Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Restaurant Queen

As I navigate Charleston's sea of restaurants while researching The Charleston Chef's Table Cookbook (Globe Pequot Press, February 2010), I feel a bit like Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn navigating wily waters upon the African Queen. Ah, but my job is so much more fun and usually (though not always) delicious. Because I've been so busy checking out the newest places and also re-visiting old restaurant pals I haven't "seen"
in a while, I've been slow on the blog. For that, I'm sorry. However, I wanted to take a moment to briefly describe two new restaurants and one established restaurant that most recently caught my food fancy. Here goes:


Samos Taverna
819 Coleman Boulevard, Mount Pleasant
(843) 856-5055

The word and the raves have been spreading about this new Greek goddess of goodness, but in case you missed it, I'm here to tell you, it's all true. Owned by a local Greek family with ties to a village located on the island of Samos off of Greece, Samos slams the door on the all-too-ubiquitous mediocrity of most local Greek dining spots and greets, with open arms, spotless renditions of moussaka ($14), spanakopita ($6), tzatziki ($5) and many other authentic delights rarely found in these parts. Restaurant management guru Andy Fallen oversees the hard-working, friendly staff with unfailing professionalism. In addition to all this, guests are rewarded with refreshingly chic decor, plump with pillows and glowing with candles, that is all at once sophisticated and romantic.

Lombardi's Italian Restaurant
979 Harbor View Road, James Island
(843) 795-3133

A welcome addition to Harbor View Road's skinny (and getting skinnier with the soon-to-be-gone Mimi's Cafe) restaurant offering, this big bite of Brooklyn literally drips with red sauce (a.k.a "gravy") and New York-style Italian/American guts. Owner Vince Lombardi (no relation to the coaching great) hails from Brooklyn, and struts about the spartan restaurant with equal parts pride and gruff affability.

It really is a slice of the real deal, complete with silk flowers and agreeably tacky plastic-like upholstery that blankets so much of the working class boroughs around Manhattan. Meals begin with a basket of warm garlic bread and a bowl of house made red sauce. After that, watch out waistline and hello happy! Portions are huge and prices are kind. Especially notable are the beefy, cheesy lasagna ($12) and anything "veal" (choices include Marsala, Parmesan, Piccata, Lombardi's and Richardo, $17-$18). The lasagna is a beefy, cheesy indulgence laced with more of that heart-breakingly good red sauce that recalls New York with every loving spoonful.

Mercato
102 North Market Street, downtown
(843) 722-6393
http://www.mercatocharleston.com/

A relative oldie, Mercato and executive chef Jacques Larson continues to prove that the restaurant is more than a goodie. More sophisticated than Lombardi's, Mercato is a different kind of Italian restaurant with equal parts heart. It all begins in the kitchen with Larson's shining talent. The restaurant's re-worked its mood and menu a few times since it opened in 2006, but Larson's never drifted from his penchant for perfection and creativity. Sadly, I think mostly due to its location on tourist-intensive North Market Street, Mercato is sometime lost in local consciousness as a top priority dining destination. Don't let that happen! When you do stop by, absolutely do try the Local Shrimp and Sicilian Fregula Stew of Tomato, Pine Nuts, Caper Berries, Currants and Chili Flakes (market price). The shrimp, briny and sweet, truly is local (YEAH!) and the balanced playfulness in the dish rendered it absolutely impeccable.

5 comments:

Ed said...

Hey give this dude some ideas will you?
http://eatingmyworld.wordpress.com/

Laurie said...

I've been reading your blog and love it! I have a question for you - if you could eat at only one restaurant for oysters which would it be?

My husband is coming home for a 2 week leave (from a one year tour in Iraq) in 2 weeks. He's been gone (off and on) for almost 3 years now. We're living in PI, and would like to spend some time in Charleston eating at truly Charlestonian restaurants - something we couldn't get anywhere else. Do you have any "must not miss!" suggestions?

thank you for your time.

Holly Herrick said...

Hi Laurie,

Thank you very much. I haven't been very current on the blog due to so many deadline demands w the book, but I appreciate your comments.

Congratulations on your husband's imminent return. So much of the answer to your question depends on your budget. Local oysters are getting to be in PRIME season. Some ideas include:

Bowen's Island - this is really on the low end of fancy and recently endured a fire that has reduced it to a dock room with hollowed out tables for oyster shells, etc. FABULOUS local oysters and a great time if you're into low key and LOCAl. I can't confirm it within this message (being in this document), but I think their web site is www.bowensislandrestaurant.com...Check it out.

Also, The Boathouse (the downtown location just closed) on Sullivan's Island has a lot of island charm and great oysters/raw bar.

If you're downtown, you may want to consider Hank's or Cypress (very pricey but delicous).

Does that help? I hope so. I also hope you both have a fabulous time in Charleston!

All the best, Holly

Laurie said...

Holly,

Those are great ideas! Thank you so much.

As for budget, I figure since he's been gone 6 months and will be gone another 6 months, we could eat out a year's worth in those two weeks! :) I just wanted to do something memorable and didn't want to waste an evening eating some place we would regret as not having good food, know what I mean? It would be different if we had the whole year to explore Charleston.

They all sound great, but with both fabulous local oysters AND atmosphere, we'll head to Bowen's Island first!

Thanks again for your help.

Holly Herrick said...

Laurie - Excellent! You may want to round out your trip w one of any of the suggestions on my "favorites" list on the left side of the blog. Of these, I absolutely recommend FIG and Hominy Grill (more for breakfast or lunch) as not to be missed. Bon Appetit and enjoy Charleston!!! Holly

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 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.