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.
Al Di La
25 Magnolia Road
Bacaro mania and insanely delicious food keep pumping out of this pristinely-cut Northern Italian jewel nestled off a side street in Avondale’s increasinglyBohemian digs. Owner John Marshall raised the bar not only on Charleston area Italian standards but also trend-setting when he set up cuisine camp in his tiny kitchen here when the neighborhood was home to little else except sleepy, little traveled boutiques and a couple of old school restaurants (the now defunct Liberty Cafe and the ever-popular Gene’s).
Six years later, Al Di La continues to evolve with the relatively recent addition of a “bacaro” wine bar that runs parallel to the main dining room and delivers sublime Italian small plates. It brings with it a bastion of wood-oven smoked pizza pies, purely Meditteranean olives, terrines, fragrant cheeses and paired wines along with a refreshing youthful energy and happening-now attitude. Marshall has also extended the confines of the delightfully intimate but mildly cramped dining room to a spacious courtyard dotted with passion red symbols of Italian’s preferred aperitif – Campari umbrellas.
Beyond that, little else has changed (not counting a minor across-the-board price increase – entrees now range from a still modest $15-$16.75), save the incredible fact that the food is better than ever – that is to say in keeping with the theme of the celestially inspired restaurant name, heavenly. Lovingly braised cipollini onions, kissed with a touch of balsamic and brimming with round, sweet flavor greeted us upon arrival and followed us home in an extra take-away box, just because.
The restaurant’s pillowy, hand-made gnocchi are studded with fresh, chunky bites of shrimp in every sinful spoonful of Marshall’s deliciousy restrained tomato sauce. The fettucini bolognese and strangozzi spoletina, in all of their creamy and expertly executed perfection, are fully capable of bringing the dead back to life. While they’re at it, these lucky souls and whoever else finds themselves blessed enough to be seated in Al Di La’s increasingly crowded (reservations are now a must!) embrace, needs to cap things off with the rich, milky cafe au lait and light-as-air tiramisu. To do otherwise, would be a virtual sin in this heavenly, purely Italian retreat.
Charleston Crepe Company
The heady years I spent living in Paris afforded daily gifts of joy; long strolls along the Seine on haunting slate-gray days, awestruck wonder at the sprawling spires and glaring gargoyles of Notre Dame, and on and on and on. Those are just some examples. There is a pool of millions; of these, at least thousands involved food.
When guests or family visited, we splurged by supping at Paris’ most noteworthy eateries, but most of the time, my constantly curious culinary life was relegated to the much humbler fare of a regular Parisian Joe, if there really is such a thing. I was a loyal client of bistros, corner cafes, and the most fabulous French invention of all, a crepe hot off the grill at one of the Paris’ ubiquitous crepe vending stands. For just $3, I was swept away into the gooey, yummy world of melting swiss cheese and salty ham on a savory day or the indulgence of Nutella on a sweet one.
Well, except for occasional visits to lovely Paris, those days are gone, but the memory of the silken, bubbly, browned crepes and their assorted fillings remain, along with a constant craving for them and the Parisian senses they recall with almost cruel abandon. When it strikes, I fulfill it in an 100% authentically Parisian way at the Charleston Crepe Company’s crepe stand at the Charleston Farmers Market (Saturdays, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. on Marion Square). There you can find husband and wife team Jack & Rachel Byrne and their young staff griddling their way through the inevitable and nearly constant frenzy of activity at their booth – especially around lunch time.
Any wait, even the occasional 20-minute one, is well worth it. Their honey ham and Swiss cheese crepe, slathered with a generous layer of plucky Dijon mustard, is as good as any you can find in Paris. The crepe itself, no matter what the filling, is always tender and moist, due in part to the French griddles the team employs to craft their tasty wares. Recently, I broke from tradition and sampled Charleston Crepe’s Southwestern crepe-take – the Chicken, Black Bean, Corn, and Salsa Crepe. Though less traditional, it was an earthy wonder of pulled chicken, crunchy fresh corn and more.
Take my advice – put in your name and get in line for one of Charleston Crepe’s many crepe creations, including the incredibly French Nutella confection concoction. You won’t regret it. Their crepes are simply Paris “wrapped” and taste just as delicious gobbled down in a cozy corner of Charleston as they do in the City of Lights. The bustling crepe stand also sets up on Tuesday afternoons at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market in front of Moultrie Middle School and caters at many functions and parties around town.
Recently, a publisher friend invited me to join him for an afternoon touring this picturesque pig farm located in the rolling hills of St. Matthews near Orangeburg, SC. Run by local farming enthusiast Emile DeFelice (he’s the “State on Your Plate” guy that ran for Agricultural Commissioner last year and sadly, lost), the entire 90-acre farm is infused with a passion for living close to the land and ensuring natural, happy lives for DeFelice’s heirloom pigs.
The pigs graze on nuts and grasses in rotating fields. Their diet is enriched with organic eggs and dairy supplied by EarthFare, organic fruits and vegetables, corn by-products from Anson Mills, and malted barley leftovers from a nearby brewery. It’s the same kind of wholesome, natural fare humans like to eat. In fact, as DeFelice explains, pigs want and deserve to be treated humanely and like the creatures of God that they are. They want to live a real life, not a crated one. Caw Caw Creek pigs are allowed to root about with their families, feel the sun and the breeze on their backs, wallow, loll, run and sleep in freedom – lives so different from the unnatural, lonely lives of pigs imprisoned in the beastly, often cruel world of industrialized pork production.
Even their chemical-free, happy lives end much later than their industrialized counterparts. They live to see their first year or more (unlike the 3 month mark slaugther green light awaiting their unlucky porcine cousins) and they develop up to 3 inches of fat back and richly marbled meat (unlike the inch or so of fat back and lean, “unhealthy” white meat of industry produced pork).
It was so much fun interacting with the pigs as they frolicked among our group that I felt almost guilty ordering some of DeFelice’s much lauded chops. Still, curiosity and, by the end of the afternoon at Caw Caw Creek, a desire to support a very important cause, got the best of me. Six, 2″ fat chops arrived in a refrigerated container a few days later with a handwritten “thank you” on the box. I marveled at the marbling; it was all through the meat.
I served the celebrated chops this weekend to some friends, including the publisher who took me to the farm. Grilled over an open flame in a kettle drum and glazed with a thin layer of hot pepper jelly, they were beyond divine. The texture of the pork enthralled the entire group. It was more like filet mignon and nearly as rosy and nothing like the “pork” any of us had ever experienced before. The meat was sweet and milky and had a distinctly rich, pork flavor that was further enhanced by the smoke from the grill.
It felt so good to eat such spectacular food; the kind our farming ancestors ate and the kind that’s going away due to the economics and facility of mass production. I also knew that, as DeFelice says, this little piggy had lived one happy life. I could taste it. For more information or to order your own, go to www.cawcawcreek.com.