Thursday, April 25, 2013

Staycation - Crowder's Mountain

The final big outing that I had planned for Staycation 2013 was to Crowder's Mountain.  Located just 25 miles outside of Charlotte, Crowder's Mountain has a peak elevation of just over 1600 feet.  After some rain showers the day before, it was a slightly cool, yet perfectly sunny day.

The main entrance to the park is currently closed for construction, so we opted to park at the Linwood Road Access instead.  We began our trek up the mountain on the Tower Trail.  The path is wide, making it perfect for a casual start to the day.

As we neared the turn-off from Tower to Rocktop Hill, the terrain definitely began a more steady ascent.  After some hard work, we were greeted with beautiful views and crystal clear skies.  Bailey loved every moment of exploring, and votes that nearly 3 hours of off-leash time in the woods is a dog's idea of a perfect day!

After a five mile run that morning and lots of activity in the previous days, Bailey was finally worn out enough to listen very well, never once running off or attempting to pester others enjoying a quiet day on the mountain.

Mom and Dad are quickly learning that any vacation with me will involve lots of exercise.  Not only do I make them paint and do housework while they are here, but then I include 20+ miles of hiking/running over three days.  I'm so glad they were able to spend some time exploring Charlotte with me!

Mom caught a picture of me teaching Dad some stretches for his sore muscles.  He's lacking a bit in the flexibility department, don't you think?  I can't complain though, this guy has turned into a legitimate runner over the past year!

At the half-way point we stopped for a short break to rest our legs and enjoy some water, orange slices, and peanut butter cookies.  Even Bailey had some fresh water to stay hydrated.

After scaling huge piles of rocks, we reached the point that Rocktop Trail met Crowder's Trail.  The terrain began to smooth and we eventually connected to Backside Trail, which brought us back to the parking lot.

After 2.5 hours and 6.2 miles of strenuous hiking, it was time for FOOD!  We spread a blanket out in a sunny field and all eagerly dug into a picnic.  Bailey absolutely refused to lay down, and instead stood panting between us and the car, begging for a soft place to lay.  Evidently she is far to precious to lay in the scratchy grass.

Here she is at her finest - comfy and content laying in Dad's lap.  They laid that way for at least five minutes, Bailey with her eyes closed and loving every minute of the attention.  She's quite a princess!

If you live in and around Charlotte, definitely take a day to explore Crowder's Mountain, especially during the beautiful spring weather.  I know I'll be back to explore the many more trails the park has to offer.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Staycation - Eats

Where should I begin with all of the glorious food I enjoyed over my four days of staycation?  Let's start from the beginning, shall we.  After hiking at the White Water Center for several hours, my stomach was more than ready to dig into dinner.  I couldn't think of any better casual dinner on a beautiful spring evening than to enjoy pizza on the patio at Mellow Mushroom.  After starting with salads, we dove into a mega veggie pizza.  Their combination of crust, sauce, and generous portions of veggies makes for my favorite slice of pizza in the city.  Sadly, as I polished off my second slice I discovered the tofu was missing from our pie.

Lunch on Friday brought us to Zada Janes.  I've heard multiple times that their brunch is the best in the city, yet I've always been deterred by the hour plus wait that is typical on weekend mornings.  On this particular day I was craving a salad and so I skipped over the breakfast items.  I chose the chopped salad, which included a bed of mixed greens, tomatoes, cuke, broccoli, garbanzo beans, carrots, corn, sprouts, and feta.  The lemon citrus vinaigrette took an otherwise ordinary salad to a whole new level.  I suppose I'll have to come back another time for the eggs and biscuits.

Dad opted for the Noda salad - baked marinated tofu with tomatoes, boiled egg, artichoke hearts, avocado, roasted corn, white cheddar cheese, sunflower seeds, sprouts and spring mix.  Based on the small taste that I had, I'd definitely get this in the future.  The tofu was perfectly baked and very well seasoned.

Following our stint as profession NASCAR drivers, it was feeding time again.  We decided that drinks and snacks were in order prior to dinner and headed over to Noda.  First stop was Heist Brewery.  In addition to cocktails - I highly recommend their kombucha + vodka specialty drink - we shared some small plates.  Their menu is filled with eclectic combinations that all make your mouth water.  Our choices included shrimp wrapped in wasabi cotton candy and their version of chicken and waffles.  

After spending an hour or so talking endlessly about our delicious appetizers, we eventually made our way just a short distance down North Davidson to Cabo Fish Taco.  I first ate here about a year ago when Royce and Erin came to visit and was impressed by their casual atmosphere and awesome selection of seafood tacos.  That night I chose a combination of the Tavarua Wahoo and BBQ mahi tacos with a side of nopalito salad.  I know it's beginning to sound as though I rant and rave about everything I eat, but seriously, these are fantastic tacos and literally packed to the gills with ingredients.

Saturday morning I prepared a birthday breakfast for Dad.  Our breakfast sandwiches included english muffins, eggs, veggie "sausage", creme cheese, jam, dijon mustard, tomato, avocado, and fresh basil.  They were a bit messy and quite the mouthful, but I think they were a hit.  Fresh fruit (pear, apple, and kiwi) provided some sweetness on the side.

I packed an "odds and ends" picnic lunch when we set out for a day of hiking at Crowder's Mountain.  The majority of the components were a random mix of pantry and refrigerator finds, but I did put some effort into making a cabbage salad.  Red cabbage, corn, carrots, and garbanzo beans were tossed in a lime vinaigrette.

Saturday night's birthday dinner had been in the works for quite some time.  I've heard rave reviews of Passion8 Bistro in Fort Mill, SC.  In fact, more than one person has suggested that it is the best restaurant in all of the Carolinas.  The meal started out well, with succulent calamari that was perfectly cooked and tossed in a honey-jalapeno sauce.

Their menu changes seasonally, and I was quick to pick several appetizers and a soup option that sounded fantastic.  Sadly, our waitress informed us that their menu was changing in the upcoming week and therefore nearly half of the appetizers were unavailable and a different soup was being substituted.  Despite the change, I was pleased with the red lentil soup, served room temperature over a duck mousse, greens, and a cucumber spiral.

When perusing the entrees, I was enticed by all of the vegetarian side dishes that accompanied the meats/seafood.  Our waitress assured me that the chef would be happy to prepare a vegetarian plate with an assortment of uniquely prepared produce and grains.  I was imagining a large plate loaded with roasted root vegetables, brussel sprouts, spring pea risotto, and several other local ingredients.  Therefore, I was a bit disappointed when this dish was placed in front of me.  It was the same as the scallop entree, but with tofu nuggets in place of the scallops.  The dish itself was lacking in flavor, moisture, and size.  To add insult to injury, I was blown away by the HUGE slabs of pork chop and steak on the carnivores' plates at other tables.

The redeeming course was dessert.  The birthday boy enjoyed a rich chocolate ganache with whipped creme and balsamic strawberries and we also shared a key lime pie mousse.  As a whole, it was a very enjoyable evening over a quiet meal, but I'd likely choose many other Charlotte restaurants before I returned to Passion8 again.

I couldn't send my guests on their way without a classic pancake breakfast.  This batch was carrot cake pancakes topped with peanut butter, banana slices, chia seeds, coconut, and a maple cream cheese "frosting."

Wow, that's a lot of incredible food over four days.  If there's one thing for sure, it's that this family LOVES to eat!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Staycation - White Water Center and NASCAR

Thursday after work I kicked off the start of a four-day staycation.  I've always been the type of person who heads out of town for vacation, leaving the second I can escape.  Charlotte has so much to offer in entertainment though, so this time I wanted to stay planted right here at home.  Since the family was in town for the previous evening's Taste of the Nation, they hung out to play in Charlotte as well.

Mission number one was to explore the US National White Water Center.  Can you believe I've been in Charlotte for nearly two years, yet this was my first visit the the outdoor adventure park.  Aside from paying $5 to park, there is no expense to explore the endless hiking and biking trails that wind throughout the property and along the banks of the Catawba River.  Check out the white water rapids!  I'll definitely be back when the water is a bit warmer to ride the rapids.

Bailey played the role of fearless leader and led us on a two hour hike through the woods.  Occasionally we came upon obstacles which tested our balance and coordination.  Mom opted to be the photographer while Dad and I had a bit of fun.

The weather couldn't have been any more perfect.  The only problem we encountered were HUNDREDS for cankerworms which hung from tree branches and were instantly all over our heads, arms, and shirts.  You can read all about the infestation in Charlotte here, but suffice it to say, no one wants these critters crawling on them!

By the end of the afternoon, we were officially feeling one with nature (literally thanks to the covering of worms) and ready for showers and dinner.  The Charlotte staycation featured lots of great eats, so I'll save all of the food pictures for a separate post coming soon.

Dad's birthday happen to coincide with my vacation, so on Friday I gifted him with an afternoon spent at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.  After years of Mom and I teasing him about watching endless hours of cars driving circles around the track, he has remained a die-hard NASCAR fan.  Most recently, much to my embarrassment, he even acquired a Dale Earnhardt Jr t-shirt.  I'm pretty sure there is a rule that he is only allowed to wear it inside on race day, otherwise never being seen in public with such a travesty.

As expected, Dad seemed to have a fantastic time immersing himself in the history, memorabilia, and simulations.  I actually enjoyed the experience quite a bit too.  Did you know NASCAR originated from men trying to build cars to outrace police when they were being chased for producing/buying/selling moonshine?

The simulators were our favorite part.  You begin with practice sessions to perfect handling, shifting gears, and cornering, and then ultimately progress to a five minute in-car simulator.  As expected, Dad put all of his years of knowledge on the line and came across the finish in first place among the ten drivers.  Thanks to my competitive nature, I seized my race-car driver talents and came in a respectable second.

Judging by the big grin on his face, I'd say the NASCAR Hall of Fame was a perfect birthday gift for this guy.  And just to add a bit more excitement, Mom splurged and bought him another shirt to add to his collection!  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Taste of the Nation

I've had April 17th circled on my calendar for several months.  After attending my first Taste of the Nation here in Charlotte last year, I've been anxiously awaiting the 2013 event.  In addition to hosting dozens of Charlotte's finest restaurants who prepare their signature entrees, the event donates all proceeds to Share Our Strength in an effort to eliminate childhood hunger.  

The event was held at the Wells Fargo Center Atrium, with the VIP entry beginning at 6pm and the regular admission at 7pm.  There appeared to be a huge turnout for the event.

My dates for the evening were Dad and Mom.  After I made them drool describing all of last year's dishes, I didn't have to do much convincing to get them to drive from Atlanta for the 2013 night of eats.

I believe I was quite successful in capturing the majority of the dishes on camera.  The restaurant staff provided impressive detail of the ingredients and cooking methods for each dish, but my appetite overpowered my patience to write down each details for later use.  You'll notice that there are probably more pictures of meat in this single post than there have been in the past year on my blog. While I follow a largely vegetarian diet on a day-to-day basis, night's like this require flexibility in my food philosophy.

Without further ado, I'll let the pictures and basic descriptions do justice to the incredible evening.  

Napa on Providence's
Meatball served over a Polenta Cake
Duck over a Herb Sauce and Sliced Radish
Pork Tenderloin, Goat Cheese Potatoes, and Greens
Several plates from Cantina 1511
Pork taco, Meatball, and Carnitas
Queen City Q's BBQ Sliders
Yet another meatball - seemingly the theme of the evening.
The dessert on the background is a take on an Arnold Palmer prepared by Gallery Restaurant.
Caramel over a shortcake cookie and topped with a lemon mousse.
My favorite bite of the evening
Cornbread topped with BBQ pork and garnished with slaw
Upstream's White Tuna over Sticky Rice
Seared Scallop over Frisee Salad
Harper's BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich, Slaw, Homemade Pickle, and Crispy Pork Skins
Beef Tenderloin and Cheese Popover
The dessert spread prepared by Johnson and Wales 
Can you believe those plates are only a portion of the restaurant's dishes that were available for tasting?  Eventually my stomach spoke louder than my desire to continue eating, and I became a bit more selective and grabbed a few final bites of my favorite flavors.  Last, but not least, a cup of Counter Culture decaf coffee sipped while sitting under the stars on a beautiful spring Charlotte evening.

Now that I've recovered from my food coma, I'm already counting down for the 2014 Taste of the Nation.  This is a one-of-a-kind event that anyone with even the slightest love of food should make an effort to attend.  If you're outside the Charlotte area, be sure to check out Taste of the Nation to find out when there might be events in your local area.