plates and glassware. The room was interesting and intimate, and a nice setting for the chef to visit us during our meal.

A table in the center of the room was set and each plate had a menu set out:

As we were being seated, we were asked if we wanted to order wine by the bottle, or we could allow the sommelier to choose wines for us. We had already started down the path, and we were happy to be served what they thought was best.

I did not write down the names of any of the wines, but, although they generally were good parings for the food, none were special. Some of the white wines we were served were good, but at least one red wine was not very good quality. At no point did the sommelier make a point of telling us what wines we were getting, and I think for a reason. Although the wine list says that a by-the-glass wine pairing with a dinner is $75, we found out after we got the check that they do not include the Chef's Table with this, which instead was $85 per person extra.

The meal was very well cooked and as described in the menu, but nothing stood out. The chef brought out most of the courses personally and did a nice job of projecting his enthusiasm for the food and for working at the restaurant. After the meal, the chef offered to show us around the kitchen, which was very small for the quality of the work.

What does stand out was the final ticket: over $1,000 for four. It may have been the best meal I have eaten in a Charlotte restaurant, but it still was not as good as many meals I have had at half the price in New York or Las Vegas.

McNinch House
511 N. Church St.
Charlotte, NC 28202
(704) 332-6159

Friday, April 30, 2010

George's Brasserie (A Preview)

George's Brasserie opened Wednesday night in the location of the former Oceanaire in Southpark. The space at George's is very nicely laid out with a large, comfortable bar area with several "conversation pits." Within the bar area is a very nice looking raw bar displaying several types of fresh raw oysters, lobster and crab. The menu is French comfort food, with steak frites (steak and french fries), cassoulet (sausage, duck and bean stew), and other French classics, including a fabulous beef bourguignon.

The only restaurant I have ever been to that is similar to George's is Bouchon in Las Vegas, a restaurant operated by Thomas Keller, one of the best chef's in the world. I was not surprised when I found out that the chef at George's had formerly worked at Bouchon.

I plan to check on George's in a few weeks and see how they are doing.

George's Brasserie
4620 Piedmont Row Dr., Suite 110
Charlotte, North Carolina 28210

Thursday, October 1, 2009

BBQ (Brisket)

About 15 years ago, I was on a business trip to Bryan, Texas, a small town near College Park, Texas, the home of Texas A&M. Our host took us to a tiny barbeque restaurant that was like what you might see in a movie. I don't remember the name of the place. There were chairs on a small front porch, and a wooden screen door that banged when opened then closed. The only seats in the restaurant were at old wooden picnic tables, that had many years of customers' initials carved in the wooden tops.

The menu was very limited. Mostly people went there for the beef brisket. I ordered brisket.

Your meal comes out laid on a piece of waxed paper: several slices of beef, a big slice of raw sweet onion, and a Bowie knife to eat it with. No fork. I had eaten brisket cooked by my father as well as brisket at Corky's Restaurant in Memphis. I had always found it to be very dry and bland. Until I tried brisket in Texas. People in North Carolina and Memphis make fun of people that cook brisket for barbeque instead of pork, and usually the ridicule is justified. However, this brisket was moist and tender, with a beautiful red smoke ring, and a great smoky flavor. I have been in search of this perfection ever since, with little luck.

About a month ago, I bought what I believe to be the best book on barbeque I have ever seen, Serious Barbecue, by Adam Perry Lang.  Included in the book was a recipe for brisket that was coated in spices then slow smoked for about 14 hours.  I wanted to do this-- sleep was optional.

I got a beautiful brisket from my local meat provider, Underwood Farms, which sells never-frozen grass fed beef at the Charlotte Farmer's Market on Saturdays.

I woke up at 5 a.m., pulled the brisket out of the fridge, lit the fire, spread the spices on the brisket, and put the meat on the fire.  For 14 hours.

I'll cut to the chase.  It wasn't good.  It was dry, stringy and strangely dense.  I have not idea what went wrong, but I will try again.  Some day.  We ate on it that night, then I threw the rest away.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Coffee (The Beans)

When you are picky about the coffee that you drink (and if you are perfectly fine to have no coffee over coffee that tastes bad) you quickly learn that the quality and type of coffee beans you use are key. I have never been able to drink coffee that comes from a can that is pre-ground. I have learned that coffee starts to become stale with seconds of its grinding, and I am very sensitive to that. So I have always sought out whole beans and ground them myself. I'm not going to talk about grinders in this post; that is for another day.

Grocery stores now like to carry large selections of whole coffee beans, most of while sells very slowly. Coffee beans used in drip makers need to be used within 2 weeks of roasting before they become stale and the oils start to become rancid.

With this background starts my journey. For a while I got coffee beans at Starbucks, but the quality and age of the beans was too inconsistent, other than their Black Apron high end line, which is delivered to most of their stores around the first of the month in limited quantities and is excellent, and is unbelievable expensive at about $25 a pound.

For a long time, my mother-in-law sent us freshly roasted coffee from a Costco located in Brentwood, Tennessee, where green coffee beans are roasted daily, and often the coffee you buy is in a warm bag. That worked very well. Until we decided to go espresso.

Espresso coffee is not from a dark roasted coffee--its usually from a medium roast. A dark roast tastes burned after it runs through the heat and pressure of an espresso machine. Also, expresso roast coffee has a much narrower window of freshness because the concentration of the flavors of the coffee will bring out the flaws.

Good espresso cannot be bought at grocery stores. Julia's Coffee, a coffee shop with fair competent baristas, will sell you some of their coffee out of their stock if you ask nice. Dilworth Coffee, a local roaster with franchised stores, has very inconsistent quality and packages coffee poorly. You want to buy your coffee in sealed packages that have a little breathing valve on it so that gases can escape the coffee but oxygen cannot get in. You never want to buy coffee from an open bin. Also never buy coffee that is already flavored--the flavoring for these coffees is mixed with egg white and sprayed on the coffee beans. Yech. Use a syrup.

Currently I am splitting my orders between a very competent roaster from Raleigh, Counter Culture Coffee, and Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago, which is reputed to have the best espresso blend you can buy, Black Cat.