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Entrées with (and by) class

The food at Artisan has all the panache you'd expect at a white-tablecloth restaurant within The Art Institute of Charlotte.

But there's more to these plates than just good looks. Students here learn that style today is a sophisticated equation.

It starts with the food, in this case ingredients from local organic farms. It also relies on chemistry, found in the cooking techniques of great chefs.

Then come ideas for bringing it to the table.

“There's a lot to learn here,” said sophomore Zac Branham, who was making salads and desserts during a recent class. “The art comes last.”

Artisan opened in 2004 as a component of the International Culinary School at the Art Institute. About 150 students are working toward an associate's or bachelor's degree. They'll work in the 46-seat restaurant during their sixth quarter.

The goal for chef instructors Robby Hooker and Ron Smith is to teach all aspects of the business, from busing tables and operating a cash register to helping customers make selections from the wine list.

The a la carte class does most of the cooking when Artisan is open, at lunchtime only Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The menu changes with the seasons to reflect what's growing in the fields at farms around Charlotte.

The summer crops this year inspired two salads ($3.95): The diminutive artisan green salad is made with local blueberries, blue cheese, spicy pecans and sherry vinaigrette. The heirloom tomato salad is a study in tomato flavor, combining a variety of them with a goat cheese crouton and lemon vinaigrette.

Three entrées ($9.95) pay homage to the state's range of agricultural resources. Spicy garlic citrus chicken pasta is made with free-range chicken breast from Red Dirt Ranch in Ellenboro and pasta made by students.

The student at the sauté station tosses in tomatoes and zucchini and mixes these with a spicy garlic citrus cream sauce. It's pretty, with perky but balanced flavors.

Artisan's barbecue is a hearty meal made with organic pork from Grateful Growers in Denver. It is served with fingerling potatoes and corn salad.

Sautéed Carolina red grouper comes to the plate on a bed of patty-pan squash with a roasted red pepper broth.

Save a little by ordering the Artisan Special, which includes a two-bite appetizer, salad, an entrée, a dessert and an after-dinner treat for $13.95. A 15 percent fee is added to each check. Rather than a gratuity, it is a contribution to the culinary school's scholarship fund.

Think of the fee as a vote of support for a restaurant where the cooks believe ingredients from local organic farms are worthy of becoming art.

“When you get product like this, you want to take care to do it right,” chef Hooker said.

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