Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Restaurant Queen

As I navigate Charleston's sea of restaurants while researching The Charleston Chef's Table Cookbook (Globe Pequot Press, February 2010), I feel a bit like Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn navigating wily waters upon the African Queen. Ah, but my job is so much more fun and usually (though not always) delicious. Because I've been so busy checking out the newest places and also re-visiting old restaurant pals I haven't "seen"
in a while, I've been slow on the blog. For that, I'm sorry. However, I wanted to take a moment to briefly describe two new restaurants and one established restaurant that most recently caught my food fancy. Here goes:

Samos Taverna
819 Coleman Boulevard, Mount Pleasant
(843) 856-5055

The word and the raves have been spreading about this new Greek goddess of goodness, but in case you missed it, I'm here to tell you, it's all true. Owned by a local Greek family with ties to a village located on the island of Samos off of Greece, Samos slams the door on the all-too-ubiquitous mediocrity of most local Greek dining spots and greets, with open arms, spotless renditions of moussaka ($14), spanakopita ($6), tzatziki ($5) and many other authentic delights rarely found in these parts. Restaurant management guru Andy Fallen oversees the hard-working, friendly staff with unfailing professionalism. In addition to all this, guests are rewarded with refreshingly chic decor, plump with pillows and glowing with candles, that is all at once sophisticated and romantic.

Lombardi's Italian Restaurant
979 Harbor View Road, James Island
(843) 795-3133

A welcome addition to Harbor View Road's skinny (and getting skinnier with the soon-to-be-gone Mimi's Cafe) restaurant offering, this big bite of Brooklyn literally drips with red sauce (a.k.a "gravy") and New York-style Italian/American guts. Owner Vince Lombardi (no relation to the coaching great) hails from Brooklyn, and struts about the spartan restaurant with equal parts pride and gruff affability.

It really is a slice of the real deal, complete with silk flowers and agreeably tacky plastic-like upholstery that blankets so much of the working class boroughs around Manhattan. Meals begin with a basket of warm garlic bread and a bowl of house made red sauce. After that, watch out waistline and hello happy! Portions are huge and prices are kind. Especially notable are the beefy, cheesy lasagna ($12) and anything "veal" (choices include Marsala, Parmesan, Piccata, Lombardi's and Richardo, $17-$18). The lasagna is a beefy, cheesy indulgence laced with more of that heart-breakingly good red sauce that recalls New York with every loving spoonful.

102 North Market Street, downtown
(843) 722-6393

A relative oldie, Mercato and executive chef Jacques Larson continues to prove that the restaurant is more than a goodie. More sophisticated than Lombardi's, Mercato is a different kind of Italian restaurant with equal parts heart. It all begins in the kitchen with Larson's shining talent. The restaurant's re-worked its mood and menu a few times since it opened in 2006, but Larson's never drifted from his penchant for perfection and creativity. Sadly, I think mostly due to its location on tourist-intensive North Market Street, Mercato is sometime lost in local consciousness as a top priority dining destination. Don't let that happen! When you do stop by, absolutely do try the Local Shrimp and Sicilian Fregula Stew of Tomato, Pine Nuts, Caper Berries, Currants and Chili Flakes (market price). The shrimp, briny and sweet, truly is local (YEAH!) and the balanced playfulness in the dish rendered it absolutely impeccable.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Survival of the Restaurant World's Fittest

When even a frugally minded weekly trip to the grocery store easily exceeds $100 and filling up the car's gas tank requires $50 of my increasingly hard-earned cash, I take notice. Then, I take action - cutting action.

Actually, the cutting began about a year ago. Increasingly cognizant of the credit sickness running rampant through this country, I paid off my mortgage and deleted regular pedicure, facial, and massage indulgences from my life. The latest casualties have been visits to the car wash. I've seriously contemplated trashing my two biggest emotional indulgences - weekly tennis lessons and professional hair color treatments - but I'm not there quite yet. And, unlike a lot of Americans, cutting out restaurant meals is not an option due to the nature of my work.

But, people are talking about it and doing just that. Earlier today, as I was paying nearly $200 for monthly anti-flea treatments for my two pets, the vet tech told me she "doesn't go anywhere anymore". It's straight to work and straight home with no pricey diversions along the way. Heck, even a McDonald's meal (and we all know how good they are for us) is about a $5 hit. Who can blame her?

Even though chefs about town are rightfully concerned about losing customer traffic due to the sad state of the economy, there are reasons for all of us to be optimistic. First of all, this will end. And when it does, only the very best restaurants (those that deliver the best possible food/service quality and value) will come through unscathed and we will be better served all along the way with great food at a great price.

Survival of the fittest is just as real in business as it is in nature. Two recently opened restaurants in greater Charleston are serving just the kind of stuff we want to see in these lean times - fabulous, fabulous food without the gory gouge of $40 entrees. In fact, most entrees hover around $15 with plenty of appetizers offered for significantly less. Great wine? Yes, at a good price and both restaurants throw in eye popping, tasteful decor and seasoned, professional service staffs.

Ok, I won't leave you in suspense any longer. It's almost as exciting as saving $37 on my Harris Teeter VIC card, which actually happened last week. I was so giddy I practically galloped all the way home. These restaurants had the same effect and I think they will for you: Samos Taverna and Trattoria Lucca.

The former pays impeccable homage to Greek cuisine. Owned by first time restaurateur George Malanos, the menu's inspiration comes directly from the Greek island of Samos, where his father and family were raised. I'm quite certain nobody can begin to touch the dreaminess of what's often mundane elsewhere - Samos' moussaka ($14). It floats through layers of (yes!) cinnamon and tomato and Mediterranean goodness. The sleek, cosmopolitan decor is deftly peppered with the spirit of the islands. Managing Partner Andy Fallen runs a tight, professional ship and it is reflected well in the service staff.

On the other side of the bridge, culinary superstar Ken Vedrinski has descended upon the unlikely reaches of the upper peninsula to open Trattoria Lucca. Some people I've talked to have raised their eyebrows about the restaurant's largely residential neighbors in what was once considered a pretty tough part of town. All doubts will be erased upon entering the smart, warm trattoria which bears all the hallmarks of what it was intended to be - a neighborhood gathering place like you might find in the Italian village of Lucca, which served as Vedrinski's restaurant muse. Purple and cream swirl together beautifully on the fabric pillows and banquettes while candles and dim lighting cast a sunset-like glow across the space. Meanwhile, the kitchen doles out the enticing aromas of Italy, which are plated magnificently in the likes of Roasted Fall Mushrooms (Verdure, $7) and Strozzapreti, Gorgonzola & Vidalia Onion Fonduta with Crispy Guanciale ($16).

What's not to like? Absolutely nothing. Indeed, when I asked chef Vedrinski how the restaurant was doing so early in its two-week run, he beamed and practically screamed "I'm making money". That's what it's all about. Especially when you're delivering real value and delightful dining experiences. These are things that will never go out of style and for which all of us will eternally retain a hearty appetite . These kinds of soulful dividends are priceless.

Samos Taverna
819 Coleman Street, Mount Pleasant
(843) 856-5055

Trattoria Lucca
41 Bogard Street, downtown
(843) 973-3323

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Calling All Readers

If you know of a "great" eaterie that you think I may not know about, please write and tell me about it. By great, I mean great food. It doesn't have to be expensive or fancy. I'm especially interested in far-reaching places like North Charleston, Summerville and remote segments of Mount Pleasant. Special interests include ethnic restaurants of all varieties.

Thank you for your support. If it passes muster, your suggested restaurant may be rewarded with a profile in "The Charleston Chef's Table Cookbook" coming out in February, 2010.

All the best, Holly

Monday, September 22, 2008

Oak Set to Branch Out

Long a bastion of big, beefy steaks and correspondingly steep tabs, Oak Steakhouse will add a new menu and more budget-friendly concept sometime in January, if all goes as planned.

Chef/owner Brett McKee originally pondered opening a high-end seafood restaurant next door to Oak at 15 Broad Street, but decided to go back to his New York roots and personal passion for homey, Italian fare. And, instead of opening a new restaurant altogether, he's simply broadening the space, adding up to 35 seats and a new, second-floor banquette facility in the neighboring space.

The "new" Oak will be everything that it already is, just bigger and with more menu choices. McKee has created an alternative menu from the steakhouse's main menu, adding on fifteen Italian mainstays from Baked Lasagna to Roasted Lemon Chicken and a variety of brick oven pizzas, all priced at $15. Theoretically, this menu will be offered to guests on the ground floor only, which already is the least formal, and arguably most popular, of the restaurant's existing three dining areas. "The space dictates the menu," says McKee. "I like the menu, it's the kind of food I like, which means it will be good," he adds.

In yet another nod to the kind of food and environment he grew up around, McKee will also add a new Sunday dinner program that will kick off Sunday, November 2cnd. Intended to appeal to families, the menu will offer three courses priced at $30 per person. Swedish meatballs, root beer floats and orange cream sodas will all be in the offing and will be served in all three levels of the restaurant. The restaurant's signature chocolate booths will soon get a facelift in red leather to reflect the warmer, "affordable comfort food" branch at Oak.

Oak Steakhouse
17 Broad Street, downtown
(843) 722-4220

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Crave's Food Worth Raves

Landen Ganstrom did a fine job flexing his culinary chops with a globally inspired, ambitious and well-executed tapas menu during his tenure at 11 Center Street on Folly. Still, even with excellent food, things never fully came together there. The kitchen was on a different floor than the bulk of the seating area, which regularly led to choppy pacing. Also, it seemed like the owners couldn't decide if their biggest priority was the restaurant or the retail wine shop. As a result, the entire place seemed ambivalent and erratic, which sometimes made me feel like a slightly uncomfortable, albeit well-fed, customer.

Now that 11 Center Street has closed, executive chef Landen Ganstrom has found a new gig at a relatively remote outpost at The Shoppes at Seaside Farms, off the IOP Connector in Mount Pleasant. Crave Kitchen and Cocktails puts his talent to use in another ambitious menu (the current dinner menu includes 34 options, not counting weekly specials) with lunch, brunch, dinner and after-hours seating's. That's a lot to ask, but Ganstrom delivers. Everything sampled during yet another book research dinner was seamless. In fact, it seems like it was all better than I remembered at 11 Center Street.

The large kitchen's location on the same floor of the spacious, airy restaurant and a complete service staff can only help, but Ganstrom and his kitchen staff get the highest marks for flawless delivery. Generally, hummus is just hummus - chickpeas and some tahini and maybe a kick of olive oil, garlic, lemon, or another personalized ingredient - always good, rarely great. Ganstrom's hummus (Greek Dip, $8) was almost hedonistic in its goodness. What is often a too-chunky consistency in hummus was pureed to silk here, but still maintained sufficient girth to adhere to the warm, crisp pita points. The flavors were so artfully interwoven it was impossible for me to break every one down, but the end result was a sweet, smooth, buttery sensation with a mildly acidic finish. A delicate tapenade, rife with the glorious ingredients of the Mediterranean - briny olives, oregano and garlic - was chopped very finely and made the hummus taste even better when the two were combined. A tiny fresh salad with a dusting of feta completed the dish.

When a server recommends fish as ardently as our friendly, young server did, I'm apt to be suspicious the kitchen's trying to move fish that's past its prime. However, something in her sincere nature and the already proven quality ingredients in the Greek Dip, had me biting the line and hook she so convincingly cast for the Sea Bass ($22). Easily the finest piece of fish I've sampled this summer, it sizzled with a buttery pan-sear crunch on both sides. In between, the square of squeaky-fresh fish was clean and milky tasting; the perfect foil to a fried web of string potatoes and a bed of creamy wild mushroom risotto. A sweet/hot chili glaze kicked the mild flavors of the dish into well-balanced high gear. Though I found the Kentucky Bourbon Short Ribs ($18) to be slightly over-sauced with a sweet version of BBQ sauce, the beef ribs were delectable.

Though the server made a few unsubstantiated remarks about the "award winning" She Crab Soup (citing some kind words in City Paper as the source) and an awkward (yet apparently honest) explanation about a misprint on the menu regarding the sole, she was sweet and got the order right and to the table on time, with a smile. Unfortunately, the evening I was there, so was a large, semi-private party of realtor's reveling in and around the bar. Live, loud music that sounded like something you'd hear at a cash bar wedding aggressively spilled over into the dining room, which took away part of the dinner's appeal. Perhaps in the future, weather-allowing, this kind of event might be relocated to the outside patio area or reserved for later at night, after the dinner hour.

For now, the food is exactly where it should be and is a new member on my short list of places to go the next time I crave really, really good food.

Crave Kitchen and Cocktails
1968 Riviera Drive, Unit O
The Shoppes at Seaside Farms, Mt. Pleasant
(843) 884-1177

Monday, September 8, 2008

Make New Friends, Keep the Old

This is a lesson I learned way back in my Brownie days. I've consciously tried to remain true to it in all areas of my life (including restaurants) ever since. With so many new restaurants coming onto the Charleston scene of late (has anyone noticed that so many seem to have mono-syllabic, almost primal names like Crave and Fuel?), it's easy to forget about those that have been around for a while. Don't let that happen. Recently, I acquiesced to not one but two very pronounced "crav"ings for two of my favorite comfort foods and was very glad I did.

Sweet Corn

Ben Berryhill's of Red Drum Gastropub version of sweet corn pudding rockets the concept of what is technically a "savory" pudding into an incomparable universe of deliciousness. Typically served with the restaurant's Wood Grilled Salmon, it also soars as a side with the Chicken Enchiladas. The heat from the mole, smoothness of the refried beans and burnt red and chocolate colors of the plated food look and taste even better with the precocious corn husk boat that houses the souffle-like pudding. Each air-infused bite popped with kernels of sugar-sweet corn that tasted like they've been cut from cobs picked just hours ago. The sweetness is tempered with the mildness of eggs and cream to create an indulgence that's worth returning for as often as is humanly possible.

Cheesy Goodness and Crunchy Surprises

One especially lovely morning this past week, as I was planning out my day, it struck. An irrepressible urge to have lunch at Cru Cafe had me in its gustatory grip and wasn't about to let go. So, a little before noon I set out. And, even though I spent several minutes contemplating the menu, I knew exactly what I was there for and why. The Napa Cabbage Chicken Salad (for book research) and the Four Cheese Mac 'n Cheese just for the sheer fun of it. The salad, crunchy and peppered with chef/owner John Zucker's talent for all things Asian, won as a player in the salad chapter of the book (Charleston Chef's Table) and the mac 'n cheese won as what I described to a curious woman as "simply the world's best mac 'n cheese".

The woman, who my money says wasn't from these parts, practically tripped as she gawked, passing my table on the porch where I was quietly reading and eating. "What is that?," she bellowed. Worried I'd done something unspeakable in my overly absorbed state of mind, I tentatively looked up. She was pointing at and practically drooling over my mac 'n cheese as if she hadn't eaten in weeks, which didn't appear to be the case. Needless to say she ordered it. I heard her. Though I wasn't able to stick around and witness her reaction, I'm quite sure she enjoyed it. There is no way anyone, even a lactose-intolerant anyone, could not.

The Red Drum Gastropub
803 Coleman Boulevard, Mt. Pleasant
(843) 849-0313

Cru Cafe
18 Pinckney Street, downtown
(853) 534-2434

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Dinner and a Movie

A more soothing combination of words and concepts has seldom been conceived than "dinner and a movie". And, few things go better with a movie than a good dinner and a glass of good wine - unless you count expertly popped popcorn - which, sadly, is even harder to find than dinner and a movie served in a theater.

We had to wait eight long years since the demise of the "original" American Theater on King Street to get another dinner and a movie cinema in greater Charleston. (By original, I refer to the cozy cinema grill period before the owners stripped it of its dining personality and table-side service by installing stadium seats and an over-priced counter full of average food and mostly sullen service).

It was a sad farewell, indeed. The latest Charleston-area cinematic incumbent is called Cinebarre. At barely a month old, its initial performance for this attendee was less than Oscar-worthy. The black and silver stage felt vacuous and cold; literally, like a black hole. I had the impression that I was sinking under the weight of it, suffocated by its impersonal hugeness and manufactured, corporate mood. A small army of friendly, young and capable servers clad all in white did well to mitigate the frigidity of the atmosphere, but overall I feel like the space (formerly Movies at Mount Pleasant) is already as badly in need of a face-lift as Joan Rivers isn't in need of yet another. If they go that route, I hope they'll scrap at least half of the huge movie posters that lilt and pop jarringly from virtually every angle like scary characters in a psychedelic dream.

Better things lurked within our actual theater. As mentioned, the staff was friendly and very helpful in navigating a potentially complicated and intrusive food ordering and delivery system and they did it in a very timely (all of 20 minutes from start to finish) manner. However, one poor woman had to explain the menu and the ordering process (she takes your order before the movie, the food is delivered, if you want anything else you put a white piece of paper in a vertical position, and they bring the bill before the credits) over the literal roar of a pre-movie tidbit of a Rifle Man brief. The black and white images on the big screen seemed to tremble in the wake of the domineering decibel factor. The server offered to look into getting the volume turned down, but as far as I could tell, that never took place. I swear, even Beethoven's hearing could be restored here, at least for the duration of a movie.

Only five people were in our particular theater for an afternoon showing of The Dark Knight. It would be interesting to see if the service is as smooth, fast and unobtrusive in the event of a full house, especially in all eleven theaters. That would be a true coup! A call to the general manager to inquire about the identity/experience of the chef here was not returned, but I've got to expect he or she has an extensive banquet background to put out that much food that fast.

The food, from a menu composed of appetizers, burgers, sandwiches and pizza, was adequate but far from show-stopping or original (not unlike the fact that all of them are named after classic movies or variations on classic characters). One of the more cleverly named items, The Sgt. Pepper stuffed jalapeno peppers ($6), tasted and looked very much like they were pre-assembled and frozen, but were served golden and hot from the fryer and made for satisfying movie munching in-between bites of Heath Ledger's deliciously dark portrayal of The Joker. Cinebarre gets credit for serving a generous and respectable burger and fries (Blue Velvet, $8.50) and its interpretation of a Philly Cheese ($9). Like the peppers, they were hot and heaping, and tasted well with a glass of Chardonnay from the cinema's selection of 12 wines, served by the glass ($4.50-$7) and bottle ($20-$26). Beer and cocktails are also offered, seven days a week, which trumps The Terrace's current no-liquor-Sunday tradition.

Cinebarre is intended to be quiet (someone please turn down the volume!) and sophisticated. As such, it has some more than welcome rules - children under 17 must be accompanied by an adult, and no cell phones or loud talking are allowed.

963 Houston Northcutt Boulevard, Mount Pleasant
(843) 216-2690 - main line
(843) 884-7885 - movie line

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Return of Enzo

Enzo Steffenelli, the petite Swiss with a big smile, is back in the kitchen after a brief stint selling printers (this according to his marketing communications manager, Elizabeth Kelly).

He's crossed the street from his longtime haunt, the Sea Island Grill, and set up shop at the two month-old (The) Lettered Olive restaurant. Still loyal to Wild Dunes Resort, Steffenelli's latest restaurant is decidedly more casual and family friendly than the grill and bears the sandy, seashore palette of its name, which happens to be South Carolina's official state seashell. Airy, spacious and attractive, The Lettered Olive attracts a feisty, familial crowd, so be prepared to deal with the occasional toddler's temper tantrum and not-so-hushed tsk tsk's of a frustrated mom or two.

Steffenelli's expansive, well-executed menu of sophisticated mainstays with a European twist will distract you from the noise into a quiet, well-sated place at a fair price. Indeed, entrees range from the low $20's to a somewhat steep mid $30's, but the portions are so fantastically large, and the quality of the food so high, potential wallet pain is instantly mitigated.

The chef explores the globe, dipping into the Lowcountry, the Caribbean, Italy, France and Asia for inspiration and offering everything from oak fired flatbreads to a gorgeous and gargantuan Half Asian Five Spice Duck with Orange-Green Peppercorn Sauce ($25). Another equally large and visually impressive dish (I did not taste this) is the Charleston Red Rice, a virtual platter of the Lowcountry favorite topped with a seafood cornucopia of shrimp, mussels, scallops and lobster ($32). Entrees include a choice of two sides from a selection of eight. A basil-rich, fresh-from-the-garden Mediterranean ratatouille was smashing; so, too the "best ever" mac n' cheese. It was crunchy with bread crumbs and butter and smooth with just the right amount of cheese.

Service fluttered about the large space with maximum efficiency. Combining solid food, easy parking and Steffenelli's proven talent, The Lettered Olive makes a series of compelling arguments for a most rewarding dining experience. And, that's not just for tourists.

The Lettered Olive
Wild Dunes Resort, Isle of Palms
(843) 577-9100

Monday, July 7, 2008

In Between Sets

This weekend's serving of Wimbledon tennis was bigger and better than a heaping bowl of fresh strawberries and clotted cream at The All England Club. Between the Williams' sister act and the nail-biting drama of Rafa and Roger's epic five-hour showdown (not counting rain delays) it was enough to build up a serious appetite for adrenaline-subduing sustenance. But what true little-yellow-ball-watching- addict can pull herself away from the television set?

Not this one, so on Saturday morning I decided to follow up on a previous visit to the newly minted, curiously named Caviar & Bananas and order several items for delivery (free, downtown for all orders $20 or more) to my front door. My initial gustatory foray there was, shall we say, less than ripely rewarding, so this seemed like a prime time to follow through on fairness.

Though Caviar & Bananas, with all its sparkling stainless steel shelving, white walls, and gourmet goods, delivers a strong (albeit not entirely original) cosmopolitan show and ample food choices (sandwiches, salads, over 50 prepared foods and coffee), on my first visit it proved thin in some areas. Namely, the sandwiches. The roast beef, onion confit special I ordered ($9) was way too lean for the money and heavy on grilled bread. Also, at this station (like the others), there seemed to be real confusion on the part of the many customers about ordering and payment procedures. At one point, there were nine people standing around and one guy with a note pad taking orders while he squeezed in making and issuing sandwiches whenever possible.

Owned by a young husband/wife team who share a yen for and experience in good food with an able-bodied executive chef at the helm, the young restaurant/store likely has a bright future. A centrally positioned host/hostess might help minimize the ordering and payment confusion to novice diners here and also make it feel more like the truly neighborhood place it is trying to be and its central COC-based location virtually mandates.

The food I ordered for delivery (free for downtown for orders $20 and over) on Saturday to make it through the Williams' match came within twenty minutes and was personally delivered by co-owner Kris Furniss, which I thought reflected sincere interest in customer service - always a great thing. Wrapped up in neat little white boxes and sealed with logo stickers for a grand total of $38, all the food was solid, but nothing was remarkable. Notable winners included the flavorful Israeli Couscous Salad and Roasted Beet-Goat Cheese Salad. The Pomegranate-Cinnamon Lacquered Duck, Poached Salmon and Chicken Tagine faltered on various seasoning and cooking temperature fronts.

For these prices, Caviar & Bananas is going to have to dig a little bit deeper to find its best service groove. Fully aware of Ulak's talents (he described his broad Prepared Food Selections as a complete representation of his culinary professional career), I'm confident they'll get there. I'm guessing such an expansive menu is putting some hefty demands on maximum quality control that will get rectified in time. In the meantime, Caviar & Bananas is to be lauded for being the cleanest and most savory smelling restaurant I've entered in a long time.

Moving on to Sunday, huge kudos to the stellar service staff, lush setting and multi-stationed Sunday brunch buffet at Grill 225 for making time I was reluctantly required to spend away from the Rafa/Roger match well worth the investment. For $39 per person, with a complementary glass of "Champagne" (well, it's "California" Champagne, but still a nice touch), this is undoubtedly the most sophisticated brunch downtown. The private, quiet confines of the chocolate velvet-padded booths are a delight, and so too are classic treats like baked ham and an endless array of well-executed, ever-changing warm plates and crepe bar. Loosen your buckle a bit and go ahead and dig into pastry chef Gerry Elliot's best-ever pecan pie with a big dollop of whipped cream. Fresh, rustic-style, flaky pastry, mounds of fresh pecans and a slightly sweet, toasted filling make it as unique and unforgettable as the match I almost missed, and likely those strawberries and cream, too.

Caviar & Bananas
51 George Street, Downtown
(843) 577-7757

Grill 225
225 East Bay Street, downtown
(843) 266-4222

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Fuel Find

Fuel, its scarcity and its eerily escalating price tag, seems to be on every one's mind these days. It's also the simple name of a brand new (as in 1 1/2 weeks new) restaurant situated across the street from both Lana Restaurant Cafe & Bar and Hominy Grill on the corner of Cannon and Rutledge, rendering this one of Charleston's most ample corners for tasty and diverse food finds.

Situated in a former filling station, Fuel Caribbean Cantina skips the tacky frills of palm fronds and Tiki huts and stays true to the structure's original function. It's adorned with smart-looking mechanic lights and has round, 50's something retro curves, bright splashes of white paint and a deliberately worn look (complete with period filling tanks) that recall a cafe that would fit right in on the edge of any white sand-meets-azur Caribbean beach.

Alas it is not, at least for now, appointed with functioning air conditioning. "We're working it out," our water girl vaguely explained. A noon-ish working lunch or even evening drinks and light bites on a sultry, still August evening sans air conditioning is a daunting prospect to say the least, even for the most ardent masochist in Charleston's dewy summer midst. This and a few other minor mechanical hiccups will likely be worked out as Fuel matures, and I'll come back with a review and more information in another month or two.

I'm happy to briefly report, however, that Fuel is coming up with the culinary goods early on in the game. All the food I sampled, including a cumin-rich Cuban Black Bean Soup ($3, cup), Grilled (local) Mahi Mahi Tacos ($10) and a stunning Tropical Seafood Bouyon ($15) were lovely renditions of various island classics and loaded with complimentary contrasting layers of pleasant spice heat, sweetness and acidic clarity. Free and plentiful parking is a bonus in an increasingly congested downtown.

Fuel Caribbean Cantina
211 Rutledge Avenue, downtown
(843) 737-5959
Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.- 11 p.m.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lucca Love

Talented chef Ken Vedrinski hopes to continue his love affair with all things Italian and homey with his next restaurant, Trattoria Lucca, scheduled to open sometime in late June.

The decorated chef has never been further removed from his once ultra-fancy, classic Woodland's roots or even from his moderately fancy Italian roots at his current Daniel Island restaurant, Sienna. Lucca will take him closer to his simple, familial, Italian inspirations than ever before and at markedly lower price points he hopes will appeal to a broad base of individuals in search of well-prepared, Tuscan style fare.

The chef and his young team, including Sienna pastry chef Caitlin Kelly (who will double as pastry chef at Lucca) and general manager Adam Verona, recently gathered to give a small group of food journalists a sneak preview of things soon to come at Lucca. Situated in the heart of a well-seasoned, residential neighborhood just off the Crosstown at the corner of Ashe and Bogard, Vedrinski envisions it as a place where people can walk and wind their way through the streets of Charleston to find a secret, neighborhood surprise "with the best olive oil in town," just as you might in the town of Lucca, Italy that inspired the new restaurant's name.

Seating will be intimate, with all of 52 covers and a small bar and no-reservations-required community table. Tables and chairs will be movable to invite spontaneous seating innovations as needed. Like the tables, the menu will revolve to reflect the season, availability and inspiration, but will be categorized under three sections: Antipasti, Primi and Secondi courses, with prices (on the preview menu) ranging from just $6-$18. The initial menu includes the likes of Grilled Endive with Pecorino, Ruganso (Sicilian Sheep Cheese) with Tuscan Wild Flower Honey, and Grilled Painted Hills Hanger Steak with Warm Owls Nest Heirloom Tomato Salad, Gorgonzola, Arugula Salad, Vin Cotto.

The signature Sunday event will be Lucca's Family Supper Sundays where Vedrinski and his team will offer two seatings of a pre-established menu. The plan is to keep filling every empty bowl until participants cry uncle, or simply burst with pasta joy. The restaurant's warm beige, off-white and gray/green tones are the brainchild of local designer Heather Wilson.

The slightly mysterious location, to those not terribly familiar with the neighborhood, is actually quite simple to find. Most serendipitously, I found literal directions while conducting a research lunch just an hour before the scheduled Lucca preview at nearby Alluette's Cafe. Owner Alluette Jones just happened to hand me a write-up on one of her long-defunct restaurants, The Patio Tea Room, to peruse while dining. In addition to a colorful description of Alluette and The Patio, the article directed interested diners to take King Street to Spring Street, take a left onto Spring, and take a right on Ashe to Bogard, just a block down. This was indeed the exact same location of what is now (or soon to be Lucca). Talk about serious kismet! Let's hope it graces the doors of Lucca, as it apparently did The Patio, which Vedrinski tells me was once the haunt of Al Sharpton and other civil rights notables while they were visiting Charleston.

Look for further details on the precise opening date, telephone number, web site and hours of operation as they surface.

Trattoria Lucca
41-A Bogard Street, downtown

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Back In Action

I've been admittedly remiss updating this blog for the past two months, but it's not because the Charleston food scene is quiet - far from it. Instead, it's because I was very busy finishing and editing the farmers' market cookbook (see Holly Herrick's Southern Slow Food link on the home page for more on this) to meet my June 1 deadline.

It's now safely in the publisher's hands in the process of becoming a book, which is exciting, especially because the farmers shared so much wonderful information and stories with me along our 7-month research and writing journey. Now that it's submitted, I'm thrilled to be able to jump back into the Charleston restaurant scene (and this blog) with renewed vigor as I start to further research my next cookbook. Without providing too much advance information, suffice to say, it will be about Charleston's great restaurants (and provide some of their select recipes) and the city's unique cultural and culinary ingredients, attributes, charms and eccentricities.

Monday, May 12, 2008

McCrady's Mother's Day Magic

It's been too long, way too long, since I've visited McCrady's. This was my concrete conclusion upon returning home yesterday after savoring a deliriously delicious Mother's Day repast of mystic proportions at impossibly modest prices. Executive chef Sean Brock has proven himself time and time again as a master of all things delicious, beautiful and local. But, to savor the gorgeous goods in the quiet calm of a Sunday afternoon while celebrating an occasion as important as Mother's Day, was a rare and special treat, indeed. And, to put together an ample selection of specialties in three course categories (First Course, Main Course and Dessert Course) for just $50 (tax and gratuity not included), was icing on the proverbial (and ambrosial in pastry chef Winburn Carmack's hands) cake.

At just 2:30 in the afternoon (one of several seatings offered throughout day and into the night), we were greeted by the host and our server with a friendly and most proper "good evening." After saying it for a second time, our server apologized, saying, "Sorry, I'm just so used to working at night." The ensuing two hours of flawless (save a slightly tepid lobster bisque and tired bread) culinary decadence and seamless service, however, offered no cause for reproach, but merely the highest praise.

Sous vide wizardry and hyper precision aside, Brock and Carmack both excel in their artistic theme and visual interpretations of classic preparations and flavor combinations. The results, as in the brilliant spring color palette of the West Coast Halibut with Langston Progress Peas, Carrot Confit, Crispy Pancetta and gorgeous bars of crunchy-topped chocolate tart prepared with Nutella and silky fudge ice cream, were simultaneously fun and sexy. Truly art on a plate, I more than once resisted the urge to break into each fetching presentation, though on each occasion was more than happy I did.

The staff here is to be heralded for going all out on a special occasion without exploiting sensitive budgets on a day where most everyone wants to do the best they can do for Mom . It would be easy to slink into mediocrity during a long afternoon of food production, but Brock and Co. took the high road for a fare price. We, including the guest of honor that was beside herself with the unbridled joy of the experience, were all the better for it.

I just wish it could be Mother's Day everyday at McCrady's. I'll be back the next time a celebration of any day is in order, and it won't be near as long this time. McCrady's makes dining and life feel like a genuine celebration of beauty and goodness.

2 Unity Alley, downtown
(843) 577-0025
Mon.-Thus., 5:30-10 p.m.
Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Looking Through a Glass Onion

"Well, here's another place you can go... Listen to me."

Lennon and McCartney were right on when they penned these lyrics for The Beatle's venerable White Album classic, Glass Onion. Forty years later, these words still ring true, especially in the context of the newly opened Glass Onion restaurant in West Ashley. Now a month-old, The Glass Onion, situated in what was formerly an ugly book exchange shop on what is still a relatively ugly stretch of Savannah Highway, is putting the Fab Fours' tune to incredibly delicious culinary music, in a most modern way. It is definitely another place you can go, and one you should go to, too, if you seek across-the-board exceptionally fresh, reasonably priced and delicious food.

The folks here are not necessarily "fixing a hole in the ocean" as the psychedelic song goes, but The Glass Onion is well on its way to casting a brighter shade of green upon the Charleston localvore dining and all-important ancillary local farming scenes. Their web site outlines their commitment to buying locally and seasonally - "We strongly believe in the importance of eating seasonally, locally and naturally. So, you can expect all natural meats, local seafood and vegetables from as close to home as we can get."

The restaurant's timely and relevant creed is backed up with the seasonally revolving, Southern-inspired "soulful food" menu rife with tantalizing, homey promise in dishes like Miss Kimberly's Shrimp with Beans and Rice ($12), Grilled Pimento Cheese Overstuffed Sandwich ($6) and Fried Chicken Livers with Bibb Lettuce (Big, $8, Little $5).

The menu mood is decidedly country Southern, with serious nods to New Orleans and the Lowcountry. It's a logical composition since the restaurant's young owners (Charles Vincent, Chris Stewart and Sarah O'Kelley) hail from New Orleans, Birmingham, and Georgia, respectively. The trio found each other at FIG, where Stewart landed a job as sous chef while Vincent was working there. After a two year-long search and a long-established dream to open their own restaurant, they put their mutual fine-dining backgrounds (which include working with the likes of Emeril) to use to make "mid-scale comfort food," found the space at 1219 Savannah Highway, and set up shop.

The space is bright and uncluttered with a large, open counter to place orders. Several picnic tables are situated outside to invite alfresco dining. The restaurant employs a handy system to pair orders with their owners once the food comes up from the kitchen. Pictures of celebrities - from Jackie O to Miss Piggy - are affixed to clear, plastic stands and placed on your table. The celeb's name (in my case, Einstein!) is written on your order ticket and a clear-visioned spotter then tracks the corresponding picture down and delivers the food. It's a much better system than those pesky buzzers, and infinitely more personal. The food came quickly and with a smile, despite the fact the restaurant was serving a nearly full house the day I visited.

The personalized mood continued throughout and perhaps most importantly, in the food itself. Local, fresh flavor and a love and knowledge of Southern cooking sang through virtually every bite. The House made Pickles ($2, or one of four side choices for $7) are made of snappy cukes, red peppers and onions in a mild, sweet brine that spend a night in the cooler only to emerge as fresh as daisies. Similarly, the Roasted Garlic Potato Gratin, composed of tight layers of whisper-thin potatoes wobbling with frailty in creamery-fresh cream and sweet, roasted garlic, and subtle, luscious White Beans and Rice sides, were impeccably executed and impeccably infused with authentic, rural Southern spirit.

O'Kelley told me the restaurant buys their Bibb lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes from Kurios Farms in Moncks Corner. I assert they need to keep that up! The Glass Onions Bibb Lettuce salad is arguably one of the most simply beautiful things I have ever had the pleasure of eating. Served on chunky, off-white plates (like all the food here) that recall diners of yesteryear, the pale and lime-green leaves were opened like a flower seeking the sun and generously (but not overly) topped with a creamy/tart black peppercorn buttermilk dressing that rivals any truly house made salad dressing I've ever had, let alone in Charleston.

After the stellar starter debut, I was a tad disappointed with Stew's Meatball Po Boy ($8), finding the texture of the meatballs a bit on the mushy side. The flavor of the marina and girth of the thick, oven-warm and toasty baguette were spot on, however, and there is no topping the tender Root Beer Glazed Pork Belly ($12) served with sweet collards and toothsome Anson Mills grits.

"Locals don't let locals eat imported shrimp," one of several green-themed bumper stickers posted on the small refrigerator behind the small order-taking counter implores. Indeed, I contend that locals (or anyone) must not waste another precious minute to take a big bite out of The Glass Onion. Reasonably priced, locally grown and delicious, Southern "soulful" food doesn't come along every day, especially with free and ample parking. The restaurant's menu is updated daily on the web site listed below.

The Glass Onion

1219 Savannah Highway, West Ashley

(843) 225-1717

Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

Sat., brunch, 10 a.m.-4 -p.m.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Sizzlin' Bacon and Cercie Surprises

Recently, I found myself at Carolina's to share an easy Sunday dinner and a birthday celebration with friends. Since this wasn't a working dinner, per se, I didn't go into it with the requisite review perspective. However, I came out of it with some distinct impressions and some new information that I want to share.

Firstly, Carolina's, which was not so long ago stumbling clumsily along in the food department, has truly stepped up to a pristine plate of restrained, gorgeous Southern-inspired cooking in the capable hands of executive chef Jeremiah Bacon. In just over a year, this Charleston native and CIA grad has transformed Carolina's once again into the belle of Charleston's culinary ball with stunning dishes such as Laquered Bacon with Sauteed Cabbage and a Carrot Puree ($9) and Glazed Quail with Bacon Hominy, Ragged Jack Collard Greens and Black-Eyed Pea Relish ($10).

More than impressed with his cooking, I hope he soon gets the public recognition for the grand work he has privately forged in his kitchen.

Though I was aware that the restaurant started serving lunch in early February, I wasn't aware they offer a most appealing special on Sunday and Monday evenings (1/2 off bottles of wine $75 and under and 30% off bottles over $75). This is a soothing break during these tough economic times and one that cut our bill, literally, in half. "It's one of those things that's advertised in email blasts and something that locals and regulars know about," says Bacon.

In addition, frugal diners can look to a 1/2 price bar menu on Monday - Friday from 5 -6:30 p.m. where Carolina's justifiably celebrated Shrimp and Crabmeat Wontons and burgers (among other things) can both be had for just $6.

10 Exchange Street, downtown
(843) 724-3800

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Farmers' Market Road Trip

Sorry it's been so long! I'm up in North Carolina combing farmers' markets to research the upcoming Southern Slow Food book I'm writing. I'll be back in Charleston soon with restaurant updates. Look for them soon. I might just be telling you about something I've tracked down in this charming neck of the woods. Best until next! Holly

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Gotta' Getcha' Geechee

It is tragic that a region built on rice and the Gullah foods and customs born of Africa's "Rice Coast" has so little to show for it in our present-day culture, particularly our restaurant food culture. The language, once so prominently ringing through the streets of Charleston and the marshes of Lowcountry barrier islands, has dwindled to an ebbing murmur of days past. The food, characterized by rice, lima beans and other native African ingredients is still around, but mostly dapples restaurant menus as opposed to fully showcasing them, unless you count (once again) "soul food" restaurants.

Alluette's Cafe is the latest ode to local soul food, but owner Alluette Jones-Smalls throws a surprising twist into the usual soul food equation. Alluette's is "holistic" serving "fresh, local organic produce and dry goods when available". In addition, as the menu states, all meats are "free of hormones, nitrates, artificial color and sulfites." Rice and soy milk are the restaurant's accepted substitutes for dairy. There is one more thing. Alluette's does not serve or cook with pork.

What? No pig in a soul food joint? How can this be, you might ask. I asked Alluette myself when I entered the recently opened restaurant on a sunny afternoon; the light casting a pink hue on the coral, cinder-block walls like a sunset on winter marsh grasses. Her resisitance to cooking with pork (and pairing certain foods) does go back to religion, but not because she's Muslim as I'd clumsily implied in my awkward query. It has to do with the teachings of the book of Leviticus from the Old Testament of the bible. She told me so. I researched it after returning home from a soulful and savory lunch here and learned that eating pork and other divided-hoofed animals that do not chew their cud is listed as off-limits in Chapter 11 for various reasons that essentielly relate to respecting the body, spirituality and God.

Whatever your beliefs (or Alluette's) on such matters, there is no doubt that she is committed to preparing body-friendly foods and has been granted the talent (along with executive chef Absalom Thomas) to make it taste divine. Originally from Mount Pleasant, Jones-Smalls recently sold a successful restaurant on St. Helena island near Beaufort to set up shop in this understated setting situated smack dab in the middle of the up-and-coming Midtown area of the peninsula, because, as she told me, "Charleston is where I need to be right now."

She's re-roosted in a big way. The restaurant is far from fancy. The small is space dominated with an eclectic array of mis-matched tables and chairs and a huge blackboard posting the days specials for breakfast, lunch and dinner; all this flanked by a rundown looking courtyard with a tattered link fence. Still, it's attractive, clean, absolutely homey, appropriate and intelligent. Regarding the latter, I'd far rather see a small, family run business sink their funds into the food as opposed to the sometimes suffocating overhead of fancier digs.

That's what Alluette's does. The investment is in the food, the preparation and the startling friendly and sincere staff, beginning with Alluette's firm handshake, hello and introduction she offers her guests upon arrival. When she's not doing that, she's standing behind a small window in a small kitchen whisking and stirring myriad pots and bowls, seemingly sprinkling them with the pixie dust of Geechee culinary magic. The food is so clean and pure tasting, you don't even miss the pig, even in the collards which seemed infused with a blend of seasonings you might otherwise taste in dill pickles.

But, there's no telling, at least not from Alluette. She doesn't share her recipes, according to our maternally warm server. That includes the magical mystery tea ($1.80 per glass) that is blended with a series of fresh fruit juices (no sugar added!) and served over plenty of ice. I thought I sensed a mix of mango, papaya and apricot in just the right amount blended into my delicious brew that just kept coming whenever I said the word and even when I didn't.

Alluette buys her vegetables locally from Joseph Fields and also is loyal to St. Helena Island purveyor, Barefoot Farms. The freshness of Lowcountry produce burst through every ounce of the fresh baby lima bean soup ($4.50, cup) and the tomato-based fish stew ($5, cup). I particularly appreciated the former which, in its clean, savory broth and 100% lima bean purity, was quintessentiel simplicity seasoned only with salt and a dash of cayenne pepper provided on the table. Only talented chefs with devotion to fresh produce can make something so simple and pure taste so good without getting heavy-handed. Put this one on your must-order list. The fish stew's high notes were in the veggies - threads of spinach, chunks of carrots, sweet tomatoes - all brought together with fresh bites of basil.

"Baked Chicken" ($9.95) with one side (the aforementioned collards) seems like an overly-humble misnomer for this juicy, wholesome rendition of thyme-seasoned perfection. This just spoke to my heart and made me think of easier, simpler times. The feel-good, taste-delicious mood carried over to the Angus steak sandwich special (8.95), layered with 1/4" thick slices of pure beef, tangy cheddar cheese, a warm, caramelized red onion, and slivers of yellow peppers on a chewy, toasted baguette. This was served with a small cup of a tangy/sweet, crunchy slaw peppered with celery seed and a crisp, cold pickle.

Unlike a lot of soul food restaurants where food (though delicious) can feel heavy, I left Alluette's Cafe feeling light and satisfied. My belly was comfortably full and my soul was happy. I felt like I had made a solid investment in time well-spent. Speaking of time, keep in mind that it's not hurried, and at times may feel a little slow if you're not accustomed to food being cooked to order as it is here. Be patient. You'll be glad you did.

Brand new, Alluette's is still working out the kinks on little things (like a non-functioning credit card machine the day I was there), but gets almost everything right. In the future, the restaurant plans to offer cooking classes and serve alcohol. For now, settle into some of that tea and have a good ole' holistic Geechee good time. I'm planning to head back for breakfast. I can't wait to dig into "Hey Y'all"...Savory Sardines with Caramelized Onions and Olive Oil served over Local Stone Ground Hominy Grits ($5.50). Doesn't that just sound Geechee delicious?

Alluette's Cafe
80 Reid Street, downtown
(843) 577-6926

Mon., B/L, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
Tues., B/L/D, 8 a.m.-9 p.m .
Wed.-Sat., B/L/D/Late night bites, 8 a.m.- 2 a.m.
Sun., Brunch, 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Live Music sometimes offered on Friday and Saturday evenings, 10:30 p.m. - 2 a.m.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Break Away from the Everyday

One of the risks inherent in living in or near a popular international tourist destination and virtual playground like Charleston is to begin taking it for granted as "just home." Home in the not-so-positive sense that this is where you work, this is where you pay bills, and this is where you experience stress. From this perspective, it's easy to start thinking about taking a vacation elsewhere to "get away from it all." While an away-from-home vacation can be just what the doctor ordered, there are many nearby destinations that do just the same thing and for far less money. One such place, as I was recently reminded, is Jasmine Porch restaurant at The Sanctuary hotel on Kiawah Island.

Less than $20 will buy you a first-class lunch or breakfast (dinner 's a bit pricier; entrees range from $22-$39) at this prestigious hotel, which just recently was awarded five stars by Mobil Travel Guide making it one of just 41 U.S. lodgings to wear the same coveted lodging crown. And, instead of dealing with pesky air travel or other myriad travel-related nightmares, getting there is half the fun. The 45-minute drive from downtown affords the most luscious, pristine marsh vistas and Lowcountry scenery this side of paradise. You'll feel your troubles literally melt away as the sweeping serenity of nature infuses your soul and somehow makes everything seem just as it should be.

The sentiment follows you into the palatial, early 20th century-style villa as you feast your eyes upon its museum-worthy art collection and manor-born style. Just a few feet inside lies the unsuspecting culinary wonder called Jasmine Porch. Billed as a "casual dining experience," The Sanctuary's "Southern style" restaurant is so much more. Yes, it's markedly more relaxed than the hotel's significantly pricier, signature Ocean Room restaurant, but dining here still feels sumptuous and indulgent; a little slice of heaven on a plate with commanding ocean and pool views, to boot.

Now nearly four years old, the hotel and Jasmine Porch (as the five star status implies), provide ample proof that they are in full stride. Always impressive, the restaurant, her staff, and the food, just keep getting better. The most recently appointed Chef de Cuisine, Nathan Thurston, a North Carolina native and graduate of Johnson and Wales, puts restrained, yet playful polish into sophisticated yet down-home Southern style dishes like his chopped Southern Cobb salad ($15) and pulled pork sandwich ($9) which features golden barbecue, country bun, Napa slaw and a blue cheese spread.

Lunch here begins with a basket brimming with flat bread and sweet potato biscuits with a deft dash of cinnamon. A pert, aged yellow-cheddar housemade pimiento cheese and soft creamery butter are served on smart-looking rectangular plates that give a sophisticated edge to Jasmine Porch's otherwise soft, rounded Southern decor. An endless array of Charleston brick-framed arches embrace the restaurant and her brigade of ocean-view windows while generously padded, round, deep wicker armchairs provide a soft cushion for a home-away-from-home gentle landing. One whole wall is host to the restaurant's extensive wine selection, overseen by certified Sommelier Garth Herr.

Since I was lucky enough to be spending the weekend at The Sanctuary, I took three opportunities - two for breakfast and one for lunch - to sample the goods at Jasmine Porch. Everything was splendid on each occasion. The Breakfast Buffet ($20 adults, $11 children under 12) includes fresh fruit, housemade pastries and breads, an omelet station, sausage, eggs, French toast, smoked salmon and almost everything else you can think of, making it one heck of a deal for big eaters of all things good and great. I settled for a flaky, warm biscuit topped with an earthy tasso gravy, cubes of cool pineapple and a fluffy, made-to-order egg white omelet just bursting with fresh, local shrimp, crab, spinach and Swiss cheese.

Another morning, I merrily savored two pan-fried eggs, long-aged, savory country ham, and two mounds of marvelous creamy Anson Mills grits - all plated beautifully (like everything I sampled here) with the additional allure of a royal purple fresh orchid. My server, who had most effectively served myself and a larger party for lunch the previous day, continued his run of some of the best, most accomodating, most sincere and most adept service I've ever experienced.

Lunch felt a little more festive than the sedate, almost meditative breakfast experiences. The room bubbled with positive, yet quiet, energy from a host of happy diners. Our lunch began with a sampling of something the chef was "working on" for his new, seasonal menu - an out-of-this-world oxtail ravioli with nuggets of sweet corn and a light snowfall of grated fresh horseradish root in a gorgeous broth layered with flavor. Rave reviews were shared for the braised beef sliders with a blue cheese slaw, she-crab bisque, a beautifully constructed iceberg lettuce salad with bacon and blue cheese and the impeccable German chocolate cake. A new menu, reflecting seasonal produce and featuring a toasted lobster salad wrap ($15), black angus burger ($11) and crispy salmon and spinach salad ($15) among other things is in the works for imminent release. Expect nothing less than excellence.

That is, afterall, precisely what Jasmine Porch consistently delivers. Do yourself a favor and keep that in mind next time you need a little break from it all.

Jasmine Porch
One Sanctuary Beach Drive
Kiawah Island
(843) 768-6330

Open daily.
Breakfast, 6:30 - 10:15 a.m.
Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner, 5:30-10 p.m.
Sunday Jazz Brunch Buffet: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Reservations highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Virginia's Rife with Charleston Style and Smashing Eats

Prior to the recent arrival of Virginia's on King, downtown Charleston (despite her historically seeped Southern roots) had just a scant pair or so of truly Southern style (soul kitchen's excluded) sit-down restaurants. Jestine's Kitchen and Hominy Grill, both fabulous in their own right, immediately come to mind since they're perceived as homey, are hugely popular with locals, and are delicious hot spots for moderately priced, exclusively Southern meals (especially lunch and breakfast).

Virginia's has all of that going on, too, but it's got more, and it's something this city has needed for a long time. It's distinctly Charleston. It oozes native, old school Charleston/Lowcountry, familial charm. Eating in the coolly sophisticated country-goes-cosmopolitan space (formerly the cluttered Uptown Diner) feels just like sitting down to a Sunday-best supper on a languid afternoon. The effect, combined with the belly-aching good food, is remarkably authentic and heartwarming.

Bringing Charleston to life with such spot-on authenticity is no small task. In lesser hands, dining in another restaurant with similar goals that were weakly executed, would risk coming off as a cliche, caricature of our lovely Holy City, her food history/culture, and her people. Ah, but we can thank the good people of Holy City Hospitality, the corporation that master-minded 39 Rue de Jean, COAST Bar and Grill and Good Food Catering, for getting it exactly right.

Of course, it doesn't hurt one iota that one of the partners of Holy City Hospitality, Michael Bennett, is also one of Virginia's six children, Virginia being the namesake and inspiration for the restaurant. The story (as presented on the restaurant's website) goes that Charleston natives Virginia and her husband, Warren J. Bennett , were firm believers in attending church on Sunday, followed by a traditional Sunday dinner. Like with other Southern families, the tradition included "good company, conversation, and the familiar dishes prepared from family recipes, collected and passed down through the years." As the family grew to include grandchildren and the business and responsibility of adulthood, Sunday dinners became difficult, so the clan commenced a Thursday family dinner tradition, which they continue to this day with a weekly noon "supper." They sup on Virginia's food, which stems from "a collection of family recipes, fresh ingredients, and Southern cooking traditions."

Virginia conspired with gifted executive chef Jason Murphy, sharing her kitchen prowess and family recipe file, to create one of the most compelling and authentic Lowcountry menus anywhere. Thank goodness they decided to share the love. I've eaten here twice and I haven't even come close to sampling a single lemon. Even the dishes I haven't tried looked and smelled delicious as they were carried past by the young, energetic and friendly staff. Fortunately, they have the good sense to pace things evenly, not too fast and not too slow. You just can't rush huge plates of fried chicken and mashed potatoes or brown sugar glazed ham and mac 'n cheese, but it's agonizing sitting around too long waiting for it to arrive.

Quieter and dressier than both Jestine's and Hominy, unlike these always-delicious dining hot spots, Virginia's would be equally appropriate for a business lunch, romantic dinner, or a dressed-up, down-home brunch. Soothing jazz music and high-backed booths provides a gentle buffer from background banter, while dim lighting from a gorgeous and eclectic array of old-world lanterns and breathtaking paintings by local artists cast a gentle glow against the old brick and paneled walls. The handiwork of local interior designer Emily Woollcott, the space has never looked better.

Petit four-sized squares of Virginia's broccoli cornbread kick-off every meal at no added cost. Their surprising moistness secret (cottage cheese) ensures a yielding, savory pound cake-like texture that is so appealing you'll be hard-pressed not to ask for more. And if you do, it will come with a smile.

The fried okra ($5.95) and deviled crab ($8.95) appetizers tasted like the south as she used to be and still is; that is, if you know the right place to find it. Unlike the ubiquitous frozen version, Virginia's fried okra came hand battered in a crunchy, tempura-like batter with a zippy, lemony house made aioli for dipping. The deviled crab is served in the shell and was packed with fresh, Lowcountry flavor and sweet shards of local crab. Speaking of crabs, you won't touch a better rendition of she-crab soup ($7.95) anywhere. The delicate, creamy broth is layered with gentle heat and milky sweetness of crab and bits of pink roe. Sherry, of course, runs throughout the soup's impeccable flavor veins.

Save room for the Southern Fried Chicken ($5.95), Chicken and Dumplings (small, $9.95, large, $13.95), and Meatloaf ($16.95). You'll be glad you did - at least until you step on the scale the next day. All three were absolutely beyond reproach.

The chicken, an absolute Southern bellwether, will sing sweetly to you, heart and soul. A buttermilk batter, enhanced with "Virgiania's Seasoning" was fried at perfect temperature, yielding extra crunch on the outside and a tenderness that ran down to the bone of both the breast and leg. It was served with buttery smashed potatoes and a stellar brown pan-gravy and sweet, peppery collard greens. The chicken and dumplings were dappled with gentility; boasting fat shards of slowly braised chicken swimming in a savory poaching broth, thin discs of tender carrots and celery, and pillowy puffs of dumplings. Two thick slices of meatloaf prepared with ground veal and chicken livers and liberally seasoned with sage and rosemary was a show-stopper. Just grand, it was served with a giant square of oven baked macaroni and oodles of cheddar cheese, butter beans slow-cooked with smoked pork and another smashing gravy, this one prepared with brown sugar.

You have more than sweet tea to choose from to wash it all down. Virginia's has a full bar - which reminded me a bit of Rue's - and a nicely balanced wine list. Desserts include the usual Southern goodness suspects like Pineapple Upside Down Cake ($6), but there is nothing common about this winner.

From every angle, Virginia's shines. Charleston's lucky to be graced with her fabulous restaurant self. You go girl!

Virginia's on King
412 King Street, downtown
(843) 735-5800
Dinner, Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.- 3 p.m.
Supper, Mon.-Sat., 3 -10 p.m.
Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Page's Big on Burgers, So-So on Southern

Southern cooking seems to be at the forefront of American culinary consciousness of late. Local boy wonders, Matt and Ted Lee, are the darlings of the national press in the wake of the publication of their award-winning cookbook, The Lee Bros. Southern Cook Book. Food Network maven, Paula Deen, is seemingly everywhere, mixing up ample quantities of butter and y'alls, and Gourmet magazine published an entire special collectors edition to Southern cooking this month.

It's no wonder that all eyes are turning to the satisfying soulfulness and timelessness of America's truest regional cooking when everything else, from global warming to a skittish economy, seems to be slowly disrobing a once unflappable American sense of strength, safety and the predictability of tradition. And, the high praises for good Southern cooking, from flaky biscuits to slow-cooked, succulent pork are deserved, indeed. Who doesn't love it once they've had the real deal? A great piece of fried chicken trumps foie gras any old day in my book.

Charleston restaurateurs are scurrying to satisfy the rebel-with-a-cause-yell (or scream!) for Southern foodstuff. Virginia's on King and Page's Okra Grill, both restaurants with traditional Southern menus, opened recently; Virginia's in December and Page's several months ago. Having heard mostly good things about Page's, I arrived for my first visit with a healthy, almost ravenous appetite for mouth-watering soul food in tow, and ordered accordingly. Fried chicken, hush puppies, fried okra, and other Southern goodies, all failed to meet my lofty expectations for Southern fare. But, the unforgettable silver lining in Page's sometimes murky cloud was its show-stopping burgers, welcome doses of friendly, greasy spoon Americana, and some of the best overall food and dining values around these parts.

The burgers sampled during bustling lunch service hours were plump, hand-formed patties of juicy, Angus goodness and are ground in-house daily. Topped with fat slices of sweet onion, fresh tomatoes and crunchy sheaths of iceberg lettuce, the burgers (topped with an array of cheese choices, including a pungent, house-made pimento) , rival nearby Poe's, but the hard, skinny fries need a little love, or at least a little girth, for me to tip my hat their way.

Dinner, in the large, comfortable space (formerly Billy's Back Home restaurant) peppered with attractively framed antique phone books hung on pale grey bead board walls, was a quieter, less trafficked affair, and a markedly less impressive one. The value (most of the heftily portioned entrees hover between $6-$10) was still there, but the excellent service and food quality experienced at lunch, got into treacherous waters at times. To begin with, our delightfully friendly server struggled to understand our questions about the menu and thus, we struggled to understand her answers about specials, wine, and suggestions.

This was not horrible, but it was aggravating, especially since it continued in varying forms throughout the evening. Regardless, service was speedy and there were some high notes in the Southern dishes that caught the notice of Southern Living and the Food Network when Page's young chef was firing up her wares at Serena's Kitchen at Boone Hall Plantation. These included a fabulous sweet potato puree that tasted like it got added sweetness from roasted fresh apple and a kiss of cinnamon. Though served nearly cold, it, like the sweet, white gravy served over chunky wedges of pan-fried grits in the Signature Shrimp and Grits ($8.99) truly spoke to old-style, stellar Southern cooking. But, as occurred more often than it should have, perfection was marred with carelessness. In this case, the definitely local shrimp were over-cooked and tough. This was an easily avoidable pitfall that I'm hopeful Page's will sidestep in the future.

The menu describes the fried chicken on the blue plate (dark meat, $6.50, white meat, $6.99) as "brined and pressure-fried" and the to-the-bone, light salt flavoring and golden-colored, crisp crust on the breast meat I sampled spoke to the truth in this statement. But, the dried, crumbly flesh revealed that it spent way too long under a heat lamp or in a warming oven. Slightly chunky mashed potatoes served with a brown, savory gravy and a side of slow-cooked, peppery/sweet collards, dressed the chicken up nicely. A leathery, dry country fried steak ($7.5O) got some reprieve with yet another fine gravy, this one a white pepper gravy that was lip-smacking good, and a pert, mayonnaise-rich side of blue cheese cole slaw.

I'm going to spare you detailed descriptions of Page's biscuits, corn bread and fried okra, except to say that none tasted any more homemade than something that comes out of a box or a frozen bag. Fortunately, Southern sweetness sneaked stealthily upon us with the delivery of a phenomenal, mousseline-based banana pudding and coconut pie prepared with a corn-starch thickened custard and plenty of fresh-tasting coconut shavings. Alas, just when I thought I'd hit the homemade high notes at Page's, I bit into a fat bite of medicinal-tasting canned whipped cream.

Little things like these added up to a lot of negatives towards my Page's experiences, but there is no taking away that the restaurant dishes up plenty of good, home style food with the kind of friendly service and old-fashioned prices that really do bring home the sense of Southern goodness most of us know and love. I just wish Page's could find a way to make their food as consistently and with as much love and greatness as most truly Southern kitchens (whether born in restaurants or home kitchens) have done for centuries. For now, Page's burgers alone are enough to warrant many return visits.

Page's Okra Grill
794 Coleman Boulevard, Mount Pleasant
(843) 881-3333

Breakfast: Mon.-Fri., 6 - 11 a.m., Sat., 6 a.m.-noon, Sun., 8 a.m.-1 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Sat., noon-3 p.m.
Dinner: Mon.-Sat., 5 - 8:30 p.m.
Take out available.

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.