Zeppelin’s small details add up to big flavors and convivial guest experience.
Zeppelin, the new tapas-style plate sharing restaurant in South End, garnered its inspiration from adventurous times.
In 1899 as the calendar bled into the twentieth century, the Zeppelin, a fabric covered rigid airship conceived and designed in Germany, was receiving a U.S. patent. It would soon be soaring over America, dazzling all who beheld her massive size and gravity defying aerial dexterity.
Closer to home in Charlotte, industrialist Edward Dilworth Latta was entertaining Thomas Edison in his parlor, hosting the American inventor for dinner. Latta was negotiating for Edison’s newly established firm, General Electric, to electrify the rails for a line linking Dilworth to South End, the first such railway in Charlotte. Edison was drawn to this part of the Carolinas largely due to the rich veins of gold in our soil, where harnessing electricity for extraction was a technique then thought promising.
Tales of whimsy cocktails and great food at Latta’s dinner party are where co-owners Jonathan Swope, Jonathan Tee, and executive chef, Vince Giancarlo began ideation.
It was a happy accident last year when the ownership team’s first location did not pan out bringing Giancarlo to the fold. Thus, giving one of Charlotte’s most seasoned and traveled chefs the opportunity to create a menu and vibe reflective of his style of cooking and hospitality.
“I jumped at the opportunity to come in and build upon their ideas and develop an ingredient-driven menu, focusing on sharable plates,” says Giancarlo.
Like Latta and Edison, extracting gold from local soil – here in the form of edible bounty – is where Zeppelin is excelling.
Gems are abundant on Zeppelin’s menu.
The Fried Green Tomato Caprese offers a tasty twist on the traditional southern standard, a theme found throughout the menu.
Generously-sized ovals of meaty fruit are encased in a crunchy cornmeal crust and flanked by hand-made Uno Alla Volta Burrata – soft billowy mozzarella with a creamy lush center. The tart-golden-crisp tomatoes dance in red gravy, homage to Giancarlo’s Italian nonna’s rich, all-day simmered tomato sauce, which he has zipped up with a creole spice blend. A quick-pickled cabbage and sorghum-balsamic reduction are acidic foils for the dish’s inherent richness.
Next up are Zeppelin’s Scratch Buns. Think southern twist on Asian Bao. These guys are sweet/sour spiced heritage pork belly stuffed steam buns topped with a tangy hot chili cabbage, a favorite according to our server, and easy to see why.
Another favorite at Zeppelin is their Notorious P.I.G. Puppies. These are NOT your ordinary hushpuppies. Four enormous, light and crunchy golden rounds of cornmeal dough stuffed with confit pork cheeks perched atop whipped honey butter and vinegar-based Eastern Carolina BBQ. Servers set them on the table and watch them disappear.
Everything on Zeppelin’s menu is meant for sharing. Their small plates are meant for 3 or 4 people to each get several nice bites.
Everything on Zeppelin’s menu is meant for sharing. Their small plates are meant for 3 or 4 people to each get several nice bites. Diners are welcomed with two menus — House favorites are the restaurant’s all-stars and sourced year-round. A smaller menu reflecting the best of the season where Giancarlo can work with an even broader variety of produce, dairy and protein.
Giancarlo’s influence from a stint at local Japanese stalwart eatery Baku is shown off with a featured Halibut dish. Crusted with red miso and crunchy quinoa, the rich white-fleshed fish sits on a bed of cauliflower rice adorned with ponzu -infused sauce and a pop of micro-greens.
Even the humble cabbage gets respect and is paid special tribute. “Cabbage is ubiquitous to the Carolinas,” says Giancarlo. “I wanted to make it the star of the plate.” His Coal Baked Cabbage is indeed a standout as it is seared then enveloped in a charred scallion vinaigrette, baked and served with, lemon and Arbequina olive oil.
Cocktails figure prominently here and echo the ingredient first ethos. Head bartender Ryan Hart has put his mark on a remix of more than a dozen classic cocktails, all of which lend to natural pairings with chef Giancarlo’s offerings.
Hart’s Fogel Fizz is a riff on the Gin and Tonic and blends yuzu-lemongrass cordial, butterfly pea flower syrup, sparkling water and dehydrated lemon to create a lavender colored sparkler that is nice as an aperitif or when pairing with lighter dishes.
The smoky Uncle Eddy is a new-version of an Old Fashioned and comes under a hickory-smoke filled dome. Combining wagyu fat washed bourbon, slow ginger syrup, buck spice bitters and candied ginger, this is a true bourbon-lovers cocktail.
So persnickety about getting cocktails right is Zeppelin, they experimented with some 40 different ice-cube sizes and shapes before settling on the one and a quarter inch square King Cube as the perfect match for their lowballs. Crushed ice is done by hand, of course, with a wooden mallet rapped upon ice in a leather bag.
We want to be a comfortable neighborhood place where folks drop in after work with friends and family to enjoy a classic cocktail and well-prepared meal
Craft beer drinkers find local faves: Wooden Robot, Birdsong, and Unknown Brewing; frequently featured as well as kombucha cocktails with neighboring Lenny Boy Brewing “booch” in the mix. A carefully curated wine list is also available.
The tone for Zeppelin is set as guests approach the front door. A set of “rules” greet patrons on a standing chalkboard. Far from being admonishments however, the hosts are simply reminding folks to relax and unwind while they are here. Rule number five implores: “Taking pictures is encouraged but making phone calls and ignoring your company is frowned upon.”
“We want to be a comfortable neighborhood place where folks drop in after work with friends and family to enjoy a classic cocktail and well-prepared meal,” says Giancarlo, “We’re very serious about delivering a great guest experience with an approach that is ingredient first, technique second, and always fully encompassing the guest.”
Zeppelin is fast becoming the go-to dining destination and social hub in burgeoning South End with an approach that finds them soaring high.
Zeppelin Lamb Ribs & Paloma de la Parril
Nuanced and long developed flavors come from techniques like low and slow braising and smoking, a process Zeppelin’s kitchen employs in several of their star dishes. Topping that list are the Lamb Ribs, a most elegant and lush treatment yielding an other-worldly result. “These are not your typical lollipop ribs,” says Giancarlo of the meaty ribs, flavored with a Japanese-style sesame yakiniku BBQ sauce, with apple, onion and ginger. They are seared first to develop a hard caramelization, then rendered with flavor-rich fatty-lamb belly and braised low and slow for six hours in the oven. The resulting flavorful meat is fork tender and falling off the bone.
Complimenting the ribs is Hart’s twist on the classic Mexican Paloma cocktail, the Paloma de la Parril. A more complex version than the standard, Hart’s shrub and grapefruit soda come from grilling and smoking grapefruit on the restaurant’s Big Green Egg, then extracting the juice. Combined with barrel aged tequila and misted tableside with smoky mezcal, the result is a tall cooler that guests find irresistible.
photography by Justin Driscoll Photography