First Bites: Fine dining thrills at Fern

We've had a rash of openings lately; let's catch up on a few spots.

Fern (surname: Flavors from the Garden) is the new vegetarian-fine-dining sister of Halcyon (surname: Flavors from the Earth), from the Something Classic folks. Chef Alyssa Gorelick has put together a menu that should thrill vegetarians tired of tofu; she's pairing upscale ingredients and multicultural influences and, in our visit, hitting some long balls.

Like the crunchy OM burger made with white beans and hemp seed (yeah, some tofu too) with pickled fennel, smoked tomato chow chow and jalapeno aioli. And the mushroom and farro risotto, with plenty of deliciously chewy fungi. And the beer donuts: You heard me - faintly beery little confections, with a puddle of chocolate stout glaze strewn with chocolate Pop Rocks.

The interior is rustically lovely (check out the living wall), and the staff, an enthusiastic bunch, was well aware of the serious draft problem by the front door.

Beer and wine are chosen for appropriateness with the weight of the fare, plus there's a juice menu "designed to channel the location and emotions of each individual chakra color" - I can't speak to my indigo chakra itself (that's the sixth or brow chakra, by the way; think third eye), but I can say the Indigo Intuition (with mango, dark cherry and coconut milk) was delicious.

Lunch and dinner (about $8-$14) Tuesday-Saturday; 1323 Central Ave.; 704-377-1825.

We were handed a photocopied and stapled list of the 72-draft-beer list at Carolina Ale House uptown, and they had me at "Monty Python Holy Grail," a 5 percent ale out of North Yorkshire described as "dangerously fruity." Too good to be true, right? The Python-inclined mind reels.

But I'll spare you jokes cribbed from the hallowed British comedy, except for this: Remember the scene where you hear horses, and then you see that it's actually one guy clapping coconuts together to sound like hoofbeats? That's how I felt here.

The beer list was welcome, but the rest felt light: Tons of TVs, but several times in the night all tuned to the same channel (a too-common sports bar sin); cramped seating; a salad that was iceberg with one slice of cucumber and 1/16 of a tomato; a signature burger with flabby bacon and limp onion strings and dry rub wings with rubbery skin but good flavor.

The Carolina Dipper was the highlight: fair brisket sliced thin, on a nice-if-thin roll, with too-little pepperjack cheese, and battered fries.

This outpost of the Raleigh-based chain, with dishes running about $7-$17, is at 201 S. College St.; 704-940-3600.

The Cafeteria by Morrison Farms brings a cafeteria-plus vibe to the SouthPark area, nestled into the food-courtlike space at 6555 Morrison Blvd., that's also open to Bojangles, Dairy Queen, Orange Julius and Donatos. No, there's no "Morrison Farms" producing the foodstuffs, but I'm told the place leans toward Charlotte-area product as much as possible.

We found a whole pork loin being carved to order on our visit, and servers with big smiles and easy laughs. Nice, cheesy mac 'n cheese and crisp, greaseless fried okra fared well, as did hearty mashed potatoes with gravy, and if you like your collards sweet, you'll love this toothsome version. (The cornbread's sweet, too.)

Meat loaf is cooked individually in muffin tins to get a crust, and comes stacked with a tomato-paste-intensity ketchup sauce or mushroom gravy, much better than the bland salmon cakes. Meat and two go for $9.95 including tax, and that includes a drink; a la carte veggies are $1.95.

You go through the line (with five entrees and 10 vegetables daily, plus specials), then grab a table amid wood-look booths with red upholstery, bar-height tables and a few separate four-tops. Don't miss the chicken wallpaper.

980-819-8313; lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday, brunch Sunday.

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