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28 January 2011

Tonight's episode: I've got 225 problems but this Panna Cotta ain't one.

            In every city there is a signature steak house. In New York, it is Delmonico's. In Chicago, it is N9NE. D.C. has Charlie Palmer. Charleston has Grill 225, or so I hear. The Girl and I decided to put that reputation to the most important test of all, the one where I put their food in my mouth then ramble on about it for six or seven paragraphs.
            Everything about 225 is over the top. Located in the Market Pavilion Hotel, the floor to ceiling two-story windows give impressive views of the newly relit Market, the Roman Revival Glory of the Custom's House, and the fifteen feet of chewing gum covered light pole. The menu at 225 is the largest in Charleston, not in volume but in shear acreage. There are central American countries smaller than these massive tomes to beef. The setting is very much a New York social club, with plush private booths and white jacketed waiters. My two complaints on the ambiance are first that mixed in with the The Black Saint and the Sinner and The Birth of Cool on the sound system was a fair amount of bad Euro-club music. Second, the salt and pepper shakers on the table that look like they were stolen from the Waffle House. Seriously? Isn't your food already seasoned?
            The Girl and I both decide to take advantage of the extended Restaurant Week menu, a 3 course $39 sampling. The dinner started off with a pair of perfectly executed soups. The Girl had a Lowcountry Blue Crab Chowder, served with cornbread. Aromatic, smooth, and rich, this soup encapsulates the essence of a chowder in a creamy bowl of liquified crab. I went with the French Onion Soup, served in a crock, covered in melted gruyere cheese. Inside the cheese is a beef broth enriched from beautifully caramelized onions. Mixed in are pieces of baguette that soak up the broth to provide soupy sponges of salty-sweet richness. The onions, though, are the star of the dish. Sweet and fragrant with just a touch of snap left to them. Overall, success on both dishes.
            The entree course is where things begin to go off track. The Girl went with the 7oz Filet, while I choose the 12 oz Ribeye. I also had a side of Chimichuri ($4) and Haricots Vert ($9). 225 is a member of the Great Steakhouses of America and advertises the fact that they are the only 100% USDA Prime Steakhouse in Charleston. That is really appealing to me. The difference between a Prime steak to a Choice is about the same as the difference between January Jones and Jerry Jones.
            The problem I have is they take these wonderful cuts of the best meat and wet age them. The spin they put on wet aging makes it sound like they choose this method for all the right reasons. Chef Castanas says wet aging seals in the meat's juices, protect it from bacterial growth, avoid an inconsistent product, and provide a deeper flavor. I say the reason he chooses wet aging is the same reason it is the most common form of aging across the country, effort and cost. In wet aging, you seal the meat in a vacuum bag and sit it on a shelf in the cooler for a month. Dry aging requires a higher commitment in time and energy, as the temperature, humidity, and air current must all be carefully controlled. Dry aging also causes a significant reduction in total volume of meat, usually in the order of 20% or more. The dry aging process provides a greater concentration of flavor as moisture evaporates from the muscle, and the natural enzymes break down the meat for a more tender cut. 225's Truth in Beef is more like Spin on my Cost Saving Techniques.
            The steaks themselves, served with crispy onion straws, were aggressively seasoned, to the point of being harsh on the palate. The chimichuri provided a nice cooling agent and a strong counterbalance to the flavor of the crust. While The Girl's Filet was a beautiful cut of meat, my Ribeye had an inordinate amount of fat and gristle. By the time I finished my steak I had at least 2 oz of inedible fat on my plate, something I find unacceptable for a restaurant that wants north of $40 a steak. (Update: After a rather vulgar comment about me choosing a different cut of meat if I don't want fat, I feel the need to address this point further. In every prime ribeye I have ever had the marbleization of the fat throughout the steak gives a far more flavorful cut of meat. What I had here was a vein of inedible, tough, unchewable gristle and fat running the center line of the steak. Your Ruby Tuesday ribeye may have that, this steak shouldn't.) The haricot verts were sad, too. Though perfectly cooked, they were totally without seasoning. I'm not sure if choosing the reduced price menu led the Chef to conclude we were uneducated hicks who wouldn't know a good meal if it came up and returned my wallet that I left at the Starbuck's counter. If so, he is doing himself and his clientele a deep disservice. If this is just how dinner is at 225, then I feel we need to choose a new Signature Steakhouse.

          For dessert, The Girl went with the Cinnamon Beignets with Vanilla Bean Gelato and Local Honey. Another miss. The Beignet batter was far too dense with a consistency of a bad hush puppy. They could have still been salvaged if not for the choice of a heavy local honey. Had the Chef gone with a lighter Tupelo Honey, there would have been more balance to the dish. Instead it was heavy, heavy, heavy. I, however, went with the 225 Panna Cotta with vanilla scented creme fraiche and local berries. THIS is a dessert. The light, almost airy panna cotta soaked up the berry coulis and takes your tongue on a trip to flavor town. I could not put my spoon down if I tried.
         There are many restaurants that I feel no sorrow at paying $100+ for dinner. My bill at Oak is normally well north of that, and I always leave without caring. Tonight, at Charleston's Signature Steakhouse, I really feel like my money was taken under false pretenses. While the setting is gorgeous and the service was without flaw, the single most important element of any restaurant was a failure. The food just was not to the standards of a three figure check. At that price point I will gladly dine elsewhere, and no long stare into those impressive windows with a longing for the Best Steak in Charleston.

The Scores:
Ambiance 5/5
Service 5/5
Food 4/10
Value 1/5
Overall: 15 out of 25, If you're picking up the tab I'll give it another shot, otherwise I will not be wasting my money again.

Grill 225 on Urbanspoon

12 January 2011

Interlude: We're going to eat risotto like it's your Birthday

           Well I'm about to turn the big 3-0. We all know what that means, black socks and shorts, lots of prunes, and I'll finally find Dick Van Dyke funny. To take my mind off it The Girl took me to William Sonoma. Boy did we help their sales numbers this month. The Girl picked me up the 15 piece All Clad LTD2 set. Then she told me to make her dinner.
            The dish I decided to make for her is Black Trumpet Mushroom and Asparagus Risotto with Pan Seared Rosemary Chicken Breast. The first thing I had to do was warm up a cup of chicken stock to let the black trumpet mushrooms soak in for half an hour. I then began by sauteing the arborio rice in my new 2qt saucepan in 2 tablespoons olive oil. I then added diced shallot, thyme, parsley, black pepper, minced garlic, and 2.5 cups seafood stock. I brought the whole mixture to a boil, dropped to a simmer, and let it cook UNCOVERED for 20 minutes.
            In my new big ol' flying saucer of a saute pan I heated some olive oil and began to sweat some shallots. I took a massive single breast of chicken (Earthfare free range natural juicy goodness, for Publix chicken I would do two breasts), butterflied it and lightly seasoned with kosher salt and black pepper. I placed the breast down in the pan and topped with three sprigs worth of rosemary. I let the breast sit untouched for three minutes before flipping.  After another 3 minutes, I deglazed the pan with a mini-bottle of Pinot Gris and moved the pan to a preheated 400 degree oven for 10 minutes.
            In a 1qt saucepan, I brought 1 cup of chicken stock to a boil. I sliced one bunch of green asparagus into 1 inch pieces, on the diagonal, and let them cook in the stock for about 5 minutes. Once they were fork tender I strained them, tossed with kosher salt and olive oil, and set aside.
           At this point the risotto had been cooking for close to 16 minutes. I added a handful of reconstituted mushrooms and the asparagus, stirring occasionally. I then pulled the saute pan out of the oven, placing it back on a medium flame, and moving the chicken breast to a cutting board. I sliced the chicken and placed it back in the pan, stirring the white wine pan sauce to ensure coverage.
            I then turned off the flame for the risotto. If you do not have a gas range, remove the pan from the hot burner. I folded in half a cup of shaved parmesan cheese. This I divided into two pasta bowls, then topped with the chicken, and served with a Tuscan demi-loaf.

           The risotto was exactly how I like it, though a little on the umami side for The Girl. The seafood stock mixes well with the starch to give it the richness that risotto should have. Next time, for her, I will do a little less mushroom and fold in a half cup of heavy cream. The chicken had a nice sweetness that it picked up from the Pinot Gris. It was tender, juicy, and evenly cooked. Can't ask for much more than that. Overall, this is a dish that I will make again and again, with my beautiful new cookware that will always remind me that I slave away in the kitchen out of love, not obligation.  

10 January 2011

Tonight's episode: A Tale of Two Oaks, pt 2

            This post is going to be slightly different than my normal restaurant review. The reason for the change is favoritism. Smoky Oak Taproom is my favorite chow joint on the island and features such an extensive menu that one visit does not do it justice. So yes, I'm telling you up front that I LOVE Smoky Oak, but that doesn't mean you should stop reading. In fact, somewhere in this blog are the winning numbers for the Mega Millions Jackpot.
            The first thing you notice when you step into Smoky Oak isn't the fact there is half a car on the wall, nor the chiseled good looks of The Most Interesting Man in The World staring at you. Even the sight of 40 craft brews on tap isn't enough to capture your attention. Entering Smoky Oak means stepping into a haze of vaporized pork and beef goodness. The first tickling at the back of your nose from the airborne meat sends your salivary glands into overdrive. That freight train you hear is your stomach aching to gorge itself on the smoked carcass of some beautiful piece of meat.
             I'll skip a review of the outside deck (large enough for cornhole) or the rest of the interior (looks like a BBQ joint that has been there twenty years), but I do have to get you there. Smoky Oak is a locals joint. Well down Camp Rd in front of the James Island Town Hall, it is far enough away from Folly Road that you don't have to worry too much about the black sock and sandal crowd. That doesn't mean the parking lot is going to be empty. This place stays full, especially during football and trivia, though their live trivia host is not the best (but that is a story for another blog).
            Starting with the appetizers, I'm sorry to say I've only tried one, the Stuffed Jalapenos ($9). Even The Girl, notorious hater of all foods spicy, likes these. Whereas most stuffed jalapenos are filled with cream cheese or cheddar, battered, and deep fried, these devilish delights embrace the BBQ mentality to turn out an app covering all 4 major food groups. 1) Spice. They carve out some truly massive jalapenos for stuffing. 2) Shellfish. They then stuff said jalapenos with crabmeat. You read that right, crabmeat. 3) Pork. They then wrap the crabmeat stuffed jalapeno with applewood smoked bacon. 4) BBQ. They then take the pork wrapped crabmeat stuffed spice bag and throw them in the smoker. If you don't order these, you are not my target audience.
            I am an admitted wing nut. I haven't tried the Smoky Oak wings. I'm sorry, but there are just so many great things that I want to eat over and over on this menu. My first sample was the Cuban ($8) slow roasted pork, spicy ham, pickles, roasted garlic aioli, spicy mustard, swiss on cuban bread, served with a side (I'll go ahead and say order the fried okra whenever they say pick a side). This is an inspired take on the classic cuban, with the pork giving a hint of smoke that melds with the garlic aioli into a Mighty Morphing Power Ranger of taste. The bread is crisp and perfectly pressed, and it provides a stable if slightly messy platform for the sandwich.  All together a great choice.
          For the longest time the go to dish for The Girl has been the Regular Pulled Pork Sandwich Combo ($6). I always advise going for the regular on the sandwich or the platter unless you are training for a competitive eating world record, as the portions are Ruthian in size. The veritable mountain of pork on even the sandwich ensures that you will not leave on an empty stomach. The Pork is served naked with your choice of Red Rib sauce, Chipotle BBQ, Carolina Mustard, and Hopped up Vinegar. I'll leave the discussion of why mustard sauce is an abomination for another column. The pork itself is nicely smoked, with subtly sweet and earthy undertones.  Though I have had, and made, better pulled pork, Smoky Oak delivers a sensational plate of Que.
          My dinner of choice is usually regular Beef Brisket ($9). The problem with reviewing the platter is my thesaurus fails to give me enough synonyms for massive, for that is what it is. This is brisket in the Southern Texan style, with a deep rich smoke ring and fork tender. If you have ever been to No Name in Pasadena Texas, you would be familiar with this plate of beef love. Pile it atop the cornbread muffin, drown in red sauce, and let the happiness ensue.
       Sometime in the course of a week long Smoky Oak binge I decided I wasn't in the mood for Que. I said to myself, why not a burger. Then came my burger. I may never order brisket again. A 10 oz hand patted disk covered completely in bacon, charred and beautiful. The rich woodsmoke taste mingles with rib juice and God knows what else to seal in the flavor of one of the best burgers you will ever find.

      If at this point you have room for dessert, there is something wrong with you. Order more meat and enjoy it. This restaurant is a meat destination. It is a haven for locals. It is everything right with hole in the wall dining. It isn't the white table clothes and truffled gilt of Downtown. It is James Island.

The Scores:
Ambiance 3/5 (Stay away on Trivia night)
Service 4/5
Food 9/10
Value 5/5
Overall, 21 out of 25. An everyday feast without fear of failure.

PS, the winning Mega Millions numbers for 1/07/2011 will be 4-22-42-46-53-20, Hope you read this in time.


Smoky Oak Taproom on Urbanspoon

02 January 2011

Tonight's episode: A Tale of Two Oaks, pt. 1

            There are certain times where The Girl and I feel the need to dress a little finer, and enjoy a little of the high life Charleston dangles before us like a proverbial carrot.  One of our old favorites has been Oak (  Chef Brett McKee brought us this gem of a steakhouse on Broad Street several years ago. Oak has always been a destination for a great steak, good sides, decent apps, and huge bills. To be quite honest, Oak has been slowly falling off my list of go to destinations.  Then came the news that Chef McKee was leaving to turn his 17 Roadhouse concept into a fine dinning Applebee's (at least that is how I picture it).
            Normally, when I hear a restaurant's star chef is departing, I begin to wonder how long before the concept is scrapped and a new Thai restaurant opens. Oak replacing Chef McKee should be easier, though, since he spent most nights glad-handing the guests and preening like the cat who killed the canary. After a brief flirtation with Cru Cafe's John Zucker, Oak was able to score Chef Jeremiah Bacon (the single best chef name on the planet) from Carolina's.
           So it is with some trepidation that The Girl and I made our way downtown, a light drizzle peppering the broken sidewalks as we pass the Four Points of Law, on our way to the converted 150 year old bank. The first impression of Oak for those of us who have been there before is confusion. Where are the towering oil paintings of Chef McKee and his snake skin boots? Where are the dozens of photos of him standing arms crossed, glaring at you? Chef Bacon has apparently decided that Oak won't be a monument to the cult of his own greatness, and instead is trying a novel approach of actually cooking the food you are served. His approach to food means you will see a focus on local, fresh, sustainable foods.
         The restaurant itself is gorgeous, sumptuous, and refined. Please don't be That Guy, the one wearing his BEER T-shirt and flip-flops. You will just look like a complete idiot. Grab a sport coat (if you're over the age of 17 you should own at least two), wait the extra 30 minutes it takes your lady to class it up, and go spend a c-note on dinner.
         For a starter we settle on the Pan Seared Sea Scallops ($14). These two massive and perfectly caramelized scallops are served over a sweet onion and cardamom soubise. Fork tender, with just a hint of salt, they melt in your mouth the way a M&M never truly does.  The soubise make the accompanying brussels sprouts and maitake mushrooms almost sing in your mouth. There are some dishes that leave you wanting more, and there are some dishes you would walk over the flaming ruins of Detroit to eat. Guess which category these fall into.
           For the entree, The Girl went with the Filet ($31).  One thing Chef Bacon (I really love saying Chef Bacon) has not changed is the al a carte nature of the steak menu. That $31 steak includes a tiny stuffed tomato and the steak. The sides are family style and portioned for 2-4 people. For a side, we chose the Lobster and Shrimp Mac & Cheese ($15), which is technically an appetizer, but oh well. The Girl's filet is perfectly seared, dead on mid-rare. Light, creamy, and seasoned to a tee. Honestly, next to the lobster mac that steak could have been a Big Mac and I doubt The Girl would have noticed. Made with orzo, the mac was creamy and rich without being overpowering. The cheese had a nutty hint that contrasted brilliantly with the buttery lobster. Without hesitation I can say that this is the best variation of mac & cheese I have ever tasted.
          For my entree, I went with the Flat Iron Steak ($24) served with a Burden Creek Dairy goat cheese fondue and truffled pomme frites. I have my reasons for steering away from the filet, and it has nothing to do with Scots being cheap. When I know the steak will be perfectly seasoned and cooked to perfection, I will always choose the steak with the highest fat content. Obviously at Ruby Tuesday a fatty steak means tons of gristle, but at a high end steakhouse fat equals taste. This steak proves that point perfectly. The sear they achieve on the outside seal in the natural jus, which combined with the goat cheese fondue make your tongue never want to go home. The truffled pomme frittes are thin and crisp and salty and all around the perfect side for a steak, or a burger, or mussels, or lasagna, or Oreos, or....well you get the point. Make sure you try them, no matter what you order.
        Moving on to dessert, I must admit I wasn't thrilled with our choice. Chocolate cake, at twelve dollars for a slice no less. The look on The Girl's face, and the fact that we always order creme brulee, lead us to a joint decision of cake. Did I say cake? I meant eight layers of light, fluffy, ganache awesomeness. I usually tap out of a chocolate cake around the third bite. This towering chocolate palace, however, forced me to consider undoing my belt. I COULD NOT STOP EATING. 
        The differences in Oak from the days of Chef McKee to Chef Bacon are subtle but substantial. The attention to detail that was sorely lacking is in evidence in every step of the meal. The kitchen that had for so long cried out for a strong hand to guide her, finally has one. The Girl and I head home, happy in a way that only the absolute best of dinners will make you.

The Scores:
Ambiance: 5/5 
Service: 5/5
Food: 10/10
Value: 2/5 
Overall: 22 out of 25, an absolutely perfect meal, start to finish, with a bill that will blow your monthly budget.

Oak Steakhouse on Ubrbanspoon


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