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

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.