Food & Drink

9 things we love about Charlotte restaurants lately

Joe and Katy Kindred are a part of a couple of our favorite trends, with their plan to open a new restaurant on Lake Norman, and their focus on small-town life in Davidson.
Joe and Katy Kindred are a part of a couple of our favorite trends, with their plan to open a new restaurant on Lake Norman, and their focus on small-town life in Davidson. Observer files

Maybe it was the plate of camel tartare that executive chef Ben Philpott was serving early last spring as a special at the Block & Grinder. Maybe it was when more than one person raved to us about the cauliflower steak at Haberdish. Or maybe it was when Zagat put Charlotte in the top 10 on its list of “The 26 Hottest Food Cities.”

All were times when we looked around at Charlotte’s restaurant world and appreciated it stretching.

Food trends are as hard to capture as the bubbles in a glass of sparkling wine – but before 2016 pops its last pop, we asked people who write about food for The Observer and sister publications SouthPark magazine and Charlotte Five to round up some high notes they’ve noticed this year.

1. Best thing in 2016 to me? Smart restaurateurs opening places that are NOT second/third/18th locations flung to the Mecklenburg map margins (or worse for us, other states) of what’s already succeeded for them. Shoutouts to Joe and Katy Kindred for tackling a seafood place (Hello, Sailor) after Kindred; to Jeff Tonidandel for doing Haberdish after Growlers Pourhouse, after Crepe Cellar; and to Frank Scibelli for Yafo after Midwood Smokehouse and a raft of priors. (And that’s not even mentioning his new stake in Heirloom, which isn’t the same but is still worth pondering.) Helen Schwab

2. Breweries teaming up with food trucks for long-term relationships. Like Papi Queso taking over Sycamore’s kitchen, TIN Kitchen and NoDa Brewing teaming up to keep the truck at the brewery with a special menu, and A Bao Time and Lenny Boy Brewing announcing a new partnership where the food truck will be parked inside the brewery. Corey Inscoe

3. Doughnuts moved from casual breakfast fare to upscale restaurant desserts. Examples: Stoke’s 1-pound doughnut, apple cider doughnuts at The Summit Room, chocolate and glazed donuts at Bonterra. It goes along with desserts becoming more playful in general, such as Fahrenheit’s funnel cake and Kindred’s birthday cake. Sarah Crosland

4. The return of classic French, and the arrival of progressive, share-centric Mexican. For a while there, you couldn’t swing a heavy menu without hitting something pretty traditionally Italian, while French got the short end of the breadstick. Now Aix En Provence (love that Paris-Brest) is helping us get our Francaise on. Meanwhile, Comida offers fare from Oaxaca and Veracruz, among others, with modern twists and an emphasis on exploring. Kathleen Purvis

5. Raise a glass to more classic cocktails on the scene. Here’s to fewer “drinks” made with vanilla- or coconut- or Froot-Loop-flavored vodkas, and to more made for a palate older than a 7-year-old’s – with bitters, even! – at places from 204 North to the Marriott City Center’s venues to the Broken Spoke to the opening-Jan.-6 Kinship at the Ritz-Carlton. Helen Schwab

6. Root vegetables have gotten big on menus. From chef Clark’s Market Vegetable Plate at Heirloom (mine featured sunchokes, along with butternut squash puree and roasted Brussels sprouts) to the wood-fired beets with whipped goat cheese at Kid Cashew to the radishes on grilled romaine at Babalu, Charlotte is finally starting to consider these veggies as sustenance. Katie Toussaint

7. Restaurant delivery became a real trend in Charlotte this year. DoorDash and Favor launched this year and while Postmates and Doorstep Delivery launched the year before, they all seemed to really take off in 2016. Sarah Crosland

8. Fast-casual expanded on the scene with fresh and actually delicious (and vegetarian friendly!) options. Examples: Sabor, Viva Chicken – and I’m waiting to see how popular the new Fidelli Kitchen gets, too. Katie Toussaint

9. Finally, it’s been building for several years, but we love seeing more chef-focused restaurants in outlying areas, like Heritage in Waxhaw, Kindred in Davidson and Heirloom in long-neglected Coulwood. With rents uptown so high (and parking so scarce), it’s nice to get pulled away for something special that isn’t always on Tryon Street. Kathleen Purvis

What’s coming up nationally?

A roundup of upcoming trends predicted by the James Beard Foundation and the restaurant consulting firm Baum + Whiteman:

▪ Vegetable-focused menus, at both high-end restaurants and fast-casual chains. Along with that, look for the rise of “vegetable butchers,” where you get faux-meats instead of real meat. (Don’t worry, carnivores: Artisan butchers are a thing, too.)

▪ Classic French isn’t just back in Charlotte. Starting with Ludo Lefebvre’s Petit Trois in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, it’s popped up this year in New York with Le Coucou, Mimi and Augustine.

▪ Whey, the acidic byproduct of all that Greek yogurt you’re eating (not the sweet whey that comes from making cheese), is becoming an ingredient with waste-nothing-obsessed chefs.

▪ Cauliflower has knocked off kale, and now kalettes – a hybrid of kale and Brussels sprouts – may knock off cauliflower.

▪ Sorghum continues in the sweet spot, but now it’s not just turning up as a sweet touch in desserts. It’s being cooked in savory dishes as the grain it actually is.

▪ Delivery-only restaurants don’t include tables and chairs at all. They’re places where chefs cook food that is only available for delivery.

▪ Tataki, or quickly seared meat or fish that remains raw inside, is pushing aside carpaccio and crudo.