Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Thirst No More!

The formerly bland culinary land of I'On has suddenly become home to of one of Charleston's best new restaurants with the welcome arrival of the impeccable Soif Wine, Cheese & Tapas Bar. Soif, which is the French word for "thirst", simultaneously sates epicurean and oenophile appetites for excellent fare matched with excellent wine.

Sure, we have plenty of that around town (thank goodness!), but Soif delivers the goods with a light, expertly informed service staff, each without an ounce of boorish pretense, and Soif's fair prices don't require taking out a second mortgage. Though Soif is billed as a "bar", its easy, sit-down dining pace and quiet, sophisticated ambiance make it feel more like a restaurant; a heralded one at that.

Soif veritably sparkles with a palpable, edible and drinkable energy of love and happiness which, the clarity of the fabulous food and wine not withstanding, is a big part of what makes dining here pure pleasure, from start to finish. Credit has to go to owner Gail Summars, who picked up and left her Napa vineyard, Haru Ranch, after falling in love with I'On and Charleston. "I just love Charleston. It reminds me of a small San Francisco," exudes Summars. At first, she opened the wine shop, but when the space next door become available, she snapped it up to create the restaurant, thereby fulfilling a "lifelong dream to create a little cafe".

Her matriarchal warmth infuses the dining room and seems to fill her small staff to the brim with ease as they go about their impressive work. She picked them carefully. Grozis had to prepare lunch for Summars in her home using just a microwave and a toaster before he got the Soif chef gig. The general manager was formerly at Cru Cafe and is considering going to school for her sommelier credentials and Soif's head server created the wine list at Meritage before coming on board. Aside from the staff's wealth of experience, "They understand my vision, that's why it works so well," says Summars.

Whatever the behind-the-scene reasons, Soif works. Coral and red hued walls and neat white trim on the tall windows grace Soif with a combination of Californian and international charm. Great attention is shown to details in the crisp, geometrically shaped white plates and delicate glassware. At center stage of the intimate,50-seat restaurant is the closet-sized kitchen where chef Bradley Grozis, formerly at The Osprey Grill at The Sanctuary, works his palatial-sized magic. The classically-charged menu of small and large plates ($5-$12) changes weekly and includes a 5-course chef's selection menu ($35 or $60 with paired wines).

We opted for the versatility and relative frugality of the chef's menu (which we shared at no extra cost), but not before diving into a bowl of Grozis' chunky/smooth duck pate special ($8) infused with confetti-like shreds of roasted onion. Served with briny Lebanese olives and salty, crisp French cornichons, it was unforgettable. The server paired it with a snappy, light Pinot Noir that, like all the pairings we sampled, brought out the best in both the food and wine; waltzing inextricably between the two elements as effortlessly and beguilingly as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The hot soup of the day, a "roasted vegetable puree", arrived shortly thereafter in white demi-tasse cups presented at the center of a chive "X" imposed on square white plates. Steamy and soothing deliciousness, the soup was a frothy blend of mild root vegetables with asparagus and potato overtones. It whet our appetites for the next course, a duo of Mushroom and Goat Cheese Crostini and Poached Pear with Gorgonzola with Mint Crostini. Thin slices of shitake and pear that tasted like they'd been sauteed and poached, respectively, in a light, white wine were arranged on the diagonal atop crispy toasts and garnished with the acid-smooth bite of fresh goat cheese and a mild Gorgonzola. The bites of fresh mint served with the pears was an unusual, refreshing and ultimately winning addition to the plate.

Another unusual combination, parsnip with asparagus and smoked salmon, was a head-turner; mine practically spun off my neck with joy. Grozis roasted a square-shaped spear of sweet parsnip, lining it up with a spear of smoky, grilled asparagus and wrapped it all up with fresh, salmon smoked with the sweetness of Applewood bacon. The kicker was the lightly mounted mustard and red wine cream sauce served with it which brought this dish together like a marriage made in epicurean heaven.

Just when I thought it couldn't get better, our server brought out the seared duck breast fanned across a rectangular plate atop a raspberry gastrique sauce and alongside a golden mound of Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. Paired with a pert Newton Chardonnay, this was the brightest star of the evening in a dining sky that was already exploding with them and goes down as the best thing I've eaten in 2007 - bar none. The subtly of the sauce, a reduction of raspberry vinegar, perhaps infused with more fresh fruit, and caramelized sugar was majestically subdued; the perfect foil for the meaty, pink and exquisite duck. What else could be better with such carnivorous ambrosia than a cloud of mashed potatoes harboring a wispy fragrance of roasted garlic and creamery butter? Nothing!

Soif's take on a cannoli, this one more of a crepe filled with pistachio imbued cream, mounted and folded with crispy chunks of roasted pistachios, came close. Grozis dressed the plate with a milk chocolate ganache and our server expertly paired it with a Port-Cabernet blend and a rich, sweet Muscat, which the server selected for me since I don't like Port.

Summars has more than met her expectations to create a great little neighborhood cafe serving great food, aritisanal cheeses, and a great selection of California and international wines. In just three months, she and her stellar staff have surpassed all of them and entered the realm of excellence on all fronts. One can only forecast a very bright future for Charleston's latest restaurant star.

Soif Wine, Cheese & Tapas Bar
357 North Shelmore, Mount Pleasant
(843) 884-2707
Tues.-Sat., 5:30 p.m. - until
(Note: Wine shop next door is open during the restaurant's hours of operation. Patrons can select bottles at the shop to be opened in the restaurant for a $10 corkage fee.)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Mo' Moe's is Better Than One

Sometimes, you really can't get enough of a good thing - especially when fate seems to be knocking on your door. So, when Mike Tronoski, decade-long owner of the wildly successful Moe's Crosstown Tavern (named by Esquire Magazine as one of the "Top 50 Bars in America) got the calling to "grow" Moe's, grow he did.

The calling came in the form of a realtor who told Tronoski that Jimmy Dengate's, a popular Irish pub on Cumberland Street, downtown, was up for sale. Since Dengate's original location was at the same address as Moe's Crosstown, Tronoski couldn't ignore the strong "fate" connection. The potential of the downtown location for attracting college students and business lunch crowds and the fact that he was able to purchase the property (as opposed to the lease he carries for Moe's Crosstown) didn't hurt, and soon, Moe's Downtown Tavern was born.

The new restaurant opened in September. In many ways, the new Moe's mirrors the original. The menu is the same, the chef (Shawn Eustace) is the same, and the unbeatable burgers taste just as lip-smacking good below the Crosstown as they do above it. But, the look and the soul of the place feel somehow different. The new location doesn't have the mildly rough 'n tumble, softened, neighborhood-warmed edges of its older restaurant sibling, but, rather gives the impression of a polished, high-tech sports bar. High definition, plasma televisions broadcast assorted games off all four walls, that were otherwise scantily clad. Still, the warm, brick-red paint, brick, custom built, high-walled booths, smart looking, mirror-backed bar and easy access parking bring it all together with decidedly urban appeal.

The crowd was eclectic on a Sunday afternoon; pregnant with pro football games that were being played out (or pre-played out) on every single television in the place. Mostly twenty-somethings sat alongside the occasional senior citizen couple, all seemingly enjoying themselves while diving into Moe's gigantically portioned sandwiches and sipping suds from their chilled mugs. Beer drinkers' choices are plentiful here; less so for wine. Only one Chardonnay was offered, and to use the descriptive term of our incredibly frank and efficient server, it was "mediocre". On tap, however, are 14 draft beers, including one high gravity beer with two more coming soon and there are over 20 bottles to choose from.

Far from a simple burger joint, Moe's Downtown throws gourmet passes left and right in peppery flavor combo's like a goat cheese and roasted poblano pepper burger and a blackened burger topped with crumbled blue cheese and a Cajun-inspired roasted red pepper aioli that packs some serious, house made heat doused with the acidic edge of fresh lime juice. Ranging in price from $6.75-$7.25, Moe's specialty burgers are hand-prepped, 8 ounce patties of ground Angus chuck beef that can be served with real, hand cut fries, chips, and pasta salad or for a $1.50 extra, fat, sweet onion rings (well worth the indulgence!), beans and rice or a side salad.

The sinewy Philly Cheesesteak ($7.50) on a soggy, tough bun, wasn't a winner in my book, especially after sampling the sinful burgers. However, Moe's wings (1 dozen, $6.75) kept me happily aloft for several hours after devouring them. The signature Buffalo flavorings were entirely on the mark - a flash of heat followed by the tanginess of vinegar. The wings were moist throughout and crunchy, crisp on the outside. There are several flavors to choose from in varying degrees of heat including mild, hot and "Moe Hotter".

So much more than a watering hole offering garden variety bar grub, Moe's takes it several steps further by throwing in an Eastern European ethnicity menu curve. In a nod to his father's "completely" Polish family, Tronoski offers Poland's potato and pasta darlings, pierogies ($6.95) and a Polish Keilbasy sub ($6.50) served with sauerkraut or sauteed pepper and onions. Since pierogies are prohibitively labor intensive to prepare in-house, he orders his from his friend and fellow Polish descendant, Ted Dombroski of Ted's Butcherblock located up the street on East Bay. Dombroski gets his from a trusted supplier in New Jersey.

Back in Moe's kitchen, they're fried (as opposed to the more traditional saute or poach method) and served with a dipping sauce of cream cheese, sour cream and fresh chives. The "quick fry" gave the pasta added chew and an interesting texture dimension. The fluffy potato puree filling was mildly seasoned, both sweet and savory. I'd like to see the pierogies poached first, to soften them up a bit more, then fried for the crunchy finish, but they're a fine addition to a menu in a town that is otherwise completely lacking in Polish food offerings.

Moe's winning formula is sure to shine just as brightly downtown as it has for nearly 10 years uptown, proving that two Moe's are better than one. Look for Moe's legendary 1/2 price Tuesday night burger tradition to kick into permanent gear at the new restaurant starting in January.

Moe's Downtown Tavern
5 Cumberland Street, Downtown
(843) 577-8500
Open daily, 11 - 2 a.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.