Nobody wants to eat bad food for which they’re paying good money. That’s especially true when they’ve already gone to the trouble and expense of traveling to an unfamiliar destination. Despite the plethora of information available online, in books and in the media, it’s still tricky culling through the choices, ranging from ordinary to out-of-this world restaurant experiences, whether you crave a memorable hoagie or an elegant, delicious dinner. That’s because everyone (especially those that are failing to attract a regular local customer base) wants your business, and they’ll jump through all kinds of hoops (some more honestly than others) to get it. This is true pretty much everywhere, but in a tourist-driven economy such as Charleston’s, which greets nearly half a million tourists every year, it’s a striking reality.
Here are a few things to look out for and some advice on where to look:
1) Be Wary of Excessive, Seemingly Everywhere Advertising
I’m all for advertising and truly respect its crucial role in educating and informing consumers and marketing goods and services. I sold it successfully for years largely because I believe in its viability as a source of information and revenue. But, unlike editorial from reliable sources, it has an inherent bias. Nobody is going to come right out and tell you their product is bad. Thus, most advertising states or implies that their product and service is good and/or something you need or want, and hopefully give you credible reasons why this is so.
But, in the case of a restaurant, excessive, persistent and multi-media advertising really gives me reason to pause and think. Unless a restaurant is new or has something newsworthy to communicate (such as a new chef, menu or location) why do they need to clobber you over the head with repeated advertisements about why they’re so good or #1 by some unquoted or dubious source?
No matter where I am, I’m leery of restaurants that advertise heavily in multiple venues, particularly my personal mother of red flags – billboards on highways leading from the airport into downtown. Afterall, in this case, it’s unlikely that most restaurants would spend money on a roadway sign to remind locals that drive by it every morning how good they are so the would-be diner develops a sudden craving to eat dinner there that night. They wouldn’t need to if they were all that popular with local diners. Instead, they’re likely trying to catch fresh tourist bait for their next clientele meal.
Most restaurants (with the exception of national chains) can’t afford a hefty brand or image budget that requires a constant and persistent stream of advertising in order to create a desired brand image like Nike (for example) can. In my experience, restaurants that relentlessly pummel with advertising are searching for tourists dollars because they don’t have much local business. That can only mean one thing. You do the math.
Generally speaking, while paid advertising has a very real place at appropriate times and through multiple venues, the best advertising in the restaurant business is word-of- mouth. Good restaurants get the repeat business, again and again, whether its from locals or tourists. Bad ones do not.
2) Do Your Homework in Advance and Ask Lots of Questions Upon Arrival
We live in an information-laden society and there are credible sources and some less credible sources. Make it a point to find the former. Read restaurant reviews written by unbiased professionals with bona fide credentials. Question friends with like-minded culinary tastes that have visited the city you are visiting about what restaurants they liked and why – be specific. Buy a travel guide book or find and research one online. Just make sure that its revenue is at least partially subscription and editorial-driven, not exlusively advertising-driven. The latter can potentially invite an ugly little war between church and state that could leave you holding an emotionally and financially expensive bad meal bag.
3. Ask Locals
If you see someone walking a dog and/or a map-free person that seems to know where they’re going, these are potent clues that such folk are probably from around town. Ask them where they like to eat and why. Again, be very specific. Tell them what you’re looking for in food (ethnicity, etc), ambience (romantic, mellow, hip, or whatever), service (impromptu, sleepy, frank, professional, sleek, etc.) and price range (go with specifics like $10-$12 entrees, for example, not just “reasonable” OR “the sky is the limit”) , and ask where you can find it. Listen for sincerity in tone and content to be sure they’re telling you the truth and not just promoting their best bud’s joint.
Pick your your sources carefully. If you typically dress to the nines, have a particular palate and an obsession with all things neat and clean, asking a belly-scratching slob where he likes to eat lunch probably won’t yield productive results. Also, be wary of tourist guides working locales heavily trafficked by tourists. Most have the best intentions in mind, but like people in general, not all do.
3) Follow Your Nose and Your Eyes
Restaurants cooking bad food smells bad. There is one near a sports facility that I visit nearly daily that consistently emits a sickening aroma of stale grease. This is an indication that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, no matter what state you’re in. Same goes for a restaurant that doesn’t smell or look hygenic. If they’re cutting corners and staff on keeping things tidy and clean, then goodness knows what’s happening (or not happening) in the kitchen. If you look into a restaurant and it is full or nearly full (depending on the hour) of happy, smiling people eating food that looks good, that’s a good sign. Never, ever be afraid to walk out of a restaurant that displeases you before you’ve even ordered.
4) Dare to Stray Off the Beaten Path
In many cities, suburbs and areas away from the heart of downtown are home to some of the best dining gems. They’ll almost always be less expensive than downtown eateries and may be equally as good, if not better. Same goes here – ask, ask, ask – following the tips provided above, of course.
Johns Island residents now have something else to be truly happy about. Super talent chef Fred Neuville recently flew “Rue’s” coop to land here and set up his own establishment, deliciously named Fat Hen.
Because I have childhood-related fascination with chickens (under the right circumstances, I even do a pretty good imitation of one laying an egg) and because I love the name of the place and Neuville’s food, I broke tradition and tossed my usual must-be-at-least three-months-old mandate in order to review a new establishment. So, let’s consider this more of a report than a review, since Fat Hen’s only been flying just under two weeks.
The news is good. Very good. Fat Hen is operating seamlessly. I’ve never seen a restaurant running so well on all fronts so early in the game.The service has professional pluck a’ plenty (Neuville recruited some of Rue’s best) and the food, which Neuville describes as “Lowcountry French”, has a personality of its own. The menu and the decor recall Rue but in a manner that’s infinitely more country warm and cozy than the cooled, Parisian brasserie sophistication chez Rue. It occupies the space that was Johns Island Cafe, conveniently situated a meager 10-15 minutes from the more populous environs of Seabrook, Kiawah, James Island and downtown.
The new look is smart and sturdy, peppered with chick-themed bibelots, a few stray painted chicken tracks here and there and oodles of comfortable tables and a spacious bar area. The intention here, according to the chef, is to impart the rounded, feminine and maternal comfort of a big, fat hen looking after her chicks. It’s totally accomplished with the homespun fare, the down-home look and the nurturing nature of the effervescent staff. This Fat Hen is one good Mom, the kind that makes the saddest, loneliest and hungriest chick cheer up in a hurry.
The food is good enough to make you strut like a well-fed rooster, but the humble prices (entrees, $9.95 – $20.95) won’t leave you crowing in pain. The delicate blush of Lowcountry brine trickled into every bite of silky oysters, beefed up with chunks of earthy ham and toothsome pearls of wild mushrooms – all perched above a pool of a rich and creamy sauce. The sauce was prepared with eggs purchased from nearby local farmer Celeste Albers, situated just miles away. The chilled corn bisque (special) practically squeaked with freshness of candy sweet corn purchased at the Montessori School just down the road. The commitment to buying local is real here, not just talked about, which is just as it should be on an island that yields the bounty of local produce.
This restaurant may be all about chickens, but its duck soars. The exquisite BBQ Roasted Duck appetizer (shards of roasted duck are lovingly tossed with a deep purple pomegranate sauce and served over pepper-spiked grits) is absolutely not to be missed. The same can be said of the Seared Duck Confit and its salty slivers of duck cooked long and low in duck fat, seared and served with butter beans that give new meaning to the word heavenly.
Already packing a full-house, Fat Hen is well beyond scratching and pecking her way to resounding restaurant success. She’s quickly nestled adeptly over its nest.
3140 Maybank Highway, Johns Island
Chefs around town are shifting their toques faster than the Charleston tides.
While some – like Ryan Herrman (formerly at Fish and is now executive chef at The Boathouse on East Bay), Nico Romo (a Frenchman who totes a hefty resume from impressive digs like The Ritz Carlton in Atlanta and is now executive chef at Fish) and Jeremiah Bacon (a Charleston native with experience at famed kitchens like Le Bernardin and Per Se and now executive chef at Carolina’s) – are setting up shop in long-standing restaurants, others have ventured out from under the safety of corporate umbrellas to start their own businesses.
The latter category includes Fred Neuville with a brand new restaurant baby named Fat Hen after a seven year-long stint at 39 Rue de Jean and later the Holy City Hospitality group and Jason Ulak’s split from The Boathouse on East Bay to help start up Uno Mas, a Mexican restaurant in Mount Pleasant.
It’s all enough to make your head spin and is, in some cases, borderline incestuous. Why so much movement in these lazy, hazy dog days of summer? Fred Neuville decided to make the move when the time was right and after having numerous discussions about it with his wife. “It was the right opportunity at the right time. I’ve built two restaurant groups for other people, and I felt that I was ready to do it for myself. Besides, I was dying to get over here (Johns Island) because there is so much opportunity,” says Neuville, of the restaurant’s location – just 9.5 miles from downtown. The restaurant serves “French Lowcountry” dishes like Duck Confit with Butter Beans and Garlic Spinach and makes multiple nods to Charleston’s French Hugeunot culinary traditions in the menu Neuville created from scratch.
Since both restaurants are so new (Fat Hen is just 11 days old as of today and Uno Mas is just a few months old), I’ll let them settle down before I check them out, but the new chefs at the established restaurants have already staked some impressive culinary strongholds. Most notably is Bacon’s trimming the fat from Carolina’s once (in places) cluttered and muddled dishes. Where there were once too many ingredients, now there are just enough. Carolina’s recent fresh-produce initiative, supplied by owner Richard Stoney’s family’s plantation gardens, was poppin’-fresh-apparent in everything I sampled. Old school Carolina’s fans will be happy to know that Bacon’s left the Shrimp and Crabmeat wontons and Perdita’s Fruits de Mer untouched. Carolina’s has never been finer, indeed.
Meanwhile, over at The Boathouse on East Bay (also owned by Stoney), Ryan Herrman is on a similar path after taking over the helm here two months ago. His goal is to be “for real” local produce/fish and “for real” sustainable seafood and to continue to make subtle changes in the menu. Not surprisingly, with Romo’s French roots, the new, streamlined menu at Fish features a good amount of classic technique and Asian twists on multiple dishes such as Shrimp Grits with a Miso Broth and Kona Kapachi with Parsnip Puree, Kumquat and Mustard Miso Sauce.
442 King Street, downtown
880 Allbrighton Boulevard, Mt. Pleasant
3140 Maybank Highway, Johns Island
The Boathouse on East Bay
549 East Bay Street, downtown
10 Exchange Street, downtown
With so many wonderful printed menu offerings scattered about greater Charleston like edible pixie dust, it’s especially satisfying to come across those that come to be known not from any menu, but from pure happenstance or word of mouth. These dishes are all the more indulgent not just because of their clandestine circumstance, but also because their specialized nature ensures a meal employing the freshest goods, extra special attention to detail, and perhaps an extra dose of love from the chef that chooses to whip it together upon a slightly hushed request. It’s something like having a secret lover but not nearly as dangerous and equally (if not more) delicious.
I came upon two such delights in the best possible way; completely by surprise. The first was at the always fabulous Basil. A colleague suggested I try the off-menu pho, a pungent Vietnamese noodle soup with name origins that are believed to go back to the French “pot au feu”. He’d known about it for a while, but it was new to me. True to form, like everything here, it was impeccable. The smooth and silky broth was gingerly perfumed with ginger and a kiss of lime and it was served so hot it practically boiled in palate-pleasing delight. Basil’s pho can be prepared with shrimp, beef or pork and is laced with seductive rice noodles and flavor. It’s not on the menu, but it can be ordered for lunch or dinner service upon request.
I am less surprised that Sienna’s chef/owner Ken Vedrinski, ever the veteran producer of hand-tailored menus both here and previously at Woodland’s , would jump at the chance to put together an off-menu tomato salad. Whoever said (including me) that nothing beats a tomato sandwich on white bread with a smear of mayo in the South’s prime tomato season, was wrong. Vedrinski’s off-menu creation of Owl’s Nest heirloom tomatoes was breathtaking in its simplicity. Hearty wedges of heirloom globes in hues of red, yellow, purple and green burst to life with a drizzle of the finest EVO and a subtle grappa vinegar. The literal and figurative summer-perfect topper was a quenelle of cool and delicate gorgonzola gelato that oozed lovingly into the crevices of the juicy tomatoes. It was an excellent companion to Sienna’s many revolving pasta dishes, all made with succulent house prepared pasta and Vedrinski’s special flare for converting his grandmother’s recipes and passion for Italian cooking into an unparalleled treat for the senses. And that’s no secret!
460 King Street, downtown
901 Island Park Drive, Daniel Island
Little notes from the Charleston foodie front…
In part to assuage my curiosity about what’s new in town and in part to research restaurants and news for this blog and a pending book, I’ve been staying busy checking out new stuff and re-visiting the old. The bad news is that the really new stuff (less than 3 months old) I’ve visited has been so disappointing I am hesitant to write about it. I figure these guys need a little time to get in full gear, but be advised, the pickings I’ve come across are scarily slim. If you have any tips, I welcome them. Drop me a line, please.
Meantime, a recent luncheon foray into Brent’s (40 Broad Street, downtown, 853-8081) proved that this Broad Street business lunch hour haunt is, almost predictably, as good as ever. It’s incredible how fast the small production line rife with cafeteria mainstays like meatloaf and cheeseburgers churns out the yummy goods. The prices are sweet (all lurk around $5) and will buy you some of the highest 19th century ceilings, biggest Broad Street arch-windowed views in town along with a recently re-vamped garden area complete with a gurgling fountain and comfortable cafe tables. Bravo!
I have to admit that I previously held a snobbish resistance to J. Paul’z (1739 Maybank Hwy., Suite V, James Island, 795-6995) and its tapas, sushi and libations merger, writing it off as a likely pick-up destination for sodden locals with the equally likely potential for mediocre food. I was utterly wrong and I’ll be the first to admit it. Though not earth-shattering, the attractive decor and solid tapas ($3-$11) come together with pleasing effect that is particularly well suited to a pre or post movie bite at nearby Terrace Theater. Strong suits include buttery, round flavored short ribs layered with braised flavors and an equally fine hanger steak. The staff was young and sophomoric but sweet. I had one of my biggest inner-laughs in years when our waitress started flailing frantically at an insect near our patio table, squealing, “Oh my God, it’s a bug”.
Definitely Worth Checking Out: Avondale Wine and Cheese (813B Savannah Highway, West Ashley, 769-5444). Owner Manoli Davani has stocked the place with astounding cheeses from all over the globe which she happily cuts and wraps to order, throwing in a pleasant smile and a cache of information about the cheeses’ origins, flavor and appropriate wine pairings. $5 wine and cheese tastings are held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 5 p.m.-7 p.m.