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  • Writer's picturethe_maestro

The Maestro moves to Charlotte

Well kids, what can I say? Life is crazy, and my dearth of posts this past month was due in part to my grand adventure in Alaska, yes, but also a surprise and sudden move to North Carolina immediately following my return from Alaska.

As you might expect, colleges and universities are all sorta operating in a "play by ear" fashion with the pandemic, and most of them implemented hiring freezes when they sent everyone home for the spring back in March. That was bad news for the Maestro, who had been attempting to acquire a job teaching college ("Maestro-ing") for Fall 2020, and with the pandemic, I was fairly certain my chances were completely shot.

Of course, I still applied for everything I could find, and a handful of colleges and universities had resumed posting temporary or visiting positions, most woefully part-time, when they decided to open up again in the fall. Davidson College, a small, prestigious liberal arts school just north of Charlotte, was one such institution, but was offering a full-time gig as Visiting Director of Choral Activities, and I fired off an application (complete with detailed plans of how to safely rehearse during a pandemic) from the Minneapolis Sky Club en route to Anchorage.

Two days later, I was contacted for an interview, and managed to set up a little cellular data-enabled interview "station" outside our tent where we were camped about 40 miles outside Denali National Park in the middle-of-nowhere Alaska interior (thanks, Verizon!). The folks interviewing me all thought it was a Zoom background until I started swatting at the inevitable Alaskan mosquitos! Three days later, I had a job for the fall, and was apartment hunting online and making plans to load up the Mini Cooper and truck my way out to North Carolina spur-of-the-moment.

My new workplace!

I scored a brand new apartment up in the trees just a block from the bustling South End in Charlotte, which I gaily decorated with a combination of Scandinavian furniture, jewel tones, and earthy accents such as my Texas-acquired cowhide rug and my famous West Elm stump. I am so happy with how the apartment turned out, and looking forward to the trickle of new furniture and decor I should be acquiring as my paychecks roll in (turns out, when working often from home, a desk is pretty necessary).

I've been rather busy, as you might imagine, with preparing myself and the students for the strange semester ahead (only singing in groups of eight!) but finally managed this weekend to step out a bit into Charlotte and enjoy some of the culinary offerings of the city.

Charlotte is much like many of these fast-growing southern cities––it is still gaining an identity, and despite its overwhelmingly corporate-banker-like scene (perfect for the RNC!), there are spots that are really blossoming into centers of fantastic culture, with good food, tons of craft beer, and, of course, incredible Carolina BBQ.

Charlotte has a history as a town full of textile mills, and many of these old mills have been converted into retail, living, or restaurant space. One such mill on the northeast side of town, now dubbed Optimist Hall, is one of the most exciting little spots for munching and milling (lol) about with fellow Charlotteans.

There are countless places in here that get rave reviews, but none quite like The Dumpling Lady, an itinerant upstart food truck for years in Charlotte that opened a brick-and-mortar location in Optimist Hall a few years ago. Here, outside of course, I feasted on her signature pork and chive dumplings, with a numbing and succulent chili sauce and a bottled soda. Delightful.

I had just finished up audition season, which is quite a mental task, and was ready to celebrate a bit, so I searched for (naturally!) the best sushi place in Charlotte. I learned that most consider the best to be O-Ku, which is actually a regional chain with outposts in Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte, etc. This was, of course, off-putting, but after an endorsement of O-Ku in Nashville from the same folks with whom I'd shared my meal at Mako in Chicago back in December, I thought I'd give it a try.

I was dismayed when I arrived right at opening to learn they didn't have a patio, which seems to be a staple of most Charlotte restaurants. My secondary plan was to carry dinner out, but sushi isn't so great for carryout, and the space is big, everyone masked, and the tables quite well-distanced, so I worked up the courage to eat indoors for the first time since March.

I was the only one for quite a while, and it was far less than full (even "full" by the 50% capacity rule) for my entire meal. Still, I'm not sure I'll be eating indoors again any time soon.

I started with a crudo dish, and was surprised to receive a second "gifted" crudo dish from the waitstaff, which was a nice touch. The one I ordered was Scottish salmon with truffle ponzu, pickled wasabi stem, and Hawaiian black salt. Tasty, but just too salty with the ponzu and the extra salt. The gifted one was fantastic, however, and was an amberjack with lime and basil pesto. Light, snappy, and refreshing, and I always love a little gift during a meal!

The rest of the meal was nigiri sushi––I ordered their "signature" nigiri as well as a few choices of my own. Bottom row, left to right:

- Snapper with pepper relish.

- Tuna with togarashi and spicy plum.

- Scottish salmon with truffle-chive crème fraîche, lemon, and a single salmon egg.

- Otoro with pickled wasabi stem and caviar.

- Snow crab with soy truffle butter and sea salt.

- Ora king salmon (ungarnished)

- Ora king belly (ungarnished, the best bite)

- Scallop (ungarnished).

Top row, left to right:

- Santa Barbara uni.

- A5 wagyu torched with cilantro and fried onion.

- Yellowtail with serrano and holy basil pesto.

- Jellyfish (I was wearing a jellyfish shirt, and the waitstaff thought I should have this).

Most of the sushi was fairly good. Some didn't taste as fresh as I would expect for a place like this. The biggest problem however was that they decided to present all of this to me at once. Sushi shouldn't be served that way––it should be served max a few cuts at a time, so that it doesn't languish on the plate. Sure, for the just-fish cuts it doesn't make a world of difference, but the seaweed-wrapped cuts need to be eaten right away! Otherwise, the seaweed becomes mushy and gross, which is exactly what happened here. You want crisp, freshly rolled seaweed. You also want a slice of wagyu that has just been torched.

Hoping this was a bit of an off night (or an off season, given the pandemic), because they have a 10% back rewards program for regular diners that will be seriously handy if I end up eating here frequently!

I have, of course, been bringing culinary delights home frequently. North Carolina is a haven of craft beer, and Fonta Flora is a celebrated brewery up in the mountains (and near my Aunt Cindy's place! This double IPA is brewed with local peaches, and while a shade pricey, it's one of the best craft beers I've had in recent memory. So much wonderful beer to be had in this city!

I also collected a bottle of sake from the collection at Common Market over in the very hip, very grungy Plaza Midwood neighborhood, and paired it with some very inexpensive sushi from a neighborhood spot near me, Yamazaru. I think I'll be stopping by this place more often, since the sushi was fresh, delicious, and CHEAP! (Forgive my blue mood lights!)

Can't wait to explore my new city in more depth! Since I will be avoiding all but outdoor dining, I doubt I'll have much in the way of restaurant reviews for my dear readers, but I do finally have some delicious proteins arriving from Crowd Cow this week, so it's off-to-the-races with more Quarantine Cuisine! And, of course, I still have things to report on my absolutely spectacular trip to Alaska.

Good to be back! Stay tuned!

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