Monday, July 21, 2008
He's crossed the street from his longtime haunt, the Sea Island Grill, and set up shop at the two month-old (The) Lettered Olive restaurant. Still loyal to Wild Dunes Resort, Steffenelli's latest restaurant is decidedly more casual and family friendly than the grill and bears the sandy, seashore palette of its name, which happens to be South Carolina's official state seashell. Airy, spacious and attractive, The Lettered Olive attracts a feisty, familial crowd, so be prepared to deal with the occasional toddler's temper tantrum and not-so-hushed tsk tsk's of a frustrated mom or two.
Steffenelli's expansive, well-executed menu of sophisticated mainstays with a European twist will distract you from the noise into a quiet, well-sated place at a fair price. Indeed, entrees range from the low $20's to a somewhat steep mid $30's, but the portions are so fantastically large, and the quality of the food so high, potential wallet pain is instantly mitigated.
The chef explores the globe, dipping into the Lowcountry, the Caribbean, Italy, France and Asia for inspiration and offering everything from oak fired flatbreads to a gorgeous and gargantuan Half Asian Five Spice Duck with Orange-Green Peppercorn Sauce ($25). Another equally large and visually impressive dish (I did not taste this) is the Charleston Red Rice, a virtual platter of the Lowcountry favorite topped with a seafood cornucopia of shrimp, mussels, scallops and lobster ($32). Entrees include a choice of two sides from a selection of eight. A basil-rich, fresh-from-the-garden Mediterranean ratatouille was smashing; so, too the "best ever" mac n' cheese. It was crunchy with bread crumbs and butter and smooth with just the right amount of cheese.
Service fluttered about the large space with maximum efficiency. Combining solid food, easy parking and Steffenelli's proven talent, The Lettered Olive makes a series of compelling arguments for a most rewarding dining experience. And, that's not just for tourists.
The Lettered Olive
Wild Dunes Resort, Isle of Palms
Monday, July 7, 2008
Not this one, so on Saturday morning I decided to follow up on a previous visit to the newly minted, curiously named Caviar & Bananas and order several items for delivery (free, downtown for all orders $20 or more) to my front door. My initial gustatory foray there was, shall we say, less than ripely rewarding, so this seemed like a prime time to follow through on fairness.
Though Caviar & Bananas, with all its sparkling stainless steel shelving, white walls, and gourmet goods, delivers a strong (albeit not entirely original) cosmopolitan show and ample food choices (sandwiches, salads, over 50 prepared foods and coffee), on my first visit it proved thin in some areas. Namely, the sandwiches. The roast beef, onion confit special I ordered ($9) was way too lean for the money and heavy on grilled bread. Also, at this station (like the others), there seemed to be real confusion on the part of the many customers about ordering and payment procedures. At one point, there were nine people standing around and one guy with a note pad taking orders while he squeezed in making and issuing sandwiches whenever possible.
Owned by a young husband/wife team who share a yen for and experience in good food with an able-bodied executive chef at the helm, the young restaurant/store likely has a bright future. A centrally positioned host/hostess might help minimize the ordering and payment confusion to novice diners here and also make it feel more like the truly neighborhood place it is trying to be and its central COC-based location virtually mandates.
The food I ordered for delivery (free for downtown for orders $20 and over) on Saturday to make it through the Williams' match came within twenty minutes and was personally delivered by co-owner Kris Furniss, which I thought reflected sincere interest in customer service - always a great thing. Wrapped up in neat little white boxes and sealed with logo stickers for a grand total of $38, all the food was solid, but nothing was remarkable. Notable winners included the flavorful Israeli Couscous Salad and Roasted Beet-Goat Cheese Salad. The Pomegranate-Cinnamon Lacquered Duck, Poached Salmon and Chicken Tagine faltered on various seasoning and cooking temperature fronts.
For these prices, Caviar & Bananas is going to have to dig a little bit deeper to find its best service groove. Fully aware of Ulak's talents (he described his broad Prepared Food Selections as a complete representation of his culinary professional career), I'm confident they'll get there. I'm guessing such an expansive menu is putting some hefty demands on maximum quality control that will get rectified in time. In the meantime, Caviar & Bananas is to be lauded for being the cleanest and most savory smelling restaurant I've entered in a long time.
Moving on to Sunday, huge kudos to the stellar service staff, lush setting and multi-stationed Sunday brunch buffet at Grill 225 for making time I was reluctantly required to spend away from the Rafa/Roger match well worth the investment. For $39 per person, with a complementary glass of "Champagne" (well, it's "California" Champagne, but still a nice touch), this is undoubtedly the most sophisticated brunch downtown. The private, quiet confines of the chocolate velvet-padded booths are a delight, and so too are classic treats like baked ham and an endless array of well-executed, ever-changing warm plates and crepe bar. Loosen your buckle a bit and go ahead and dig into pastry chef Gerry Elliot's best-ever pecan pie with a big dollop of whipped cream. Fresh, rustic-style, flaky pastry, mounds of fresh pecans and a slightly sweet, toasted filling make it as unique and unforgettable as the match I almost missed, and likely those strawberries and cream, too.
Caviar & Bananas
51 George Street, Downtown
225 East Bay Street, downtown
Culinary Cost-Cutting 101
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 couponmom.com) 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 couponmom.com with a daily special shopping list constructed from Harris Teeter's web site (harristeeter.com) , 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.