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29 September 2011

Tonight's Episode: I thought you meant we were eating Gorillas

         One question I hear all the time is "What the #$%! is a Guerrilla Cuisine Dinner?" Okay, the only time I have heard that was when I told The Girl I spent $120 on tickets to go to one. Well, I had a really tough time explaining it. I showed her the video from their website (http://www.guerrillacuisine.com/). I explained the concept - that it is an artistic, culinary, and musical social experiment of unique dining experiences with different venues, different chefs, and menus that are never the same. I also stressed the Chef's choice charity aspect of the night. The biggest problem I had with explaining what GC dinners are, is that I really didn't have a clue.
       Let me summarize what I knew about the dinner we were going to have.  Jeremy Holst of Anson would be the chef. It would happen somewhere on a Sunday evening. jimihatt runs the show, and he has a beard. That is it. I received an email the day before the dinner to ask about food allergies, and another a few hours before the dinner with the address. This is Trust-Me dining to the extreme.
      The location turned out to be a space I have wanted to get into for YEARS! 141 East Bay Street, the old Farmer's and Merchant's Bank (The building that looks like a mosque). For those of you F&B Veterans who used to squeeze into Charlie's Little Bar, this is the building you went in the fire door at the back of in order to get drunk. The space is stunning. Two story ceilings, Moroccan Revival detail work. One long table down the center. The setting feels like a secret meeting of the Illuminati in a Dan Brown novel. Freakin' awesome!

 

       Before the dinner, our host jimihatt (only person you'll ever meet with that spelling) introduced our chef and informed us of the mantra of the evening; tonight we are the coolest people in Charleston. When you first hear that it seems absurd. Then it begins to sink in. You and the 15 or so people around you are dining in a building that no one else uses, having a menu no one else gets to eat, at a restaurant that will only exist for one night. Underground supper club MUST equal cool!

     The social aspect of a Guerrilla Cuisine dinner is also very unique. The people around you, mostly strangers, become equal parts friend-support group-peer pressure. The menu, which you first see when you sit down, can contain dishes you would never imagine eating. Having the support and friendship of these new friends is crucial to get through the meal. With this being a BYOB event, the free-flowing alcohol fuels a fun environment.

     On to the menu! First course: Tartar of Ahi Tuna, sesame cornet, uni, Peruvian pink salt, petite wasabi. This is a Nutty Buddy for adults. The uni (sea urchin) provides a beautiful salty brine to some of the cleanest tuna I have ever had. The cornet acts as a great vessel for this adult snow-cone. The wasabi cream at the base of the cone is delightful without being overpowering. The girl actually enjoyed it very much, other than the wasabi. I gladly finished that off for her.



    Second course gave her even more trepidation, being the non-fish eater that she is. Chef Holst's take on Lox & Bagels: wild king salmon, cream cheese gelato, bagel chips, capers, Mosto olive oil. Before I get into the dish, let me tell you about the process of catching the salmon. This is wild dip net caught fish. That means Native Americans on the Columbia river use techniques thousands of years old to procure these fish. Sustainable and pretty damn awesome! The dish itself was stunning. The bagel chip makes a great crisp to pile on fish and gelato. The salmon is pleasantly salted, and mixed with the decedent cream cheese gelato, it is about as wonderful a dish as anything I have ever had. The fact that The Girl cleaned her plate is testimony to that fact, though she would have liked more gelato.

  The third course was again something The Girl wasn't looking forward to, but I was dying to try. Beetssssssssss (in many forms). This included roasted, raw, powdered, pickled, juiced, and cotton candy forms of beets, with aged goat cheese and citrus. Unlike the first two dishes, The Girl couldn't be convinced she liked beets. I gladly cleaned her plate and mine. The cotton candy was whimsical and fun. The goat cheese paired wonderfully with all the different beets. If this ever goes on the menu at Anson, I'm  all over it!

   The fourth course is the first of the two most intimidating dishes for those around me: Crispy Florida Frog Legs, tempura, sushi rice "risotto", sake, beech mushroom, oyster sauce, garlic chives. I love how Chef Holst continues to play with his food, in a fun way. This is a take on Chinese street food, with the tempura frog legs tasting like a sweet and sour chicken, and the risotto having the look of cheap fried rice, while tasting like a dream cooked in sake. The Girl could have easily eaten the risotto all night long.

    The fifth course was the one I was most anticipating, though I think it was the least successful of the night. A play on McDonald's mystery meat chicken nuggets, the dish featured sweetbreads, sweet n' sour, homemade tater tots, and green tomato ketchup. The two sauces were beautiful and well balanced. The tots were weirdly soft and somewhat off-putting. The sweetbreads, while imitating nuggets perfectly, fell a little flat. Salt would have helped, but I think my biggest complaint is the masking of the sweetbread flavor. Not a horrible dish, but compared to everything else it was a little blah.

For an intermezzo, chef provided us with a champagne, mint, and strawberry popsicle. This is a great palate cleanser, though I would have preferred basil to mint. The fun factor is through the roof with this tasty treat.

   Sixth course comes, and the table goes quit for a moment. THIS. LOOKS. STUNNING. Whole Hog, Kurabuda pork "short rib", hash, skillet fried cornbread, vinegar slaw, and crispy rinds. The hash contains everything from the trotters to the head meat, and beats the snout off of any hash I have ever had. The flavor of the short rib is smoky-sweet, and can stand up to any BBQ I have ever had. The rinds are nothing more than pork-flavored popcorn, which is the best popcorn ever. The slaw is where this dish hits a speed bump. While I love the heat in the vinegar, by piling it on top of the dish, it soaks into the hash and cornbread, making it way too hot for The Girl. Wait, that means I get to eat more. SCORE!


   The dessert is the scary dish for me. PB&J. I hate peanut butter. This is a PB&J float in a martini glass with peanut butter ice cream, carbonated grape soda, grape Pop Rocks, powdered peanut butter. The ice cream has a very mild taste, and combined with the Pop Rocks is a fun and inviting dish. I have to take my bite and push the glass away from me to avoid the sent of PB, but I actually enjoyed eating it. The PB powder rim on the glass is again a mild flavor, and it has a similar texture to the Pop Rocks. Fun and tasty dessert.
   The booze is gone, dinner is done. Friends have been made. Chef Holst has taken his bow. jimihatt repeats his mantra; tonight we are the coolest people in Charleston. Truth is, he is right. For this one night we had a dining experience no one else ever has, or ever will again. 80 Guerrilla Cuisine dinners had happened before this one, each different than the rest, and every single one featuring the coolest people in town. We can't wait to be this cool again.

The Scores (Remember, every single dinner will be different)
Ambiance: 5/5
Food: 8/10
Service: 5/5
Value: 4/5
Overall: 22 out of 25, the single most fun I have ever had at a single dinner.

Anson on Urbanspoon

26 September 2011

The First Ever Charleston Food Blogger Restaurant Awards

            The Charleston Food Blogger Awards is the brain child of one of Charleston's most prolific bloggers, Scott of Charleston Food Bloggers (http://www.charlestonfoodbloggers.com/). The idea is to give an alternate take on the top restaurants in town. Bringing together several of Charleston's best food bloggers to vote on their favorites in various categories and regions. The regions are divided into Downtown (Peninsular Charleston), West of the Ashley (James and John's Island, Folly Beach, West Ashley), East of the Cooper (Mt Pleasant, Daniel Island, IOP, Sullivan's Island) and the North Area (North Charleston, Goose Creek, Summerville).
            In addition to Foodmancing the Girl and Charleston Food Bloggers, the voters are Foodie Fix(http://www.foodbuzz.com/foodies/us/south_carolina/charleston/profile/foodiefix) Hungry Meets Healthy (http://www.hungrymeetshealthy.com/) and Red Head Recipes (http://redheadrecipes.com/?p=13476). This assembled brain trust of foodie fanaticism settled down to the arduous task of deciding on the best of the best in Charleston dining.
           Before I get into the awards themselves, I would like to give a special thanks to Cork Bistro in North Charleston. In addition to providing a great location for the event, they also put together a beautiful three course menu for us. Your hospitality and wonderful food were greatly appreciated! I would also like to thank our special guests, singer-songwriter Jeremy Currant (http://www.jeremycurrent.com/), and Chasity and her husband from the great style blog Look, Linger, Love (http://looklingerlove.blogspot.com/)


For the first set of awards, we start off with some individual picks of the contributing Bloggers:

Best wine bar and small plates: (From Foodie Fix)
Bin 152 is a great intimate spot for a glass of wine and a little charcuterie. A fun place to experiment with new wines and interesting pairings.

Best place to get "pre" engaged: (From Foodmancing the Girl)
 Il Cortile Del Re has long been the most romantic restaurant in Charleston, and the type of place a girl might jump to the conclusion you are about to ask her to marry you.

Best Brunch Spots: (From Red Head Recipes)
Downtown- Hominy Grill
West of the Ashley- There Little Birds Cafe
East of the Cooper- Crave
The North Area- Alex's Restaurant

Best way to order frozen yogurt: (From Hungry Meets Healthy)
Go to Menchies in Mount Pleasant and serve cake batter yogurt and peanut butter yogurt in a one-to-one ratio. Then add an equal portion of Heath toppings

Best things to happen in Charleston food scene over the past 5 years: (From Charleston Food Bloggers)
1)The Rise of Sean Brock
2)The Food Truck Federation

Best Burger: (From Foodie Fix)
The Chorizo Burger at Fuel is amazing and spicy. The burger taken to a new level of flavor

Most worn out concept: (From Foodmancing the Girl)
Sports Bars. Really. You want to open another sports bar? Really?

Best Dessert: (From Red Head Recipes)
Bread Pudding at Poogan's Porch

Now.....on to the awards as voted upon by us, your bloggers:

Best Local Farm:
Ambrose (http://www.stonofarmmarket.com/)

Best Bar:
Downtown- Closed for Business (http://www.closed4business.com/)
West of the Ashley- Smoky Oak Taproom (http://smokyoak.com/)
East of the Cooper- Red's Ice House (http://www.redsicehouse.com/)
The North Area- Madra Rua (http://madraruapub.com/)

Best Atmosphere:
Downtown- Cypress (http://cypressrestaurant.com/)
West of the Ashley- Fat Hen (http://www.thefathen.com/)
East of the Cooper: Poe's Tavern (http://www.poestavern.com/)
The North Area: Cork Bistro (http://www.corkbistro.com/)

Best Hole in the Wall Food:
Downtown- Moe's Crosstown (http://moestaverns.com/)
West of the Ashley- Bowen's Island (http://www.bowensislandrestaurant.com/)
East of the Cooper- La Pizzeria (http://www.lapizzeriamtp.com/)
The North Area- Havana Cafe (http://www.havanacafe.comcastbiz.net/)

Best Cheap Eats:
Downtown- Taco Boy (http://www.tacoboy.net/)
West of the Ashley- Three Little Birds Cafe (http://threelittlebirdscafe.com/)
East of the Cooper- Jack's Cosmic Dogs (http://www.jackscosmicdogs.com/)
The North Area- EVO Pizza (http://evopizza.com/)

Best Local Chain:
The Mustard Seed (http://www.dinewithsal.com/mustard)

Best New Restaurant:
Downtown- Husk (http://huskrestaurant.com/)
West of the Ashley- Roadside Kitchen (http://roadsidekitchens.com/)
East of the Cooper- Eurasia (http://eurasiasc.com/)
The North Area- Zocalo

Best Food, Non-Restaurant:
Downtown- Paolo's Gelato (http://www.paolosgelato.com/)
West of the Ashley- Hello, My Name is BBQ (https://www.facebook.com/pages/HELLO-my-name-is-BBQ/129130557123680)
East of the Cooper- Whole Foods
The North Area- Pho #1 (http://www.hnlasianmarket.com/)

Best Food, International:
Downtown- Basil (http://eatatbasil.com/)
West of the Ashley- Taste of India (http://www.tasteofindiacharleston.com/)
East of the Cooper: Ali Baba's (http://www.alibabacharleston.com/)
The North Area- Zocalo

Best Food, American:
Downtown- McCrady's (http://www.mccradysrestaurant.com/)
West of the Ashley- The Glass Onion (http://www.ilovetheglassonion.com/)
East of the Cooper- Eurasia
The North Area- Cork Bistro

       There you have it folks. These are the 2011 Charleston Food Bloggers Restaurant Award winners. Again, I would like to thank Scott from Charleston Food Bloggers for organizing this event. I would also like to thank Foodie Fix, Hungry Meets Healthy, and Read Head Recipes as fellow voters. Cork Bistro, winner of two awards, thank you for the wonderful job hosting us.







18 September 2011

Tonight's Episode: All In at Circa 1886

            Next to Oak, the fine dining restaurant I've spent the most time at in the last year or so, is Circa 1886. Located in the original carriage house of the historic Wentworth Mansion, Circa is a restaurant that exudes gilded-age charm. The most striking feature of the space are the arched booths along the wall, deeply recessed and mirroring the old carriage doors. At times the space can feel a little too stuffy and old-fashioned, but it is generally warm and inviting. With its location off the main tourist haunts, Circa tends to be a more sedate dining experience than many of Charleston's fine dining joints.
        In my trips to Circa over the years, I have seen a marked change and growth in Chef Marc Collins's cuisine. Early on, many of his dishes felt stuffy and over-done. Often it felt like he was cooking to match the venue. Over time, though, he seems to have really shown joy and comfort in the juxtaposition of the Victorian space with nouveau cuisine.  The growth and maturation of the cuisine has helped push Circa into a more prominent place in Charleston's food scene.
       To start the meal, Chef Collins sent out an amuse of cauliflower soup with truffle oil. Creamy and balanced and exactly the kind of soup The Girl can drink down by the gallon. When it gets colder, I might have to see if we can pick up a few pints to go. The rest of the dinner will be 3 courses for $30, the only menu Circa offers during Restaurant Week (which they carry over for an extra week).
      For my appetizer, I went with the Poached Garlic & Wild Mushroom Custard with carrot puree, celery espuma, banyuls emulsion, and truffle powder. This is a fun and mildly rich dish. The custard itself is creamy and gives a wonderful rice flavor. Paired with the celery espuma (a type of whipped foam formed from stock) and the carrot puree you get a wonderful flavor reminiscent of a mirepoix based stew.
    The Girl, surprisingly, went with the Spicy Grilled Shrimp with fried green tomato, fennel infused chowchow, and tomato coulis. The shrimp turned out to only be mildly spiced, which allows the shrimp the chance to shine through. The tomato coulis has a flavor that is very similar to a vodka marinara, with a nice mild acidity. The Girl doesn't care much for any chowchow, but I found it to be pleasant and finished it off for her. The stumbling point is the fried green tomato. While the seasoning was fantastic, it was obviously cooked at the wrong temperature. The breading slid right off and was on the mushy side.
    Before we get to the entrees, a gentleman walks into the restaurant with his wife. He is wearing a polo shirt, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. Don't be this guy. I'm out for a nice meal, got my baby doll with me, and in you walk looking like you're Jeremy Piven in PCU. Someone needs to check out The Art of Manliness (http://artofmanliness.com/).
    On to the entrees. The Girl, red meat carnivore that she is, picks the Red Maple Farms Grassfed Beef Tenderloin with Anson Mill's grits, mushroom sausage, poached egg, arugula, and maple whiskey reduction. This take on steak & eggs hits on all cylinders. The perfectly poached eggs, laid across the grits, mix for a creamy side dish. The tenderloin is a perfect mid-rare, well seasoned, and buttery good. The two stars of the dish, however, are the mushroom sausage and maple whiskey reduction. The faux sausage tastes almost identical to a British black pudding, with a proper amount of caramelization. The maple whiskey pan sauce is thick, only mildly sweet, smoky, and the kind of sauce that would make an Applebee's steak taste good. Kudos!

     I went lighter with my entree, deciding on the Blackened Loup de Mer, with watermelon & feta, baby spinach, caramelized onion puree, quinoa, and avocado puree. The loup de mer (a fancy way of saying sea bass), was delicate and meaty. The Girl actually found it to be a tasty piece of fish. We are officially up to three types of fish she enjoys. The avocado puree gives a nice creaminess and point of contrast. The classic pairing of watermelon and feta bring a brightness that elevates the flavor of the fish.
   The Girl, chocoholic that she is, goes with the El Ray Chocolate Panna Cotta with passion fruit syrup as her dessert. Simple and elegant, the chocolate pairs nicely with the passion fruit. This is a very large dessert, though, maybe a little too much for just one person. I stick with my go to dessert, and choose the Pistachio Creme Brûlée. The pistachio flavor pairs wonderfully with the brûlée, though I would have preferred it a little creamier in the custard. All in all, a wonderful way to finish a well-crafted dinner.

    After dinner, we were lucky enough to have Chef Collins make an appearance. After promising to make sure the issue with the fried green tomato was fixed (and his tweet of 20 minutes later said that was done), we had a nice conversation about Restaurant Week. One thing that impressed me is how all in he is with his Restaurant Week menu. Unlike many restaurants, Circa ditches it's normal menu for a purely Restaurant Week offering. Chef Collins avoids the trap of cooking down to those who come in for this less expensive menu, instead delivering a meal that is full of poise and elegance. Balance and freshness seem to be themes that run throughout the menu.
    Our dinners at Circa 1886 have allowed us the unique perspective of watching a talented chef grow. While Chef Collins isn't the most avant-garde chef in Charleston (that award goes the Sean Brock), nor the most high profile (see previous parenthesis), his balance of modern technique and classic preparations are sometimes more successful due to their approachability. I think The Girl will let me bring her back.

The Scores
Ambiance: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Food: 9/10
Value: 5/5 (Note: This is based PURELY on Restaurant week. Normal menu not this cheap!)
Overall: 23 out of 25 Modern techniques and fresh ingredients serve a capable chef well.
   

14 September 2011

Tonight's Episode: Cartoon sized pork and a side of AWESOME

           There is a restaurant you love. I mean LOVE. You love it so much that you never go there. Sounds stupid, but you know it's true. There is one restaurant that you have had incredible meals at, yet its been a year or two since you've been there. I, sadly, have two of those. The first one is The Charleston Grill at the Charleston Place Hotel.
         The Charleston Grill oozes casual elegance. Dark wood, high ceilings, and low lights set the scene for dinner at one of the most laid-back formal dining experiences you will ever have. A live jazz trio adds to the ambiance with renditions of the standards, everything from Miles to Mingus. If you want an extra level of elegance and comfort, request one of the booths. The open front layout gives it almost a cafe feel.
            The menu for Restaurant Week menu has a couple of strong contenders, but Chef Michelle Weaver's classic menu has a lot of punch. Divided into four styles, the wait staff encourages you to mix and match. Pure clean dishes, lush French preparations, updated Southern classics, and Cosmopolitan dishes with worldly influences serve to tempt you. We agonized over the menu before deciding. After handing over the menus we quickly received a choice of bread and an amuse. The amuse for the evening was a clean and crisp spicy tuna tartare served on a fresh cucumber slice. A beautiful one bite start.
         The Girl decided on what, in her own words, may be a perfect meal. Well, perfect for her anyway. This meal began with the Charleston Grill Crab Cake ($17) with creek shrimp and a lime tomato dill vinaigrette. This is a single jumbo crab cake served with heirloom tomatoes as a garnish. Unlike most "crab cakes" in Charleston, this one delivers the goods. As the girl sunk her fork into it, a lump of crab meat the size of my thumb broke off. The entire cake was like this, all thriller no filler. The tomato vinaigrette adds a sweet acidity that takes this dish to the next level. I'm sorry Maryland, this may be the best crab cake I have ever tasted!
     For my starter, I settled in on a classic, Beef Carpaccio ($15) with grilled mushrooms, arugula salad, and cheese straws. This is a straightforward dish, keeping with the Pure concept. The beef is paper thin and matches well with the arugula and shaved parmesan cheese. The cheese straw has a fun flavor and adds a great crunch element to the dish. If you are a carpaccio fan, this delivers.
     The entree course really gave me no trouble. When I see Pork and Beans ($29) on this kind of menu, I don't even need to read about the braised pork shank, red peas, white beans, collards and cornbread to know I'm ordering. Boy was I surprised when our waiter (One of the Fantastic Five Andrews) drops off a bowl with Hogzilla's pork shank. I kid you not, this thing could be used to bludgeon a Viking to death. Despite the size of the shank, it was fork tender and about as tasty as pork gets. The best part, it actually tasted like pork. One of my big complaints about American pigs is they don't taste like swine due to the nature of modern pig farming. This dish slaps you up side the head with the porkiness. The bean, pea, and collard mixture in the bowl with the thick dripping jus provides great moisture and would have made a great dish in and of itself. My only critique would be the bowl.  The massive shank settled into the steep sided bowl makes putting your knife down a little tricky.
      The Girl went a different route for her entree. She settled in on a side item. Yes, a side item. The Pimento Cheese Grits ($10) with applewood smoked bacon and crab. As my long time readers know, The Girl has a sick sad obsession with pimento cheese. I don't get it, but if it makes her happy, then I'm happy. This side turns out to be around 5 ounces of baked grits. To me, the grits almost taste like puff rice, and the light edge of spice is a wonderful touch. The crab meat is succulent and sweet, a perfect compliment to the cheese. While this may not be my cup of tea, The Girl happily tells me this is her new feeling yucky dish. Great. Now every time she has a cold we have to go to The Charleston Grill. Wait. That's a damn good thing. I wonder if it would be unethical to slip flu virus into her morning coffee?
       After a quick pre-dessert of ----------------(yea, not that memorable but it was free), we get to the good stuff. After the rich and heavy (and massive) pork shank, I went with the light Watermelon Soup ($8) with feta cream, parsley, and mint. This palate cleansing dish of chilled soup is given a delightful savory spin with the feta cream. My favorite part of the dish, though, was the parsley. Parsley and basil are two herbs I wish were in more desserts. They give an earthy bright flavor that makes for a far more memorable dish.
       The Girl's choice in dessert was a foregone conclusion, Graham Cracker Molten Cake ($11) with chocolate ganache, brown butter marshmallow, and smoked almond ice cream. This turns out to be a fairly large dessert. I would actually recommend sharing the plate. This very modern take on s'mores is decedent, rich, and according to The Girl the kind of dish to roll your eyes up into your head. I also recommend you order a carafe of French Pressed coffee to help cut through this super rich dessert.
      Sitting back, enjoying our coffee (decaf, I promise), it is hard not to undo my belt and and enjoy the afterglow of a truly well-crafted meal. Why is it that I don't dine here more often? I have yet to have any complaints on my trips to this powerhouse of a restaurant. The menu is full of dishes I would love to try. The way The Girl snuggles against me after her first dinner here says all I need to know. I must do better at fitting The Charleston Grill into my schedule.

The Scores:
Ambiance: 5/5
Service: 5/5
Food: 10/10
Value: 3/5
Overall: 23 out of 25, One of the most accomplished restaurants around continues to prove it's chops. Charleston Grill on Urbanspoon

13 September 2011

Tonight's Episode: Simple, Modern, and Unexpected

           Okay, I totally stole the title to the post from Tristan's own website. It's not my fault they branded themselves so well. Tristan is such a vibrant, modern restaurant. Situated in the French Quarter Inn, and convenient to the Market, it is no wonder tourists love Tristan. Tasting the food shows why it is no wonder the locals love Tristan.
          First things first, Tristan is a beautiful restaurant. Post modern design and clean lines dominate the space. The open kitchen faces directly onto the dining space, with one of the more interesting bars in the city above and behind the seating area. I only have two complaints. One would be the car headlights shining directly into one side of the restaurant as they pull into the valet stand outside. The other would be the ADD Muzak. The music jumps every genre and age. The inconsistent, annoying, and at times inappropriate music has no place in a restaurant of this quality and price.
           While we came in for Restaurant Week, and the pressed pork belly was calling my name, we both ended up ordering from the regular dinner menu. Before I get into that, I would like to talk a little about the menu. For restaurant week they have a 3 course for $30 menu, with $15 for wine parings. This is, of course, a limited time menu. For their regular menu they have an a la carte section, and a 5 or 7 course Chef's Tasting Menu. The 5 course is $55, plus $25 for wine pairings. The 7 course will run you $75 plus $35 for wine pairings.
         To start the dinner, the chef sent out a wonderful amuse of a lemon gel. As to what else was involved in this little dish, I couldn't tell you. The description rolled right over my head. All I know is that it was tangy, tart, and tasty.
          For an appetizer, The Girl chose the Sweetcorn Soup ($7) with blue crab, aleppo chili, and mace. This creamy bisque-like soup delivers on almost every front. Rich and lovely, but would have been better if it had been served at a warmer temperature. That being said, I think The Girl would have been happy to have another bowl.
         My appetizer is the reason I switched from the Restaurant Week Menu. I have an unhealthy obsession with sweetbreads. If I ever end up on death row, my final meal will be sweetbreads and bone marrow. Tristan's Crispy Veal Sweetbreads ($11) with hay-smoked potato puree, salt & vinegar spinach, and mustard-coffee jus may be the best crispy sweetbreads I have ever tasted. The potato puree is creamy, smooth and about as tasty as any version of mashed potatoes I have ever had. The spinach was bright, vibrant, and damn I wish I had more of it. They were so good that even that anti-spinach maven The Girl found them tasty. The star, of course, were the sweetbreads. The breading had a mild seasoning that compliments the creamy yet firm meat. The crust was just crispy enough that you could mop up the puree and not worry about it becoming a soggy mess. These sweetbreads are so tender and flavorful that I am at a loss of words to describe them. They did give me an idea, though. Crispy sweetbread breakfast biscuit. You'll never order another chicken biscuit.
       After the appetizer came a tasty intermezzo of a red grape sorbet. As a palate cleanser, I could think of nothing better. Bright and tannin rich, this cool little dollop tastes exactly like a frozen red grape.
       For an entree, The Girl stuck to the appetizer menu and chose the She-Crab Ravioli ($12) with Jonah crab meat, sweet onion puree, and pickled shallots. This is a fairly small dish for the price, but is loaded with flavor. The sweet isn't overpowering, and the meat is beautiful. The only complaint would be the ravioli itself is a little toothy and would have been better served with a more tender pasta
     For my entree, I went with the New England Scallops in Two Preparations ($28) with pearl pasta, mussels, and a Calabrese broccoli butter. The first preparation of the scallops is a traditional sear. These massive diver scallops have the perfect caramelization on the faces, while the center remains natural and tasty. I would have liked perhaps a little smoked salt on top to round out the flavor, however. The second preparation involved whipping the scallop into a mousse, and then poaching it into a dumpling. This gives them a mozzarella texture and an egg custard-like flavor. I'm glad they chose to pair two of each preparation, as the dumplings could get too sweet fast. I don't want to sound too critical. This is an absolutely wonderful dish that I would order again.

      The Girl hasn't been feeling great, so she skipped dessert. I decided on the Chocolate Pot de Creme ($8) with cherry sherbet, almond tuile, and tangerine argumato. I'm glad that The Girl didn't order this, since she is a chocolate purist. For me, this dessert is money. The chocolate is finished with fleur de sel and has a very rich, complex flavor. The almond tuile gives a fantastic crisp element and adds much needed texture. The cherry sherbet is mirrored by a cherry-almond salad. What a fantastic dessert!
       Having already purchased tickets to next year's BB&T Wine+Food Festival's Perfectly Paired Dinner at Tristan, I was overjoyed to see how damn good it was. The fear I have going to a restaurant that embraces the more modern style of cooking is that they sometimes let technique and gimmicks get in the way of what matters: the taste. Tristan avoids that trap with a deft hand and a firm grasp of when to let the ingredients speak for themselves. I think The Girl will even let me take her back.

The Scores:
Ambiance: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Food: 9/10
Value: 3/5
Overall: 20 out of 25 A great modern restaurant that delivers the goods without the gimmicks



Tristan on Urbanspoon

11 September 2011

Tonight's Episode: The Devil is in the Details

           Where did you go when you really wanted to impress a girl in high school? I'm talking about throw on a tie and jacket impress her? For me, it was Magnolia's. The Uptown/Down South class always made it a sure hit. When you wanted a great night, Magnolia's always came through. Took The Girl there tonight, and we had the same one-word thought: dated.
          The main room, occupying the right side of the restaurant, has beautiful wood floors but oddly modern black pillars with black ironwork. The paintings spaced around the wall are impressionistic floral scenes familiar to any doctor's office. The area where we were seated, behind the bar area, was even worse. Instead of the rich wood floors, we had awful white tile. The far wall is a long mirror, with more of the bad art. The light fixtures are equally dated, and give the entire space an '80s upscale feel. Paying attention to the details, like the dirty and paint chipped baseboards or the dirty napkin under my chair, and you start to get the feeling that someone just doesn't care enough to make sure things are as they should be.  Details will be the theme of the night.
          Both The Girl and I choose the 3 for $30 Restaurant Week menu. For her appetizer, she chose the Butternut Squash Bisque with spiced creme fraîche. The texture was velvety smooth, and the taste was wonderfully sweet but very one note. The size of the serving and the sweetness of the bisque call for something else added, perhaps toasted pumpkin or sesame seeds. For my app, I choose the Apple and Walnut Salad with radicchio, arugula, and a port wine vinaigrette. Again, just missing something. I would have loved a few slices of brie to offset the bitter radicchio and sharp Granny Smith apple. The vinaigrette was beautiful, though. The server, again not focusing on details, served the apps to the wrong person. I wouldn't have mentioned it except she went on to do the same thing with the entrees.
           For her entree, The Girl settled in on the Grilled Sirloin Steak with caramelized cauliflower, smoked bacon, roasted red bliss potatoes, and a creole mustard cream. The steak was cooked perfectly, the cauliflower-bacon mixture was surprisingly tasty, and the sauce was flavorful. The detail missed on this dish was seasoning. Though the steak was perfectly cooked, there was no seasoning. The Girl, who isn't a fan of aggressive seasoning, called it bland. She even left steak on the plate, bored with the flavor.
     
        For myself, I went with the Smoked Pork Loin with hand cut fries, Brussels sprouts, and cheddar cheese with a malt vinegar remoulade, and a burnt onion chutney. The pork was beautiful, and so was the chutney and remoulade. It was hard to eat, however, with the knife provided. I had to ask for a new knife. The Brussels sprouts were not bad, just forgettable. The hand cut fries were very tasty, but they were just a soggy, limp, undercooked mess piled on top. There are defiantly some great elements to this dish, just not well executed.
        For dessert, I went with the chocolate chess pie with caramel and fresh whipped cream. This turned out to be a tasty chocolate brownie in a pie crust, with a nice caramel. Nothing exciting, but tasty. The Girl went with the Lemon Cream Cheesecake, with a strawberry sauce. The cheesecake had a perfect texture, and the lemon mixed with the strawberry sauce was D-LISH. The problem comes in that the slice was half cheesecake, half crust. I am not kidding, half of the slice was crust. When The Girl mentioned this to the waitress, she stated that the slices are very inconsistent, and it seems to depend on who makes it. Again, details. It shouldn't be common knowledge that a dessert is poorly made.

           Walking out of Magnolia's I had a crushing sense of disappointment. This was one of the great restaurants of my youth. Now, it seems content with grabbing tourists and cruise ship passengers and ignoring the details. Maybe the issues with our meal were due to it being the Restaurant Week menu, but this is supposed to be a way for you to find new guests and bring back those who haven't been in a while. The details matter. It really hurts me to write this about what was such a wonderful fixture in Charleston's culinary scene for so long. Maybe that is the problem, though. Maybe it is time for Magnolia's to be retired, or at least reimagined. All I know is that if I had brought The Girl here on a date night before our wedding, this blog might have been Foodmancing My Self.

The Scores:
Ambiance: 1/5
Service: 3/5
Food: 5/10
Value: 2/5
Overall: 11 out of 25, A restaurant a decade past its prime, and no signs of making a comeback Magnolias on Urbanspoon

Tonight's Episode: High Times and Short Rib Dreams

           High steppin' Lowcountry living is what High Cotton promises. The surroundings definitely deliver. With live jazz spilling out from the bar into the classic Charleston dinning room, the mood is quickly set. The rich dark woods, oversized palm-frond fans, and antique brickwork reinforce the casual elegance of the restaurant. The chef is already behind the 8-ball, having to live up to such a beautiful space.
          To get ourselves even more in the mood, we quickly select our wines. For The Girl, who is in search of a very light wine, I select the Stella Pinot Grigio ($7). This mild white has a rich floral nose, with mild citrus and acidity, and a quick, clean finish. For myself, I went with the Paso Creek Cabernet ($9). This California red features a rich full body and tastes of cherry, jam, tobacco, and espresso. Very well balanced, and a wonderful finish.

         With our late (9:45) dinner reservation, The Girl wasn't as hungry as usual, so we decided to split the appetizer from the 3 for $30 Restaurant week menu. We went with the Crispy Calamari with creole rémoulade and grilled lemon. Nothing exciting here, just rings of spot-on fried calamari. The rémoulade was very nice, but too little given the size of the rings. Overall a very tasty, if unoriginal, starter.
       For entrées, I stuck with the Restaurant Week menu and went with the Duo of Beef. This plate consisted of braised short rib, carved tri-tip, chanterelle mushrooms, and an artichoke purée. The mushroom-purée combo form a delightfully rich side dish, and a solid counterpoint to the beef. The tri-tip was dead on mid-rare and buttery in texture. The star of the dish, however, was the braised short rib. This rib wasn't fork tender. It was Japanese steak house miso soup spoon tender. The smoky richness is offset by a slightly sweet, almost molasses flavor. What a winner!

         The Girl went to the classic menu for Seared Scallops and Folly River Clams ($25) served with chorizo, cipollini onions, fingerling potatoes, and lemon saffron broth. If you have been an avid follower of this blog you will have realized by now that The Girl LOVES scallops. These scallops are perfectly prepared, seared just enough to give that nice outer texture while preserving the beauty of the natural raw flavor. The clams are plump and slightly briny, while picking up the lemon quite clearly. While I personally love the combination of the chorizo, scallops, and saffron, The Girl found it a little overwhelming. She gives it a B, and wouldn't order it again due to the bold flavors. She, and I, agree that if you enjoy your scallops with aggressive flavor this is a solid dish. If you are like The Girl, and prefer a lighter treatment, maybe you should skip it. (I personally give the dish a solid A-.)


       For dessert The Girl steals my Créme Fraîche Cheesecake, with graham cracker crust and brandied cherries. This is a mild cheesecake without the richness normally associated with cheesecake. The brandied cherries give most of the sweetness, with a rich dark flavor. The graham cracker crust was okay, nothing spectacular. For my dessert, I went with the Grand Marnier Creme Brulée. This is served with a strawberry half, whipped cream, and a candied orange slice. The actual creme of the creme brulée isn't as firm as most, which is actually surprisingly nice. In all honesty I would pour that custard over my Wheaties and call it breakfast. The light orange liqueur flavor is a great palate cleanser. My only complaint is I would have preferred a more pronounced caramel crust.

   
      High Cotton has a charm that extends its welcoming arms and takes you back to a idealized version of Charleston we all love to embrace. The food is a solid take on traditional Southern, nothing that pushes the boundaries of food, just elegant versions of comforting fare. What makes High Cotton worth the trip, and the bill, is the combination of the atmosphere, the service, and the property itself. This restaurant would make a great place to introduce someone to the Southern charm and hospitality that Charleston prides itself on.

The Scores:
Ambiance: 5/5
Service: 4/5
Food: 7.5/10
Value: 3/5
Overall: 19.5/25  Southern charm and comforting dishes in a true Charlestonian restaurant


High Cotton on Urbanspoon

08 September 2011

Tonight's Episode: Steak and a Handshake

           When was the last time you were met at the door to a restaurant by the owner, who looks you dead in the eye, shakes your hand, and genuinely thanks you for taking the time to stop by his restaurant? Doesn't happen nearly as often as it should. Hall's Chophouse prides itself on this and a million other small personal touches to show you at this family steakhouse, you are part of the family.
         The first thing you notice about Hall's is the vibe. This is a very traditional New York style steakhouse. Rich dark woods, thick leather, and a wall-to-wall crush of sharp suits and sexy dresses. The bar at Hall's seems to be a great place to stop in for a quick cocktail before dinner.
         After a short wait, two fingers of scotch, and some people watching, we are lead to our booth on the second floor. If you were to walk into this room and see Frank Sinatra at a table, you wouldn't be surprised. The 1950's feel exudes cool and is a far more relaxing setting for a steak than the more pretentious Grill 225.

             Glancing through the extensive, though not intimidating, wine list I settle on a glass of Row "11" Vinas 3 Pinot Noir, a wonderful full bodied red, with flavors of cherry pie and balsamic. I went with the Row "11" for its easy adaptability to any main dish. The Girl settles on a glass of the finest l'eau glacée.
         A great feature of Hall's is the steak plate. This is a serving dish stacked with an example of the different steaks and cuts available. You have everything from filet to cowboy cut ribeye. It's always nice to see what your meat looks like in precooked form, especially to see the wonderful marbling.

          This being restaurant week, Hall's offers a 3 course for $40 menu in addition to it's normal menu. The Girl went this route starting off with the She Crab Soup. I have zero complaints about this soup. Rich, creamy, and silky without the cloying sweetness most versions exhibit. I went to the classic menu for my starter, choosing the Bacon Steak ($10). Our extremely competent and genuinely friendly waiter CJ informed us that this dish is exactly as it sounds, a thick steak of bacon. Served in three strips topped with heirloom tomato, this is a decadent dish of smoky crisp bacon easily an inch and a half thick. As much as I loved the stack of bacon, I would have loved a sauce to accompany it, perhaps a sweet bourbon reduction. Served as is, I think I would only order as a shared plate as the saltiness does get slightly overwhelming without a sauce to cut it.
           For the entrée, The Girl went with the Allen Brother's Filet Mignon, served with sauté summer squash and mashed potatoes. Cooked to a perfect mid-rare, this is a bright beautiful steak. Seasoning was spot on. I have tasted better steaks, but not many. The sauté feels slightly out of place, though it is delicious. I'm excited to return for a long-bone Tomahawk ribeye, Pittsburgh style.
          For my main, I chose the cedar plank wild salmon ($29), with tomato, cucumber dilled yogurt sauce on the side. I actually ate the sauce as a side item, it was so good. Tight, small mince of cucumber and tomato are brought forward with the fresh dill. What can I say about the salmon? I have honestly NEVER had a better cooked piece of fish. The crust was flaky and lightly spicy, with a wonderful smoke to it. The meat of the fish was juicy and rich, firm and evenly cooked. Man oh man, that is how fish should be cooked!
            For dessert The Girl chose the Chocolate Paté from the Restaurant Week menu. For my dessert, I choose half of The Girl's Chocolate Paté. This turns out to be a thick slab of creamy, rich chocolate topped with fresh berries, a berry sauce, and whip cream. The texture of the chocolate is thick and mousse-like, and very pleasing. The chocolate itself is just to the good side of too rich. The berries give a brightness that accents the chocolate. We both would have preferred a little less of the sauce, letting the chocolate speak a little stronger on its own. An excellent dessert overall.
         Throughout the dinner members of the Hall family make sure to circulate through the restaurant, reminding you that as long as you are in here, you are family. The old jazz standards drifting up from the piano downstairs help seal the deal for the classic atmosphere. The wait staff is as friendly and helpful as can be. There is something just classically American about a steak and a handshake. Encore performance soon to come.

The Scores:
Ambiance: 5/5
Service: 5/5
Food: 8/10
Value: 3/5
Overall: 21/25 An excellent New York style steakhouse whose high prices don't mean fussy service. Halls Chophouse on Urbanspoon

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