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

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.