Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tips on Side-Stepping Tourist Traps

Nobody wants to eat bad food for which they're paying good money. That's especially true when they've already gone to the trouble and expense of traveling to an unfamiliar destination. Despite the plethora of information available online, in books and in the media, it's still tricky culling through the choices, ranging from ordinary to out-of-this world restaurant experiences, whether you crave a memorable hoagie or an elegant, delicious dinner. That's because everyone (especially those that are failing to attract a regular local customer base) wants your business, and they'll jump through all kinds of hoops (some more honestly than others) to get it. This is true pretty much everywhere, but in a tourist-driven economy such as Charleston's, which greets nearly half a million tourists every year, it's a striking reality.

Here are a few things to look out for and some advice on where to look:

1) Be Wary of Excessive, Seemingly Everywhere Advertising

I'm all for advertising and truly respect its crucial role in educating and informing consumers and marketing goods and services. I sold it successfully for years largely because I believe in its viability as a source of information and revenue. But, unlike editorial from reliable sources, it has an inherent bias. Nobody is going to come right out and tell you their product is bad. Thus, most advertising states or implies that their product and service is good and/or something you need or want, and hopefully give you credible reasons why this is so.

But, in the case of a restaurant, excessive, persistent and multi-media advertising really gives me reason to pause and think. Unless a restaurant is new or has something newsworthy to communicate (such as a new chef, menu or location) why do they need to clobber you over the head with repeated advertisements about why they're so good or #1 by some unquoted or dubious source?

No matter where I am, I'm leery of restaurants that advertise heavily in multiple venues, particularly my personal mother of red flags - billboards on highways leading from the airport into downtown. Afterall, in this case, it's unlikely that most restaurants would spend money on a roadway sign to remind locals that drive by it every morning how good they are so the would-be diner develops a sudden craving to eat dinner there that night. They wouldn't need to if they were all that popular with local diners. Instead, they're likely trying to catch fresh tourist bait for their next clientele meal.

Most restaurants (with the exception of national chains) can't afford a hefty brand or image budget that requires a constant and persistent stream of advertising in order to create a desired brand image like Nike (for example) can. In my experience, restaurants that relentlessly pummel with advertising are searching for tourists dollars because they don't have much local business. That can only mean one thing. You do the math.

Generally speaking, while paid advertising has a very real place at appropriate times and through multiple venues, the best advertising in the restaurant business is word-of- mouth. Good restaurants get the repeat business, again and again, whether its from locals or tourists. Bad ones do not.

2) Do Your Homework in Advance and Ask Lots of Questions Upon Arrival

We live in an information-laden society and there are credible sources and some less credible sources. Make it a point to find the former. Read restaurant reviews written by unbiased professionals with bona fide credentials. Question friends with like-minded culinary tastes that have visited the city you are visiting about what restaurants they liked and why - be specific. Buy a travel guide book or find and research one online. Just make sure that its revenue is at least partially subscription and editorial-driven, not exlusively advertising-driven. The latter can potentially invite an ugly little war between church and state that could leave you holding an emotionally and financially expensive bad meal bag.

3. Ask Locals

If you see someone walking a dog and/or a map-free person that seems to know where they're going, these are potent clues that such folk are probably from around town. Ask them where they like to eat and why. Again, be very specific. Tell them what you're looking for in food (ethnicity, etc), ambience (romantic, mellow, hip, or whatever), service (impromptu, sleepy, frank, professional, sleek, etc.) and price range (go with specifics like $10-$12 entrees, for example, not just "reasonable" OR "the sky is the limit") , and ask where you can find it. Listen for sincerity in tone and content to be sure they're telling you the truth and not just promoting their best bud's joint.

Pick your your sources carefully. If you typically dress to the nines, have a particular palate and an obsession with all things neat and clean, asking a belly-scratching slob where he likes to eat lunch probably won't yield productive results. Also, be wary of tourist guides working locales heavily trafficked by tourists. Most have the best intentions in mind, but like people in general, not all do.

3) Follow Your Nose and Your Eyes

Restaurants cooking bad food smells bad. There is one near a sports facility that I visit nearly daily that consistently emits a sickening aroma of stale grease. This is an indication that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, no matter what state you're in. Same goes for a restaurant that doesn't smell or look hygenic. If they're cutting corners and staff on keeping things tidy and clean, then goodness knows what's happening (or not happening) in the kitchen. If you look into a restaurant and it is full or nearly full (depending on the hour) of happy, smiling people eating food that looks good, that's a good sign. Never, ever be afraid to walk out of a restaurant that displeases you before you've even ordered.

4) Dare to Stray Off the Beaten Path

In many cities, suburbs and areas away from the heart of downtown are home to some of the best dining gems. They'll almost always be less expensive than downtown eateries and may be equally as good, if not better. Same goes here - ask, ask, ask - following the tips provided above, of course.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Fat Hen Something to Cluck About

Johns Island residents now have something else to be truly happy about. Super talent chef Fred Neuville recently flew "Rue's" coop to land here and set up his own establishment, deliciously named Fat Hen.

Because I have childhood-related fascination with chickens (under the right circumstances, I even do a pretty good imitation of one laying an egg) and because I love the name of the place and Neuville's food, I broke tradition and tossed my usual must-be-at-least three-months-old mandate in order to review a new establishment. So, let's consider this more of a report than a review, since Fat Hen's only been flying just under two weeks.

The news is good. Very good. Fat Hen is operating seamlessly. I've never seen a restaurant running so well on all fronts so early in the game.The service has professional pluck a' plenty (Neuville recruited some of Rue's best) and the food, which Neuville describes as "Lowcountry French", has a personality of its own. The menu and the decor recall Rue but in a manner that's infinitely more country warm and cozy than the cooled, Parisian brasserie sophistication chez Rue. It occupies the space that was Johns Island Cafe, conveniently situated a meager 10-15 minutes from the more populous environs of Seabrook, Kiawah, James Island and downtown.

The new look is smart and sturdy, peppered with chick-themed bibelots, a few stray painted chicken tracks here and there and oodles of comfortable tables and a spacious bar area. The intention here, according to the chef, is to impart the rounded, feminine and maternal comfort of a big, fat hen looking after her chicks. It's totally accomplished with the homespun fare, the down-home look and the nurturing nature of the effervescent staff. This Fat Hen is one good Mom, the kind that makes the saddest, loneliest and hungriest chick cheer up in a hurry.

The food is good enough to make you strut like a well-fed rooster, but the humble prices (entrees, $9.95 - $20.95) won't leave you crowing in pain. The delicate blush of Lowcountry brine trickled into every bite of silky oysters, beefed up with chunks of earthy ham and toothsome pearls of wild mushrooms - all perched above a pool of a rich and creamy sauce. The sauce was prepared with eggs purchased from nearby local farmer Celeste Albers, situated just miles away. The chilled corn bisque (special) practically squeaked with freshness of candy sweet corn purchased at the Montessori School just down the road. The commitment to buying local is real here, not just talked about, which is just as it should be on an island that yields the bounty of local produce.

This restaurant may be all about chickens, but its duck soars. The exquisite BBQ Roasted Duck appetizer (shards of roasted duck are lovingly tossed with a deep purple pomegranate sauce and served over pepper-spiked grits) is absolutely not to be missed. The same can be said of the Seared Duck Confit and its salty slivers of duck cooked long and low in duck fat, seared and served with butter beans that give new meaning to the word heavenly.

Already packing a full-house, Fat Hen is well beyond scratching and pecking her way to resounding restaurant success. She's quickly nestled adeptly over its nest.

Fat Hen
3140 Maybank Highway, Johns Island
(843) 559-9090

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Musical Chef Chairs

Chefs around town are shifting their toques faster than the Charleston tides.

While some - like Ryan Herrman (formerly at Fish and is now executive chef at The Boathouse on East Bay), Nico Romo (a Frenchman who totes a hefty resume from impressive digs like The Ritz Carlton in Atlanta and is now executive chef at Fish) and Jeremiah Bacon (a Charleston native with experience at famed kitchens like Le Bernardin and Per Se and now executive chef at Carolina's) - are setting up shop in long-standing restaurants, others have ventured out from under the safety of corporate umbrellas to start their own businesses.

The latter category includes Fred Neuville with a brand new restaurant baby named Fat Hen after a seven year-long stint at 39 Rue de Jean and later the Holy City Hospitality group and Jason Ulak's split from The Boathouse on East Bay to help start up Uno Mas, a Mexican restaurant in Mount Pleasant.

It's all enough to make your head spin and is, in some cases, borderline incestuous. Why so much movement in these lazy, hazy dog days of summer? Fred Neuville decided to make the move when the time was right and after having numerous discussions about it with his wife. "It was the right opportunity at the right time. I've built two restaurant groups for other people, and I felt that I was ready to do it for myself. Besides, I was dying to get over here (Johns Island) because there is so much opportunity," says Neuville, of the restaurant's location - just 9.5 miles from downtown. The restaurant serves "French Lowcountry" dishes like Duck Confit with Butter Beans and Garlic Spinach and makes multiple nods to Charleston's French Hugeunot culinary traditions in the menu Neuville created from scratch.

Since both restaurants are so new (Fat Hen is just 11 days old as of today and Uno Mas is just a few months old), I'll let them settle down before I check them out, but the new chefs at the established restaurants have already staked some impressive culinary strongholds. Most notably is Bacon's trimming the fat from Carolina's once (in places) cluttered and muddled dishes. Where there were once too many ingredients, now there are just enough. Carolina's recent fresh-produce initiative, supplied by owner Richard Stoney's family's plantation gardens, was poppin'-fresh-apparent in everything I sampled. Old school Carolina's fans will be happy to know that Bacon's left the Shrimp and Crabmeat wontons and Perdita's Fruits de Mer untouched. Carolina's has never been finer, indeed.

Meanwhile, over at The Boathouse on East Bay (also owned by Stoney), Ryan Herrman is on a similar path after taking over the helm here two months ago. His goal is to be "for real" local produce/fish and "for real" sustainable seafood and to continue to make subtle changes in the menu. Not surprisingly, with Romo's French roots, the new, streamlined menu at Fish features a good amount of classic technique and Asian twists on multiple dishes such as Shrimp Grits with a Miso Broth and Kona Kapachi with Parsnip Puree, Kumquat and Mustard Miso Sauce.

Featured restaurants:

442 King Street, downtown
(843) 937-0406

Una Mas
880 Allbrighton Boulevard, Mt. Pleasant
(843) 856-4868

Fat Hen
3140 Maybank Highway, Johns Island
(843) 559-9090

The Boathouse on East Bay
549 East Bay Street, downtown
(843) 577-7171

10 Exchange Street, downtown
(843) 724-3800

Monday, July 9, 2007

Off The Menu

With so many wonderful printed menu offerings scattered about greater Charleston like edible pixie dust, it's especially satisfying to come across those that come to be known not from any menu, but from pure happenstance or word of mouth. These dishes are all the more indulgent not just because of their clandestine circumstance, but also because their specialized nature ensures a meal employing the freshest goods, extra special attention to detail, and perhaps an extra dose of love from the chef that chooses to whip it together upon a slightly hushed request. It's something like having a secret lover but not nearly as dangerous and equally (if not more) delicious.

I came upon two such delights in the best possible way; completely by surprise. The first was at the always fabulous Basil. A colleague suggested I try the off-menu pho, a pungent Vietnamese noodle soup with name origins that are believed to go back to the French "pot au feu". He'd known about it for a while, but it was new to me. True to form, like everything here, it was impeccable. The smooth and silky broth was gingerly perfumed with ginger and a kiss of lime and it was served so hot it practically boiled in palate-pleasing delight. Basil's pho can be prepared with shrimp, beef or pork and is laced with seductive rice noodles and flavor. It's not on the menu, but it can be ordered for lunch or dinner service upon request.

I am less surprised that Sienna's chef/owner Ken Vedrinski, ever the veteran producer of hand-tailored menus both here and previously at Woodland's , would jump at the chance to put together an off-menu tomato salad. Whoever said (including me) that nothing beats a tomato sandwich on white bread with a smear of mayo in the South's prime tomato season, was wrong. Vedrinski's off-menu creation of Owl's Nest heirloom tomatoes was breathtaking in its simplicity. Hearty wedges of heirloom globes in hues of red, yellow, purple and green burst to life with a drizzle of the finest EVO and a subtle grappa vinegar. The literal and figurative summer-perfect topper was a quenelle of cool and delicate gorgonzola gelato that oozed lovingly into the crevices of the juicy tomatoes. It was an excellent companion to Sienna's many revolving pasta dishes, all made with succulent house prepared pasta and Vedrinski's special flare for converting his grandmother's recipes and passion for Italian cooking into an unparalleled treat for the senses. And that's no secret!

460 King Street, downtown
(843) 724-3490

901 Island Park Drive, Daniel Island
(843) 881-8820

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.