Cat Carter and Eric Ferguson bring an intimate, multicourse dining experience to Montford at L’Ostrica.
by Michael J. Solender
It was inevitable that Cat Carter and Eric Ferguson’s paths would cross along Charlotte’s expanding culinary pathways.
She’s a gardener, food researcher, food writer and home chef. He’s a classically trained chef, restaurateur and food traveler. They are both storytellers, using innovative dining as a platform for sharing the history, processes and intricate techniques behind the dishes they create.
The couple met in 2017 at a surprise birthday party Carter’s friends had thrown for her. Ferguson, then a chef working with local restaurateur Bruce Moffett, helped with the menu for the event and a friendship took hold. “I was aware of his reputation and was intrigued when we met,” Carter says. “We talked about food constantly for the next two years and then finally went out on a date.”
The relationship, with its roots firmly based in the kitchen, blossomed and ultimately led the pair to create private in-home dining experiences for friends and a growing (mostly by word-of-mouth) client roster across Charlotte. This past October, the couple extended their creative vision with L’Ostrica, a 38-seat restaurant where guests, chefs and staff connect over a curated “signature” tasting menu with 10-plus courses ($175 per person). For guests with smaller appetites, a five-course option ($110) was introduced this winter.
“We do everything from scratch,” Carter says. “We find ingredients at their peak flavor, and it makes a tremendous difference.” This meticulous sourcing and preparation is a reason their private-dining experiences became so popular, she says.
Then there’s the storytelling aspect. “Guests get to interact with both of us and hear what we are thinking — why our winter squash soup is different and explosive in flavor with such a simple set of ingredients,” Carter says. “To take that knowledge and then to share it, it’s a tremendous gift.”
Though some ingredients and dishes may seem unfamiliar, team members walk guests through the menu. “You know exactly what you’re eating,” Ferguson says. “We’re not hiding it, but we’re also showing you an extra technique or we’re showing you something familiar to help you through that process of eating something new.”
One example is found in the chef’s fondness for chicory, a wild green with a woodsy, slightly bitter back note. Ferguson uses several varieties of chicories and lime juice instead of lemon to create a twist on the classic Caesar Aviator salad. “It creates an entirely different dynamic, and it’s a fun historic story to tell about the brothers who initially created the recipe,” Ferguson says.
The couple delights in introducing unique ingredients in unexpected preparations to create “wow” experiences for their guests. Take the smoked tomato and cucumber salad: Ferguson cures a thick slice of fresh tomato with salt, sugar, herbs and spices, and slowly smokes it as if it were beef. “It looks like a tomato, but if you close your eyes and take a bite, it tastes like bacon.”
Dinner may start with a beet chicharron. Here, Ferguson employs a five-step process that concentrates the flavor of local beets and yields a puffy, crispy chip topped with a dollop of house-made crème fraiche and Tsar Nicoulai caviar.
Seafood lovers will swoon at Ferguson’s smoky-spicy lobster brioche, which combines French technique with Korean flair. Smoked and butter-poached lobster crowns a house-made brioche round lined with salted, pickled cucumbers (for acid and crunch) and resting atop a gochugaru (Korean chili powder) aioli. It is a beautifully composed plate that is to be savored.
“Conceptually what intrigues Cat and me about a tasting menu is that guests get an opportunity to really have an experience that touches on all the things that a lot of chefs try and put all onto one plate.”
Diners can expect a progression of vegetable-focused dishes early in the tasting, with a variety of proteins (the emphasis is on seafood) to follow. There’s always a pasta dish, though it might not be Italian — dumplings or Asian noodles are often on the menu.
The meal, of course, concludes with something sweet. Look for playfulness here — for example, baby ginger gelato surprises with candy cap mushrooms incorporated into the dish. When dehydrated, the mushrooms smell and taste like maple syrup.
Wine and spirit-free pairings are available (for an additional fee) to complement your meal, as are craft cocktails and wines by the bottle or glass. Just don’t look for a menu online or expect a “themed” dining experience that fits neatly into a specific culinary style. There is a trust and rapport Carter and Ferguson want to establish with their guests as the experience unfolds before them.
Sundays are more casual at L’Ostrica with a themed, multicourse “Sunday Supper” ($75 per person). A chef’s market is open Wed.-Sat. from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with house-made pastas, sauces, salads, sandwiches and other specialty items to go, such as Feguson’s fabled chicken salad. And guests are welcome to stop by the bar for cocktails and snacks evenings Wed.-Sat.
Ferguson sums up the concept as an extension of L’Ostrica’s in-home dining experiences.
“People go out to eat all the time and may never get to talk to the [the managers] unless it might be negative,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is create connections with those people so that they know us, and they feel good about what we’re [creating here]. That’s been the biggest power for us when we’ve been in people’s homes. And that is exactly what we’re trying to do here.” SP
Photographs courtesy L’Ostrica
This post was updated on 1/31/24.