Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Circumstantial Roadside Find

Ravenous travelers along the sparsely populated restaurant stretch of Highway 17 between Beaufort and Charleston have an appealing new option to stop and satisfy grumbling bellies.

Its uncomplicated name, Edisto Restaurant, matches its basic steak and fried seafood menu, spartan decor and friendly, countrified service. There is nothing basic, however, about the restaurant's menu mainstays: fried seafood and steaks. The new husband and wife owner team (he doubles as chef and hails from The Sunset Grill on Edisto Beach), spare no expense on top-shelf cuts of Midwestern, grain-fed beef and fresh-off-the-boat seafood, which is predominantly from local waters. So, for the most part, I didn't take exception to the almost-downtown entree prices, which lurk around $20.

But, there was one grating problem here that raised the ire of both my palate and my pocketbook. It came in the form of shoddy culinary technique and budgetary shortcuts in a sauce and vinaigrette that were, frankly, heinous enough to be permanently shelved or in dire need of marked improvement. Truly, why pair an exceptional, deftly seasoned and perfectly fried hush puppy with a had-to-be-faux hollandaise that had the texture of moistened sawdust and an acrid, medicinal tarragon aftertaste? Or serve a doctored-up Italian vinaigrette that tasted like it came out of a bottle but was billed as "house made"? It defied logic while kicking the perceived value of an otherwise precious place into a truculent taste tailspin. This element, if and until it changes, modestly dampens my desire to make a 30-mile trek for more of the same.

For now, if I happened to be hungry and in the hood, Edisto Restaurant would be my first pick to satiate my seemingly ever-present craving for excellent fried scallops (or any fried seafood!), an ache I feared might never again be sated with the unfortunate demise of my former fave fried seafood hot spots - The Anchor Line and Tidewater Grill. Fortunately, Edisto Restaurant has arrived to fill a much needed void in this arena.

The restaurant also throws out a healthy and heartwarming dose of homespun congeniality - the kind rarely seen in our increasingly impersonal and speedy world. Our server was the picture of endearment, answering questions with monk-like honesty and engaging, when appropriate, in pleasant banter. Equally remarkable was the restaurant's utter cleanliness. There was not a speck of dust or misplaced crumb to be found and the air smelled as fresh and clean as a forest in fall. Amazing, given the amount of fried seafood platters and grilled steaks that hog the menu's abbreviated real estate.

Vegetarians may feel a bit out of their element in this practically vegetable-free (save a half-frozen salad, soggy cole slaw or one of three types of potato preparations) environment, but carnivores and seafood fans will be in seventh heaven, indeed. Entree portions are gargantuan, which packs on even more added value and probably are responsible for the added pound I'm sensing I'm lugging about this morning. The cup of chunky, roe-rich crab soup ($3.95), redolent with butter, cream and a kiss of sherry sweetness, probably has something to do with it, as well.

The rib eye, a beautifully aged piece of moist beef, marbled magnificently with just the right amount of fat, rivaled any I've had downtown or anywhere, at least in a long time. Chef Vickery mastered the seasoning and temperature of the steak like a pro. Paired with the restaurant's signature stuffed potato, pregnant with baked flesh that was folded with what seemed like a pound of cheese, sour cream and butter, was a royal indulgence. The fried seafood combo of scallops and flounder, both sweet, milky and lightly battered, was another source of pure joy, peppered with the added pleasure of an ample supply of the restaurant's stellar hush puppies. Our server was kind enough to throw a few fried oysters into the mix, and they, too proved to be examples of the best our local waters has to offer, fried with skill of a true Lowcountry fry master.

Stuffed to the gills, we opted to pass on the dessert choices (key lime pie, brownie a la mode, and ice cream) since our server told us they were not house made nor was she aware of where they were prepared.

The restaurant is housed in the original location of the legendary Toomers Place, where I'm told folks would line up in days past for shad roe and other Lowcountry gems. The little, white roadside bungalow that is Edisto Restaurant offers some big and tasty reasons to visit and with some little improvements by the new owners, may very well one day join Toomers Place ranks as a place to visit from near and far. For now, stop by when the circumstances are right - you're nearby, hungry for big servings of great seafood and beef, and ready to be treated with kindness and care.

Edisto Restaurant
19804 Highway 17, Jacksonboro
(843) 893-3663
Mon.-Tues., 5 - 9 p.m., Thus.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Moroccan Magic on Maybank

Cinnamon, spice and just about everything nice are on the menu at Le Club Fez, a recently opened French Moroccan restaurant near the Terrace Theatre on James Island.

"Fez" is one of the best examples of the advantages of living in a vital, diverse and growing town like Charleston. Once a bastion of primarily Lowcountry and soul food restaurants, in just a little under a decade, Charleston has morphed into a culturally diverse dining mecca where tagines and tapas dance just as beautifully as shrimp and grits on our collective dining "carte".

Hearty thanks go to Fez consultant David Leboutillier and operating partner Craig Nelson who spent months transforming the beyond-bland landscapes of Cynthia's and Lulu's that once occupied this space into the plush red carpet of exotic flavors and ancient culture that is Morocco and its oldest imperial city - Fez.

Chef Bryan Lyndsay's classical French training shines on both sides of the Mediterranean in the two sections of the menu; French and Moroccan. The merger is logical based on France's long colonial presence in the African country and is deftly executed at Fez by Lyndsay and his kitchen team . Many preparations, such as the resoundingly delicious olives and mussels, can be served either a la "Francais" or "Moroccais" and French bistro classics like cassoulet and confit du canard somehow seem just right simmering in the shadow of Fez's towering clay tagines - a hallmark of Moroccan fare.

The olfactory senses explode upon entering the crimson den that is softened with blood-red curtains and hushed lighting streaming through gorgeous lamps that hang like glowing orbs from a padded ceiling.

Cinnamon, orange, cumin, cardamom, saffron, turmeric, and more wafted through my nostrils and into my soul setting the stage for what proved to be a sumptuous and rewarding feast for which I will return again and again - especially at these prices. Tagines that can easily feed two range from a meager $16-$18 and the French "plats principaux" run from $16-$23. Fez includes an abbreviated sandwich selection ($7.25-$8) for the Terrace theatre crowd or late night world of James Island looking for a light bite to put a tasty close to its nocturnal cravings.

Early, late, or any time of day you can get your hands on them, the olives Moroccais are an irresistible indulgence redolent with the exoticism of Morocco's splendid spice palette. The olives spend a long time bathing in a marinade to acquire a softened plumpness and an earthy spice aroma that leans heavily and most deliciously towards cinnamon, orange and more. The B'stilla starter (or petits plat) is another cinnamon delight, this one layered in phyllo dough and stuffed with chunky, roasted whole almonds and mercilessly delicious bites of juicy, rich chicken.

As tempting as they sounded in their French deliciousness, cassoulet and other classic French dishes were not enough to keep us straying from the tagine track. Both the lamb and beef tagines were the stuff of Moroccan heaven, performing a rocking Moroccan belly dance between restrained subtly peppered with the fragrant girth of braised dry fruits like figs, apricots and raisins. Again, cinnamon ruled the roost, but it seemed to gain a quiet momentum like a chorus to a Mozart masterpiece, building and building until a crescendo, forcing a mutual desire to clear our plates like greedy princes at a casbah.

The tagines come with a trio of "seasonal accompaniments" or what is billed on the appetizer menu as a "petit salad Moroccais". We received a melange of vegetable wonders; standouts included the strangely tart/sweet and absolutely fabulous swirl of spaghetti squash and subdued, roasted whole beets. Remember folks, this comes with the meal!

Desserts, all $5.25, didn't quite stand up to the tagines, but were not far off. A flaky pillow of crushed almonds and cinnamon wrapped in pastry was exceptional, if a bit chewy in spots. Fez's cool, creamy creme brulee gets brushed with orange blossom water and an extra fine layer of browned sugar.

In all of its lusciousness, Fez is certainly a breath of fresh air upon the Charleston dining scene. Service was sincerely invested in the needs of its staff, if a bit green here and there. In the end, food got to the right person at the right time and with a smile and the intention to please. So, that's what really counts. Hopefully, the staff will up the ante on its familiarity with the menu and its preparations as time marches on.

All culinary compasses point to Fez. Put it on your destination list. It's a trip you'll be happy you made.

Le Club Fez Francais et Moroccais
1956A Maybank Highway, James Island
(843) 406-2767
Mon.-Sat., 5 p.m.- 2 a.m.
Web site under development. The imminent address will be:

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.