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Four-Star Dining in Charlotte

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Four-Star Dining in Charlotte

Trust me: You should make a detour to eat in this town. Charlotte, which recently landed the culinary school Johnson & Wales University, is suddenly the site of eager chefs battling over who can deliver the most creative menu and provide the best ambience at the lowest prices. The result: bliss.

Zebra Restaurant & Wine Bar

Let's just skip right to the best part. Order the chocolate-walnut tart. You might not be crazy about tarts or walnuts, but when slivers of the most silky chocolate pie arrive at your table topped with a rich, chocolate icing; raspberries; and a raspberry coulis, you will, I promise, send me a thank-you note. Then order dinner. I began with a foie gras soup, flavored with black Italian truffles, that was so rich, so decadent, and so creamy, it should come with its own cardiologist. Salmon followed in a beurre blanc sauce, crisped to a perfect golden brown and wrapped in spun potatoes fried in peanut oil. To completely blow your diet, Zebra puts the salmon atop what have to be the best mashed potatoes in North Carolina. All of this is served in an oak-paneled sanctuary that's formal but not stuffy. 4521 Sharon Road; (704) 442-9525. Entrées: $18-$33.

A new culinary fever has gripped Charlotte. Come be surprised by these intimate spots.

Carpe Diem Restaurant and Lounge

A scrappy restaurant that has survived two moves, Carpe Diem remains a favorite among Charlotteans. The new grown-up digs look expensive, bedecked in ornate woodwork, ornamental metal, and lots of windows. Likewise, the food is fabulous. Local friends implored me to order only the specials, advice I ignored. Here's a tip: Order the specials. Take, for example, the grilled tenderloin filet topped with blue crab-and-caper sauce and a wasabi-Japanese breadcrumb crust. It sounds like two entrées collided in the kitchen, but the result is divine. Another strong special was a fancysounding chorizo soup (chorizo is a highly seasoned Spanish sausage) that actually tasted like a more flavorful version of pork and beans-perfect on a chilly night. One regular-menu item must be ordered: the warm goat cheese salad. Wine-poached red onions and an apricot-jalapeno chile vinaigrette may make for the best salad in town. 1535 Elizabeth Avenue; (704) 3777976. Specials: $19-$28, entrees: $14.50-323, salads: $5.50-$9.

Upstream

You'll feel attractive and hip just walking into this gorgeous eatery. Green walls, a blue ceiling, and giant floating tree leaves mimic the setting of a stream. Entrées on the clever menu are sorted into "aqua" and "terra." The three I ordered were all good, but the appetizers are what you must have here. Do sample the yellowfin tuna ceviche, a medley of spices and fresh tuna that arrives in a martini glass. The calamari appetizer isn't just a blob of chewy fried squid-the huge pieces of calamari steak come tossed in a sweetand-sour sauce with a side of wasabi aïoli (garlic mayonnaise). The robust wine list offers many choices both by the glass and the half bottle. 6902 Phillips Place Court; (704) 556-7730. Appetizers: $8-$ 14, entrées: $18-$26.

Sonoma

The press and locals have raved about this trendy eatery. I tried the crispy duck confit with portobello mushroomand-Parmesan pudding and the ovenroasted Red Gate Pork Chop. Both were fine, but it was the 300-bottle wine list that I believe makes the restaurant worth a visit-especially the "Flights From Sonoma," where, for under $15, you can order 2-ounce glasses from four different vintages. The star of the night was the bittersweet chocolate Beggar's Purses served three ways: with tiramisu, white-chocolate ice cream, and a banana brûlée. It's a fabulous way to end a meal...or trip. 129 West Trade Street; (704) 377-1333. Entrees: $19-$28.

MORGAN MURPHY

Copyright Southern Progress Corporation Feb 2005
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