Monday, October 29, 2007

Buzzy and Co. Breathe New Life Into Old "Med" Tradition

A former boss of mine, who possessed exceptional business acumen, was fond of the expression "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." While the phase grated against my grammatically sensitive ears, it rang true in the relatively remote corners of my logical mind.

Buzzy Newton, Chairman of The Board of Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company, and his wife, Rebecca Newton, clearly subscribe to the same theory. The 10 week-old co-owners of a decade's old West Ashley restaurant mainstay, began with maintaining their new restaurant's most recent moniker: Med Bistro. Even though most everyone thinks of it and even refers to it as its original name, Med Deli, Rebecca says "we wanted to leave it alone".

Along with the name, they sagely kept broadly under-touted and gifted chef Todd Garrigan and maintain a strong focus on local artists and musicians by displaying their talents on the walls (100% of profits go to the artists) and in the restaurant in the form of live music performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and during Sunday brunch.

Rebecca took a proactive stance in streamlining the restaurant's popular Bohemian look by enlisting the services of a local designer to select new, mustard colored paint for the walls and to strategically "position" the paintings for maximum eye appeal. The look, further enhanced by strings of twinkling white lights and a long bar adorned with sleek black chairs, is better than ever.

Under the Newton's stewardship, the relaxed fun of paper-lined tables (and requisite crayons for drawing) have returned, and the spotty service this restaurant's patrons have been burdened with for years has been replaced with a bubbly, energetic, well-synchronized team of professionals that work in tandem with the kitchen to deliver food on time and with a smile. The mettlesome, bad-service gnat that once settled heavily enough on my aching dining shoulders to to make me avoid the place altogether, is officially dead.

Ding, dong! Like Dorothy and her eclectic entourage after the Wicked Witch's melting demise, we rejoiced in Med Bistro's nurturing service rebirth. The well-groomed service team, dressed neatly and simply in black uniforms and armed with knowledge, oozed with positive energy and a desire and ability to please. Our server didn't miss a beat until the end of our lunch experience when we were required to wait too long for the bill. Because the full lunch surge was beginning to retreat and, consequently, many tabs were likely being calculated all at once, this was excusable. Still, it's an area where the Newton's and their staff may want to pay additional attention, especially for the working business lunch crowd.

Garrigan's maintained the winning, deli-intensive lunch menu of cold, deli-style sandwiches, soups (including the tasty, signature black bean soup), salads, grilled sandwiches, pockets, wraps and quesadillas, but has really beefed up the dinner menu with sophisticated bistro style fare from Cashew and Pistachio Crusted Salmon ($16.95) to the Center Cut Pork Chop served with Au Gratin Potatoes, Thin Beans & Apple Butter ($18.95). This expansion gives Med Bistro an evening breadth its never before experienced and gives Garrigan, a chance to "do his thing," according to Buzzy.

One thing you can't get after sundown, however, are the house chips ($4.95). They, in all of their proud calorie counter defiance, provide at least one outstanding reason to visit Med Bistro for lunch. The chips were prepared from wafer thin slices of Russet potatoes that were fried at perfect temperature for optimal crispiness. The chef crafts a bechamel-based sauce, whisked together with a mildly sweet blue cheese (my money says Roquefort) and generously spoons it over the entire platter of chips. I was concerned the offering might be or become soggy quickly unless the sauce was served on the side, but the server said, laughing, that it's not usually a problem because "everyone always eats them so quickly". Count me among the guilty.

Other good reasons to come are the fat, Grilled Reuben ($8.95) and Med Grill ($8.95) sandwiches. Both are literally stacked with inches of deli-grade meats and sweet/pungent kraut and slaw, respectively. They towered with excellence and heady, old-school indulgence that recalled the classic corner deli's in Manhattan. Grill sandwiches (and there are 15 to choose from!) can be served with a choice of several sides or, if you really want to go the distance, try Med Bistro's onion rings from heaven for a paltry, additional $0.95. Go for it! Life is way too short to miss this treat. They looked and tasted hand-battered (a rarity anywhere, anymore) and were sweet and smooth in the center and hot and crunchy on the outside.

Even though the days of buying wine by the bottle from a separate retail area, to be enjoyed in-house for a minor $1 corkage fee are over, the restaurant boasts a sophisticated domestic and imported beer list as well as a creative and surprisingly expansive wine list ($20-$62 by the bottle) for what is still, happily, a home time dining experience.

The Newton's prove that old restaurants can be tweaked and updated without losing their soul. Med Bistro's an enduring example.

Med Bistro

90 Folly Road, South Windermere Plaza, West Ashley

(843) 766-0323

Website under development.

Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (Lunch served until 5 p.m., Dinner from 5 -10 p.m.)

Sun. brunch, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Arlaana's Not Yet Nirvana

Daniel Island is just crying for something Arlaana, a year old tapas-style bistro offering "world cuisine," is clearly trying to deliver but hasn't quite gotten there. At least not yet.

The stand-alone island community, once spearheaded by Bishop England, the Family Circle Cup stadium, and a few widely scattered homes, has morphed into a bustling Mayberry-esque town, filled with working professionals and young families. It now has all the trademarks of a real town, complete with its own grocery store, ice cream shop and nail salon, but what it doesn't have is a mid-range priced restaurant that beckons with I've-got-a-must-have-craving-to-go-eat-at-XYZ-restaurant-tonight-honey allure.

Arlaana's probably the closest, but with prices approaching some of downtown's best (and closest DI competitor, Sienna), it needs to come up with more compelling food preparations, more even service, and perhaps tone down its deep purple and orange Alice-on-Acid color scheme and flickering Christmas tree-hued, fiber optically programmed wall sconces. Once accomplished, Arlaana's would be transformed into it a restaurant tour de force that beckons the DI masses, and those from elsewhere, with irresistible charm.

Still, despite its occasional flawed moment, Arlaana offers a most pleasant dining experience, peppered with a surprise pop of excellence in some dishes, a grown-up wine list, and sincere, friendly service. Somehow it all comes together with the exuberant warmth and maternal energy of owner (along with her husband Chuck) Aarlana Black, who floated about the mid-size dining room and through its gossamer curtain panels the evening we visited like an inviting, polished hostess at a private dinner party.

The exhaustive menu, comprised for the most part of "large" and "small plates" ($4.95-$24.95) and house made flat bread pizzas, soups and salads ($5.50-$9.50), literally traverses the cuisines of the globe, with an emphasis on France, Italy, Asia, American and Southern classics. The cheese tour ($17), a plate of Saint Nectaire, Gorgonzola, and Cambozola cheeses with assorted garnishes, was representative of the best and worst of Arlaana.

While the plate was attractive, there was too much going on visually (like the space itself), and while the creamy, tangy Cambozola paired with luscious honey and an edible bowl of preserved lemon was ultimate perfection, the cloying blackberry-balsamic "jelly" (really more of a sauce) paired with the mild, musty Saint Nectaire was a miss. The Gorgonzola paired with toasted pine nuts and basil and a pile of bland, pickled garlic fell somewhere in between. Kudos to the server, however, for selecting a snappy, well-chilled Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc ($36, bottle - wine is half-price on all bottles on Tuesday evenings) that was served with professional aplomb.

He was accompanied all evening by a friendly factotum in-training. Though she bumbled her one solo service gig (she delivered the wrong entree orders to the wrong guests), it was the gaping time gap (approximately 40 minutes) between the appetizer course and entrees that was the most problematic and the most curious, since there were only 8 diners in the entire restaurant. When they finally did arrive, the Pan Seared Filet Mignon ($16) and Duck Confit ($10) were both lovely. They shone brightest in the sauce department, with spot-on reduction sauce renditions of a an earthy, shallot confit demi-glace and a Grand Marnier demi-glace, respectively. Too bad the "pommes frittes" (oops - that should have read "frites" on the menu) were limp, half-cooked, and thus, not worthy of consumption.

Inconsistencies and an underlying sense of rushed sloppiness that likely led to the multiple typos on the menu and the occasional flaws in the overall dining experience at Arlaana, bring it down from a potentially huge DI restaurant high. Because of the palpable love and passion emitted by the owner and her staff for their work and their customers and because of the locals' desire for all that Arlaana could be, I have a feeling it will get there and I, for one, hope it does.


259 Seven Farms Drive, Daniel Island

(843) 471-2400

Tues.-Fri., 11:30 am.-2 p.m.

Tues. - Sat., 5 p.m.-until

Sun. Brunch, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Formula 1 Fare

The reigning king and queen of Charleston restaurant conceptualization have done it again.

Tim Mink and Karalee Nielsen of Rev Foods, which previously and deliciously brought us Poe's Tavern, Raval and Taco Boy, have once again merged their minds and Rev's exceptional talent pool to deliver just the right product, at just the right time, in just the right place and in just the right way. The uncannily on-the-mark result this time around the local restaurant fast track is called Monza. It proves to be a delectably edible ode to the justifiably celebrated Italian racetrack (by the same name) and the even more justifiably celebrated food that fuels Italian appetites - Neapolitan style pizza.

Co-owned by Mink and Nielsen and situated next door to its older, but fresh-as-ever restaurant sister, Raval, Monza is arguably the Ferrari of Rev's impeccable restaurant pack. Or, maybe it just seems that way because Charleston has been in dire need of Grand Prix-grade Neapolitan pizza for a long, long time. While The Holy City is rich in the likes of fat, juicy burgers (a la Poe's), tasty Mediterranean style tapas (a la Raval) and ample Mexican goodness (a la Taco Boy), it was entirely lacking servings of Neapolitan pizza's subtle, sublime goodness hallmarked by a slim, chewy, and airy crust and deftly appointed, quality toppings. Monza's delivers the added value of serving up the best pizza pies in town in a sleek, happening (and entirely spotless, by the way) setting.

The heat's on in Monza's kitchen, to the tune of 1,000 degrees in its eternal wood-burning oven. Oak is the wood of choice that drives the flavor and high heat behind the phenomenal texture and taste of Monza's pizza dough. An instant puff in the oven ( just under 90 seconds for each pie) made with dough prepared with imported ingredients including San Felice wheat flour, Neapolitan yeast, and filtered, ph balanced water, kneaded tenderly together by a mixer from Naples, makes for remarkable crust after crust.

And, Monza doesn't create the common small crime that its closest competitors are sometimes prone to - the dreaded sauce and topping pizza overload that leads to soupy, muddled and hard-to-eat pizza. The kitchen maintains idyllic restraint on quantity to maintain lightness, while doling out quality toppings in spades. Each pizza is topped with, among other things, milky, fiore di latte mozzarella and fresh, local produce and meats/seafood. In order to stay true to their Neapolitan mission, Monza does not allow ANY one to vary off course from the existing menu and says no to ALL substitutions.

All eight pizza choices ($9-$12) bear the names of racing greats from Alberto Ciccio Ascari to Emilio Materassi. You can read their brief bio's on the menu or glance at one of the many black and white photos that grace Monza's chic walls during your brief wait for what's sure to be a memorable pizza experience. Mine was! The "Ciccio" ($12) is Monza's version of a four-cheese or white pizza and came gingerly dressed with a bubbling blend of mozzarella, ricotta, pecorino and parmesan cheese and a heady perfume of garlic-infused olive oil. Talk about uncommonly good - it met its match in the "Fangio" ($12). This was a sweet/hot hit prepared with mozzarella, housemade sausage, roasted local hot peppers, a thin layer of a peppery tomato sauce, onions and garlic, too.

While you're munching on the pizza, don't miss an opportunity to soak up the playful, tasteful decor of tangerine colored rectangular glass tiles and hand-crafted zebra wood tables and booths. The shiny, white, aluminum Navy chairs look imposing at first, but have curved seats that are comfortably accommodating and really complete the neat look of the place. The mostly female service staff was dressed in prim, Euro-style black dresses cinched curtly at the waist with black aprons. Our waitress was eager to inform and to please and, as an extra special bonus, admitted when she didn't know an answer to a question, then scurried off to find it.

With pizza this good, appetizers might seem like an afterthought, but don't make that mistake. The clams casino ($6) feature sweet, local clams topped with butter and wine-prepped bread crumbs peppered with a delicate confetti of pancetta and red peppers. They don't get better than this. Neither does Monza's Italian version of southern shrimp and grits. A special for the evening ($8), it was laced with plump, absolutely local shrimp cooked to opaque perfection and swimming in a sausage-pregnant tomato gravy on top of a creamy, smooth pool of finely-ground polenta. Like the restaurant, the wine list, too, is well-thought out, well-priced and well-done.

Even though Monza delivers the real Neapolitan pizza deal, it only does so in-house. So, go, eat, drink and be merry. Monza's offers some of the freshest reasons to do so that I've come across in a while.


451 King Street, downtown

(843) 720-8787

Open daily, 11 a.m.-until

(Website under development)

Culinary Cost-Cutting 101

Coupon Crazy

When I was a little girl, I marveled while watching my Great Aunt Frances sitting at her linoleum-topped kitchen table, cutting coupons from the daily newspaper in the tiny Kansas town she lived in until she was nearly 100 years old.

It seemed like such a waste of energy in order to save a few pennies on, what I thought, were probably things she wouldn't normally buy anyway. But, I was naive. She, a thrifty survivor of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, had her coupon system down pat and it's probably one of the reasons she made it through a long life of hard times, many of them spent alone.

The latest bout of monetary unpleasantness, however, has created a market for New Age couponing systems. The internet now has a number of hot coupon sites (I like which provide free, brand-name coupons and more if you select to register as a member. They're just a click, a printer, and five minutes away. In addition, many grocery stores' websites offer lists of daily specials. And, here's the kicker. Many provide selections from the kind of items you usually purchase, anyway. That was it for me. The last straw supporting my long-standing anti-coupon mindset finally broke its resistant back.

Harris Teeter's online specials shopping list became this list-hater's new best friend. I dipped into it with reckless abandon. With a little practice and increasing knowledge, I'm slowly forming my own semi-profitable coupon system. By combining the free manufacturer's coupons from sites like with a daily special shopping list constructed from Harris Teeter's web site ( , my handy VIC card, and an extra dose of concentration at the grocery store, I have scored some serious savings.

The best yet happened last week. Granted, it was a big sales day at the downtown Teeter. The store was offering buy one get one, two or even three, all over the place on big ticket items like beef, coffee and wine. Since I'm expecting company in a couple weeks, I decided to stock up on these and other staples. The net result was a whopping $67 total savings. In essence, I bought three weeks-worth of groceries for less than I usually spend in one week!

My heart raced with anticipation as I watched the basket cave with the weight of my cache and the numbers creeping slowly higher on the cash register. Then, as the cashier started calculating in the selected coupons, the numbers amazingly started going down. It was like getting on the scale after a week of gorging Haagen-Dazs only to find you'd lost five pounds. I was beaming. She was beaming and said, "You did good today!"

Admittedly, a follow-up trip to replenish the fresh vegetable drawer just one week later only yielded $10 in savings, but next time I'll do better. I'm on a coupon-crazed mission. Intelligent use of coupons and smart shopping add up to saving a lot more than pennies. And, I'm not in Kansas anymore.

One Plucky Chicken, Four Marvelous Meals

With grocery costs rocketing to the stratosphere, it’s imperative to save wherever you can at the supermarket without eliminating taste. In addition to reaching for reduced daily specials, what you buy and how you put it to use in your kitchen can happily translate to huge savings with bodacious bite.

In this era of grocery gouging, chicken can become your new best friend for just pennies per four ounce serving when paired with practical pantry staples like pasta and veggies. Low in fat, high in protein and exceptionally versatile, chicken marries equally well with the exotic (think truffles or saffron) to the humble (think roasted potatoes and rosemary).

For these reasons, it’s a regular menu guest at my house, where I pride myself on transforming a single, four pound chicken (preferably organic and purchased at a reduced rate) into four fabulous feasts for a group of four. That’s sixteen meals, folks! A four pound chicken runs anywhere from $6-$10 (depending on where and how you shop), throw in a little change for ingredients to flesh it out into a meal (4X), and you’re looking at less than $20. A night out for a family of four at any fast food favorite will set you back the same amount or more faster than you can say “heart attack”.

Gotcha? Let me tell you how it’s done!

Meal #1: This is the launching pad for the meal plan event(s) – a whole roasted chicken. Since it’s going to be transformed several times, keep the seasoning simple – ground pepper, a nice crust of coarse salt and a rub down with olive oil. Roast at 425 until done (about 20 minutes per pound) and top it with a few love pats of butter to sink deeply into the bird. Allow the roasted chicken to rest and re-absorb its juices. Cut the both legs and thighs away from the chicken (reserving warm). Cut the breasts away from the rib cage, cool and store in your refrigerator for later use. Serve both legs and both thighs with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes for a satisfying, nutritional meal. Go ahead and prepare a pan gravy with a little roux, white wine, chicken stock, Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon to dress things up, but hold on to the carcass!

Meal #2: Start this after the roast chicken dinner to prepare for tomorrow’s old-fashioned and DELICIOUS chicken noodle soup. With a sturdy chef’s knife, cut up the reserved carcass remnants – the rib cage and spine – into four or five coarse chunks and put them in a two quart soup pot with a quartered onion, carrot, celery stalk and a clove or two of garlic to make an impromptu stock. Add a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and fresh thyme for added flavor. Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer over low heat and forget about it for three to four hours. Allow to cool and refrigerate, covered, overnight.
About thirty minutes before you’re slotted to serve dinner, skim off any accumulated fat off the top of the stock, strain it, discarding all solids except any bits of chicken flesh. Finely chop an onion, carrot and celery stalk and sauté them in the same pot with a tablespoon of olive oil until softened. Season, return the strained stock to the pan and bring up to a boil. Add reserved chicken and about ¼ pound of dried pasta (flat noodles, spaghetti, linguini – your choice) and cook until tender. Serve with a drizzle of fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, or thyme will do) and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A small, fresh salad and warm baguette make this a meal.

Meal #3: Chicken Salad Deluxe! This is where you can really have fun with chicken’s flavor/texture marriage versatility. Cut one of the reserved breasts into chunky, ½” cubes and toss in a bowl with coarsely chopped dried cranberries (or another dried fruit like figs or currants), coarsely chopped roasted almonds, fresh herbs, a dollop of Dijon, a dash of mayo and vinegar, salt and pepper and you’ve got a meal in minutes over a bed of greens. Other flavors that work in tandem with chicken include curry, paprika, cinnamon and almost any fresh herb imaginable. Make this your own!

Meal #4: Chicken Sandwiches Supreme! Again, versatility and imagination set the stage for show-stopping chicken sandwiches prepared with freshly roasted chicken breast. Go for the best quality bread you can find, from baguette to whole grain, and fill it with thinly cut slices of the remaining breast and toppings. One sliced breast will handily complete four sandwiches. Zip up mayo with fresh basil and Dijon mustard for a fresh, personalized sauce, top with a slice of red onion and crisp romaine. Go whole hog and add a few pieces of browned bacon and a slice of avocado if the mood moves.

Chicken never tasted so good for so little.