Monday, March 21, 2011
Small Plates, Big Flavor at Barsa
Several years ago, a wave of tapas mania hit Charleston with a clamor of small plates that slowly and mysteriously receded with the passing of long-time favorites like 11 Center Street, Meritage, Raval, and most recently, Chai's.
In January, Mediterranean restaurant maverick, Drazen Romic, opened Barsa, thus initiating what I consider a very welcome tapas resurrection in a town that was getting dangerously tapas-thin.
And, as Romic and John Ondo do so well at Lana, Romic and executive chef Derek Falta (formerly at Chai's) do equally well here. The ripe flavors of the Mediterranean, in particular lovely Barcelona, dance a sprite tango of Spanish twang on an enticing menu peppered with both authenticity and talent.
The dishes, like the restrained, sophisticated decor (spearheaded by Studio Caban), allow the food and the space to speak for themselves. Gone is the fluff and din of Shine (which, in my book, never really "shone"), replaced with lots of black, leather, wood, and a few touches of retro/antique Basque effects in lighting and massive original paintings. Faux painting in subdued hues on most of the walls adds to the old-world feel in the wide, open space at the corner of King and Line Streets.
Freely flowing drinks from the centrally located bar combined with flexible hours and a daily happy hour from 5 - 7 p.m. definitely contribute to Barsa's bar/lounge feel, but the food is restaurant quality of high order, any time of day or night.
I visited on a sunny, breezy, Sunday during Barsa's brunch service (11 a.m. - 7 p.m.), to find a relaxed, neighborhood mood and several acquaintances, which seemed especially Barcelona-like. Everything on the menu, from lamb meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce ($6) to tomato bread with ciabatta, roast tomatoes and manchego ($5), sounded delightfully delicious (there are even more choices on Sunday), so I asked for help from the bartender/server and my neighbors.
A pleasant mood settled in with a chunky, mildly piquant, veggie and olive-garnished Zing Zang Bloody Mary, followed by a plate of calamari ($7). Four, whole grilled squid were fanned around a central mound of fried, sliced calamari. The grilled "half" of the plate was dressed with olive oil, lemon and fresh parsley, and was refreshing, but the light, tender crunch of the fried calamari was perfect, especially with a nice, gently drizzle of a lemmony aioli. It was, however, the drunken goat fondue ($8) that practically had me bleating with glee. Thick, creamy and hot, it was served in a mini, ceramic red pot, swirling with golden and white cheese goodness. The tart kick of goat cheese was apparent, but there were several undertones that spoke beautifully of manchego and white wine. It's paired with grilled cauliflower and asparagus and thick slices of country bread that are just doughy enough to soak up the cheese, but firm enough to maintain an idyllic chewiness.
The fondue alone is enough to make a visit to Barsa, unless you count the crunchy, hot cubes of potato perfection in the patatas bravas ($3) that Raval so cruelly took away when it closed. I'm so happy to see them back at Barsa, which brings tapas to the table in a welcome, complete and authentically Spanish way.
58 Line Street (Corner of Line and King Streets), downtown Charleston.
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.