Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bits and Bites from Here and There

Little notes from the Charleston foodie front...

In part to assuage my curiosity about what's new in town and in part to research restaurants and news for this blog and a pending book, I've been staying busy checking out new stuff and re-visiting the old. The bad news is that the really new stuff (less than 3 months old) I've visited has been so disappointing I am hesitant to write about it. I figure these guys need a little time to get in full gear, but be advised, the pickings I've come across are scarily slim. If you have any tips, I welcome them. Drop me a line, please.

Meantime, a recent luncheon foray into Brent's (40 Broad Street, downtown, 853-8081) proved that this Broad Street business lunch hour haunt is, almost predictably, as good as ever. It's incredible how fast the small production line rife with cafeteria mainstays like meatloaf and cheeseburgers churns out the yummy goods. The prices are sweet (all lurk around $5) and will buy you some of the highest 19th century ceilings, biggest Broad Street arch-windowed views in town along with a recently re-vamped garden area complete with a gurgling fountain and comfortable cafe tables. Bravo!

I have to admit that I previously held a snobbish resistance to J. Paul'z (1739 Maybank Hwy., Suite V, James Island, 795-6995) and its tapas, sushi and libations merger, writing it off as a likely pick-up destination for sodden locals with the equally likely potential for mediocre food. I was utterly wrong and I'll be the first to admit it. Though not earth-shattering, the attractive decor and solid tapas ($3-$11) come together with pleasing effect that is particularly well suited to a pre or post movie bite at nearby Terrace Theater. Strong suits include buttery, round flavored short ribs layered with braised flavors and an equally fine hanger steak. The staff was young and sophomoric but sweet. I had one of my biggest inner-laughs in years when our waitress started flailing frantically at an insect near our patio table, squealing, "Oh my God, it's a bug".

Definitely Worth Checking Out: Avondale Wine and Cheese (813B Savannah Highway, West Ashley, 769-5444). Owner Manoli Davani has stocked the place with astounding cheeses from all over the globe which she happily cuts and wraps to order, throwing in a pleasant smile and a cache of information about the cheeses' origins, flavor and appropriate wine pairings. $5 wine and cheese tastings are held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 5 p.m.-7 p.m.

Under the Campari Sun

Al Di La
25 Magnolia Road
West Ashley

Bacaro mania and insanely delicious food keep pumping out of this pristinely-cut Northern Italian jewel nestled off a side street in Avondale's increasinglyBohemian digs. Owner John Marshall raised the bar not only on Charleston area Italian standards but also trend-setting when he set up cuisine camp in his tiny kitchen here when the neighborhood was home to little else except sleepy, little traveled boutiques and a couple of old school restaurants (the now defunct Liberty Cafe and the ever-popular Gene's).

Six years later, Al Di La continues to evolve with the relatively recent addition of a "bacaro" wine bar that runs parallel to the main dining room and delivers sublime Italian small plates. It brings with it a bastion of wood-oven smoked pizza pies, purely Meditteranean olives, terrines, fragrant cheeses and paired wines along with a refreshing youthful energy and happening-now attitude. Marshall has also extended the confines of the delightfully intimate but mildly cramped dining room to a spacious courtyard dotted with passion red symbols of Italian's preferred aperitif - Campari umbrellas.

Beyond that, little else has changed (not counting a minor across-the-board price increase - entrees now range from a still modest $15-$16.75), save the incredible fact that the food is better than ever - that is to say in keeping with the theme of the celestially inspired restaurant name, heavenly. Lovingly braised cipollini onions, kissed with a touch of balsamic and brimming with round, sweet flavor greeted us upon arrival and followed us home in an extra take-away box, just because.

The restaurant's pillowy, hand-made gnocchi are studded with fresh, chunky bites of shrimp in every sinful spoonful of Marshall's deliciousy restrained tomato sauce. The fettucini bolognese and strangozzi spoletina, in all of their creamy and expertly executed perfection, are fully capable of bringing the dead back to life. While they're at it, these lucky souls and whoever else finds themselves blessed enough to be seated in Al Di La's increasingly crowded (reservations are now a must!) embrace, needs to cap things off with the rich, milky cafe au lait and light-as-air tiramisu. To do otherwise, would be a virtual sin in this heavenly, purely Italian retreat.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Paris Wrapped

Charleston Crepe Company
(843) 573-3458

The heady years I spent living in Paris afforded daily gifts of joy; long strolls along the Seine on haunting slate-gray days, awestruck wonder at the sprawling spires and glaring gargoyles of Notre Dame, and on and on and on. Those are just some examples. There is a pool of millions; of these, at least thousands involved food.

When guests or family visited, we splurged by supping at Paris' most noteworthy eateries, but most of the time, my constantly curious culinary life was relegated to the much humbler fare of a regular Parisian Joe, if there really is such a thing. I was a loyal client of bistros, corner cafes, and the most fabulous French invention of all, a crepe hot off the grill at one of the Paris' ubiquitous crepe vending stands. For just $3, I was swept away into the gooey, yummy world of melting swiss cheese and salty ham on a savory day or the indulgence of Nutella on a sweet one.

Well, except for occasional visits to lovely Paris, those days are gone, but the memory of the silken, bubbly, browned crepes and their assorted fillings remain, along with a constant craving for them and the Parisian senses they recall with almost cruel abandon. When it strikes, I fulfill it in an 100% authentically Parisian way at the Charleston Crepe Company's crepe stand at the Charleston Farmers Market (Saturdays, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. on Marion Square). There you can find husband and wife team Jack & Rachel Byrne and their young staff griddling their way through the inevitable and nearly constant frenzy of activity at their booth - especially around lunch time.

Any wait, even the occasional 20-minute one, is well worth it. Their honey ham and Swiss cheese crepe, slathered with a generous layer of plucky Dijon mustard, is as good as any you can find in Paris. The crepe itself, no matter what the filling, is always tender and moist, due in part to the French griddles the team employs to craft their tasty wares. Recently, I broke from tradition and sampled Charleston Crepe's Southwestern crepe-take - the Chicken, Black Bean, Corn, and Salsa Crepe. Though less traditional, it was an earthy wonder of pulled chicken, crunchy fresh corn and more.

Take my advice - put in your name and get in line for one of Charleston Crepe's many crepe creations, including the incredibly French Nutella confection concoction. You won't regret it. Their crepes are simply Paris "wrapped" and taste just as delicious gobbled down in a cozy corner of Charleston as they do in the City of Lights. The bustling crepe stand also sets up on Tuesday afternoons at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market in front of Moultrie Middle School and caters at many functions and parties around town.

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.