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.