Friday, August 17, 2007

Uni's Noodle's All Wet

Show me someone who says they don't like noodles (and that includes the increasingly persistent and persnickety carb-phobe populous) and I'll show you either a liar or a human anomaly.

Noodles, by nearly any one's measure, are the consummate comfort food. Toss 'em in a bowl with a yummy broth and you've got a steaming meal of simple satisfaction. Practically anybody can make them well (remember good old Ramen from college days?) and the noodle cultures of the world (Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese,Italian, etc.) are justifiably renowned for doing them superbly well.

Sadly, Uni Bar Sake and Noodle House resides in neither camp. This Avondale hopeful, and recent reincarnation of the much loved Marie Laveau's, is uniformly poor, with a couple of very dimly lit bright spots in both service and ambiance. The highlights were definitely not in the noodles. In both instances (bean thread and lo mein), the noodles were a messy melange of over-cooked mush. They effortlessly concaved, even with the gentlest prods from our chopsticks, into the boring abyss of floury, flavorless sauces in the Green Curry ($7.50) and Thai Peanut ($8.50) "House Noodles" preparations.

This is sad for a few reasons. The first has already been named - cooking noodles (not necessarily sauces) is simple. Most can be prepped ahead, bathed for a flash in boiling, salted water and served to perfection. Secondly, a noodle house with a sake bar in a fun, funky neighborhood is a great concept and one that Charleston sorely needs. And, lastly, being a noodle lover, I wanted it to be great, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

What Uni lacks in crisp culinary execution, it more than makes up for in concept. The previously campy/country, hen-pecked Laveau's has been pared down to a streamlined Asian combination of merry, Koi-drenched murals and sleek, black and white lacquered chairs. Votive candles flirted with the approaching dusk as an unusually eclectic mix of dinners hummed with hushed conversation while sipping their "saketini's" from Uni's myriad of sake and sake-blend choices. The kitchen is open, but intruded neither with profuse fumes, smoke or noise and the general mood was appropriately Bohemian for this decidedly Bohemian nook of Avondale . All of this should appeal broadly to Charleston's growing brood of the hip and the happening.

Our server ambled along affably like a somewhat clumsy bear armed with fairly limited knowledge of the menu and deadpan, honest statements like "I like the fish balls. They're good."
Not entirely sold by his description, we opted for spring rolls ($6) and vegetable tempura ($6) to start - which proved to be the edible highlights of the evening. They both arrived at warp speed that made my head virtually spin, and were served too cold and very hot, respectively. The tempura cloak on the zucchini spears and snowball-sized cauliflower chunks was thick and cloying with the round, fatty mouth-feel of a mildly tired vat of frying oil. The bland trio of dipping sauces did little to cut through the flat flavor, but the crunchy texture had real appeal. The spring rolls were forgettable. The sweet heat of green curry was completely absent in the aforementioned noodle fiasco, but I took some comfort in the fresh and abundant bites of broccoli served with it.

Uni has oodles of noodles potential - and more. For the sake of noodle lovers everywhere, let's hope they jump on the clean-up-the-act-in-the-kitchen bandwagon soon.

Uni Bar
9 Magnolia Road
Charleston, SC
(843) 766-7837
Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. (Bar open until 2)
Sun., 4 p.m.-1 a.m. (Bar open until 2)

Friday, August 3, 2007

Do That To Me One More Time

Uno Mas (meaning "one more" in Spanish) is the latest tempting card in local entrepreneur Sal Parco's mini-dynasty restaurant hand, which also successfully holds The Mustard Seed(s), Boulevard Diner, Village Bakery, Long Point Grill and Sette.

It's a snappy take on Mexican fare and puts CIA grad and executive chef (formerly of The Boathouse and Mustard Seed) Jason Ulak's personal penchant for all things Mexican and spicy to mostly palatable good use. Ulak spent some time working with Yucatan Peninsula native Dudley Neito at his Chicago restaurant ( Xel-Ha) to hone Yucatan-inspired cuisine before creating Uno Mas' menu, which includes exotic, whimsical backdrops like verdant, slow- cooked banana leaves and assorted flavors of guacamole that are "hand crushed" to order.

The spacious restaurant is peppered with old-world Mexican detail in curvaceous wrought-iron and antiqued wooden double doors and is more colorful and festive than a pinata. It bursts with nearly every exaggerated hue of the rainbow, yet comes together with subdued, South- of-the- border panache. Diners have the opportunity to view the lively kitchen through large, glass windows. It was abuzz with a blur of activity on the packed-house evening I visited. The service staff was efficient and friendly, though still a bit green around the edges, particularly when it came to limited knowledge about certain dishes and occasional awkward timing.

Ulak presents an ambitious and fully-loaded menu, rife with tortas, "re-grooved" tacos from Chile Seared Tuna ($12) to Orange Marinated Pork ($7), and a multitude of house specialties. True excellence is apparent in smoky grilled meats and some sauces, particularly the hot/sweet house made salsa, which magically re-appeared as soon as our little white bowl became empty, the full-flavored Carne Asada "Tampiquena" ($16) and the Adobe Marinated Pork Tenderloin ($15) served with a fat triangle of grilled fresh pineapple. A playful sense of detail was apparent in all the presentations, but there were hints of needed improvement in some preparations, such as the thin, acidic tomatillo sauce served with the pork and the mole, which harbored an unappealing burnt chocolate aftertaste.

These two mild sauce offenses were readily excused with just one bite of a bubbling bath of brazen, ooey- gooey goodness of Mexican cheeses in the the Queso Fundido ($6). A platter of sinful decadence, it was laced with peppery-sweet strands of roasted poblano peppers and sweet, caramelized onions and served with a packet of oven-warm tortillas for scooping. This alone will bring me back, time and time again. Then, too, there is the inherent knowledge that whatever restaurant card Parco plays, it will be backed with his proven knack for carving restaurant niches in untapped markets and staffing them with energetic, talented food pros, like Ulak and Co. "One More" will almost certainly prove to be a long-term winner.

Uno Mas
880 Allbritton Boulevard, Mount Pleasant
(843) 856-4868
Lunch, Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.
Dinner, Mon.-Sat., 5 - 10 p.m.

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.