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.

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.