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First Bite

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First Bite: Earl’s Grocery and littleSpoon

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/30/17/21/uuERq.Em.138.jpeg|237
    - HELEN SCHWAB
    Egg whites with spinach and zucchini between thick slices of mild jalapeno brioche, and a spicy tomato jam, at littleSpoon.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/30/17/21/10WzO.Em.138.jpeg|421
    - HELEN SCHWAB
    Earl’s version of a banh mi: rich pulled pork, daikon and carrot (pickled), spicy aioli, radish, herbs.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/30/17/21/OnEZt.Em.138.jpeg|237
    HELEN SCHWAB - hschwab@charlotteobserver.com
    Grilled hoop cheddar with pickled peaches and arugula at Earl’s.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/30/17/21/OPnfn.Em.138.jpeg|237
    HELEN SCHWAB - hschwab@charlotteobserver.com
    The cheese vista at Earl’s, where the cheese is cut to order.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/30/17/21/jJLX5.Em.138.jpeg|237
    - HELEN SCHWAB
    Early bustle at littleSpoon.

Let’s peek at two, long-awaited, that opened in the past week and a half:

Earl’s Grocery

The food: Tour the whole space first. Cruise the cheeses (cut to order!) and charcuterie, the olive bar (Castelvetranos!), the no-high-fructose-corn-syrup sodas and kombuchas and teas, the chips of many flavors and lands, the chocolate bars and pastries and desserts – and the coffee drinks and fresh-juiced juices, too. That way, you’ll be prepared when you order a sandwich at lunch and are asked if you want a side or drink.

You’ll also be over the sensory overload by then, better able to focus on the short, smart lineup: a thinnish grilled cheddar sandwich with hunks of pickled peaches, for instance, their bite (and that of the handful of arugula leaves) setting off the lush hoop cheese to beautiful advantage.

Or a modified banh mi, its pulled pork tinged with lemongrass, piled into a chewy length of bread (not the classic shattery baguette on this visit) with pickled carrot and daikon, shavings of radish, herbs and a slathering of spiced aioli. Less fresh heat, more encompassing warmth.

Or a kale salad with a little farro (the menu description suggests the opposite) with a thin rectangle of paneer (a mild Indian-style cheese) and a dash of marvelous preserved-lemon vinaigrette. The sharp fragrance of juices carries; the cheesemonger is in France right now, explains her stand-in; a spray of sunflowers brightens one empty wall. The place has an exotic whiff that’s somehow simultaneously homey.

The look: For a grocery, it’s sparely elegant, grouping items and explanations enticingly, with clarity (though those deli cases are tricky for staff to serve from): Think Dean & DeLuca with a soul. The seating area’s up front – about 50 chairs and stools and a view onto the still-closed-at-the-end Elizabeth Avenue – and it’s industrially spare. Wood-top tables and brushed aluminum chairs are surprisingly comfortable, but noisy to move.

Details: Salads and sandwiches $7.50-$9 (plus all sorts of take-home items to heat/reheat, from tender Vietnamese-seasoned turkey meatballs to bruschetta toppings to fresh pastas in scoop-your-own bins); 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m. (serving lunch til 2:30 right now) weekdays; 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday; 1609 Elizabeth Ave.; 704-333-2757; www.facebook.com/earlsonelizabeth.

littleSpoon

The food: Short lists for both breakfast and lunch focus on twists. Eggs and ham, but with jalapeno mornay (that’s a bechamel, or white sauce, with cheese – here, with Goat Lady goat cheese; a lunchtime burger features it, too). Rye ciabatta and egg salad, but with livermush. A blueberry pop tart, but with lavender. Pastrami on rye, but done with housemade lamb pastrami – and a fennel slaw. Quinoa pops up in porridge or folded into corn tortillas with eggs, and at lunch, there’s a banh mi here, too, though only attentive readers will notice, since it’s described, not named as such. (It’s a chicken version, with pate.)

A few things are straight-up simple: Shrimp on a roll with horseradish, for instance, or runny egg on a boule with white cheddar and bacon, though not just regular bacon: This is the thick-sliced, caramelized-in-spots, melty-fatty sort of slab bacon, the kind that goes, as a side dish, for $6.50 for three slices.

Which brings up this question: Will the audience support $11 sandwiches when sides, in sides-portion sizes (such as the interesting “crispy root vegetable pappardelle” that’s essentially chips) are $5.50? Get a tea and tip like a human and you’re topping $20 for lunch. That lamb was pretty perfect, though.

The look: Sturdily and handsomely appointed with heavy silver, white linen, simple glassware (and handle-less coffee mugs, which I’ve always loved more in theory than in practice), this holds a clean bistro line: Brick walls, wood tabletops, heavy metal chairs, a banquette, and clear glass fixtures that show bulbs, and bulbs that show filaments. Playing with elements? I get it.

Details: Breakfast $5-$9.50; lunch/brunch $5-$14; 7 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays; 8-3 Saturday-Sunday; a few dinners a month are planned, featuring varying cuisines and by-reservation-only; 2820 Selwyn Ave.; 704-496-9008; www.facebook.com/littleSpoonEatery

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