Holly Herrick

Sassy Southern Cooking with a French Twist

Thirst No More!

The formerly bland culinary land of I’On has suddenly become home to of one of Charleston’s best new restaurants with the welcome arrival of the impeccable Soif Wine, Cheese & Tapas Bar. Soif, which is the French word for “thirst”, simultaneously sates epicurean and oenophile appetites for excellent fare matched with excellent wine.

Sure, we have plenty of that around town (thank goodness!), but Soif delivers the goods with a light, expertly informed service staff, each without an ounce of boorish pretense, and Soif’s fair prices don’t require taking out a second mortgage. Though Soif is billed as a “bar”, its easy, sit-down dining pace and quiet, sophisticated ambiance make it feel more like a restaurant; a heralded one at that.

Soif veritably sparkles with a palpable, edible and drinkable energy of love and happiness which, the clarity of the fabulous food and wine not withstanding, is a big part of what makes dining here pure pleasure, from start to finish. Credit has to go to owner Gail Summars, who picked up and left her Napa vineyard, Haru Ranch, after falling in love with I’On and Charleston. “I just love Charleston. It reminds me of a small San Francisco,” exudes Summars. At first, she opened the wine shop, but when the space next door become available, she snapped it up to create the restaurant, thereby fulfilling a “lifelong dream to create a little cafe”.

Her matriarchal warmth infuses the dining room and seems to fill her small staff to the brim with ease as they go about their impressive work. She picked them carefully. Grozis had to prepare lunch for Summars in her home using just a microwave and a toaster before he got the Soif chef gig. The general manager was formerly at Cru Cafe and is considering going to school for her sommelier credentials and Soif’s head server created the wine list at Meritage before coming on board. Aside from the staff’s wealth of experience, “They understand my vision, that’s why it works so well,” says Summars.

Whatever the behind-the-scene reasons, Soif works. Coral and red hued walls and neat white trim on the tall windows grace Soif with a combination of Californian and international charm. Great attention is shown to details in the crisp, geometrically shaped white plates and delicate glassware. At center stage of the intimate,50-seat restaurant is the closet-sized kitchen where chef Bradley Grozis, formerly at The Osprey Grill at The Sanctuary, works his palatial-sized magic. The classically-charged menu of small and large plates ($5-$12) changes weekly and includes a 5-course chef’s selection menu ($35 or $60 with paired wines).

We opted for the versatility and relative frugality of the chef’s menu (which we shared at no extra cost), but not before diving into a bowl of Grozis‘ chunky/smooth duck pate special ($8) infused with confetti-like shreds of roasted onion. Served with briny Lebanese olives and salty, crisp French cornichons, it was unforgettable. The server paired it with a snappy, light Pinot Noir that, like all the pairings we sampled, brought out the best in both the food and wine; waltzing inextricably between the two elements as effortlessly and beguilingly as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The hot soup of the day, a “roasted vegetable puree”, arrived shortly thereafter in white demitasse cups presented at the center of a chive “X” imposed on square white plates. Steamy and soothing deliciousness, the soup was a frothy blend of mild root vegetables with asparagus and potato overtones. It whet our appetites for the next course, a duo of Mushroom and Goat Cheese Crostini and Poached Pear with Gorgonzola with Mint Crostini. Thin slices of shitake and pear that tasted like they’d been sauteed and poached, respectively, in a light, white wine were arranged on the diagonal atop crispy toasts and garnished with the acid-smooth bite of fresh goat cheese and a mild Gorgonzola. The bites of fresh mint served with the pears was an unusual, refreshing and ultimately winning addition to the plate.

Another unusual combination, parsnip with asparagus and smoked salmon, was a head-turner; mine practically spun off my neck with joy. Grozis roasted a square-shaped spear of sweet parsnip, lining it up with a spear of smoky, grilled asparagus and wrapped it all up with fresh, salmon smoked with the sweetness of Applewood bacon. The kicker was the lightly mounted mustard and red wine cream sauce served with it which brought this dish together like a marriage made in epicurean heaven.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get better, our server brought out the seared duck breast fanned across a rectangular plate atop a raspberry gastrique sauce and alongside a golden mound of Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. Paired with a pert Newton Chardonnay, this was the brightest star of the evening in a dining sky that was already exploding with them and goes down as the best thing I’ve eaten in 2007 – bar none. The subtly of the sauce, a reduction of raspberry vinegar, perhaps infused with more fresh fruit, and caramelized sugar was majestically subdued; the perfect foil for the meaty, pink and exquisite duck. What else could be better with such carnivorous ambrosia than a cloud of mashed potatoes harboring a wispy fragrance of roasted garlic and creamery butter? Nothing!

Soif’s take on a cannoli, this one more of a crepe filled with pistachio imbued cream, mounted and folded with crispy chunks of roasted pistachios, came close. Grozis dressed the plate with a milk chocolate ganache and our server expertly paired it with a Port-Cabernet blend and a rich, sweet Muscat, which the server selected for me since I don’t like Port.

Summars has more than met her expectations to create a great little neighborhood cafe serving great food, aritisanal cheeses, and a great selection of California and international wines. In just three months, she and her stellar staff have surpassed all of them and entered the realm of excellence on all fronts. One can only forecast a very bright future for Charleston’s latest restaurant star.

Soif Wine, Cheese & Tapas Bar
357 North Shelmore, Mount Pleasant
(843) 884-2707
Tues.-Sat., 5:30 p.m. – until
(Note: Wine shop next door is open during the restaurant’s hours of operation. Patrons can select bottles at the shop to be opened in the restaurant for a $10 corkage fee.)

Mo’ Moe’s is Better Than One

Sometimes, you really can’t get enough of a good thing – especially when fate seems to be knocking on your door. So, when Mike Tronoski, decade-long owner of the wildly successful Moe’s Crosstown Tavern (named by Esquire Magazine as one of the “Top 50 Bars in America) got the calling to “grow” Moe’s, grow he did.

The calling came in the form of a realtor who told Tronoski that Jimmy Dengate’s, a popular Irish pub on Cumberland Street, downtown, was up for sale. Since Dengate’s original location was at the same address as Moe’s Crosstown, Tronoski couldn’t ignore the strong “fate” connection. The potential of the downtown location for attracting college students and business lunch crowds and the fact that he was able to purchase the property (as opposed to the lease he carries for Moe’s Crosstown) didn’t hurt, and soon, Moe’s Downtown Tavern was born.

The new restaurant opened in September. In many ways, the new Moe’s mirrors the original. The menu is the same, the chef (Shawn Eustace) is the same, and the unbeatable burgers taste just as lip-smacking good below the Crosstown as they do above it. But, the look and the soul of the place feel somehow different. The new location doesn’t have the mildly rough ‘n tumble, softened, neighborhood-warmed edges of its older restaurant sibling, but, rather gives the impression of a polished, high-tech sports bar. High definition, plasma televisions broadcast assorted games off all four walls, that were otherwise scantily clad. Still, the warm, brick-red paint, brick, custom built, high-walled booths, smart looking, mirror-backed bar and easy access parking bring it all together with decidedly urban appeal.

The crowd was eclectic on a Sunday afternoon; pregnant with pro football games that were being played out (or pre-played out) on every single television in the place. Mostly twenty-somethings sat alongside the occasional senior citizen couple, all seemingly enjoying themselves while diving into Moe’s gigantically portioned sandwiches and sipping suds from their chilled mugs. Beer drinkers’ choices are plentiful here; less so for wine. Only one Chardonnay was offered, and to use the descriptive term of our incredibly frank and efficient server, it was “mediocre”. On tap, however, are 14 draft beers, including one high gravity beer with two more coming soon and there are over 20 bottles to choose from.

Far from a simple burger joint, Moe’s Downtown throws gourmet passes left and right in peppery flavor combo’s like a goat cheese and roasted poblano pepper burger and a blackened burger topped with crumbled blue cheese and a Cajun-inspired roasted red pepper aioli that packs some serious, house made heat doused with the acidic edge of fresh lime juice. Ranging in price from $6.75-$7.25, Moe’s specialty burgers are hand-prepped, 8 ounce patties of ground Angus chuck beef that can be served with real, hand cut fries, chips, and pasta salad or for a $1.50 extra, fat, sweet onion rings (well worth the indulgence!), beans and rice or a side salad.

The sinewy Philly Cheesesteak ($7.50) on a soggy, tough bun, wasn’t a winner in my book, especially after sampling the sinful burgers. However, Moe’s wings (1 dozen, $6.75) kept me happily aloft for several hours after devouring them. The signature Buffalo flavorings were entirely on the mark – a flash of heat followed by the tanginess of vinegar. The wings were moist throughout and crunchy, crisp on the outside. There are several flavors to choose from in varying degrees of heat including mild, hot and “Moe Hotter”.

So much more than a watering hole offering garden variety bar grub, Moe’s takes it several steps further by throwing in an Eastern European ethnicity menu curve. In a nod to his father’s “completely” Polish family, Tronoski offers Poland’s potato and pasta darlings, pierogies ($6.95) and a Polish Keilbasy sub ($6.50) served with sauerkraut or sauteed pepper and onions. Since pierogies are prohibitively labor intensive to prepare in-house, he orders his from his friend and fellow Polish descendant, Ted Dombroski of Ted’s Butcherblock located up the street on East Bay. Dombroski gets his from a trusted supplier in New Jersey.

Back in Moe’s kitchen, they’re fried (as opposed to the more traditional saute or poach method) and served with a dipping sauce of cream cheese, sour cream and fresh chives. The “quick fry” gave the pasta added chew and an interesting texture dimension. The fluffy potato puree filling was mildly seasoned, both sweet and savory. I’d like to see the pierogies poached first, to soften them up a bit more, then fried for the crunchy finish, but they’re a fine addition to a menu in a town that is otherwise completely lacking in Polish food offerings.

Moe’s winning formula is sure to shine just as brightly downtown as it has for nearly 10 years uptown, proving that two Moe’s are better than one. Look for Moe’s legendary 1/2 price Tuesday night burger tradition to kick into permanent gear at the new restaurant starting in January.

Moe’s Downtown Tavern
5 Cumberland Street, Downtown
(843) 577-8500
Open daily, 11 – 2 a.m.

Circumstantial Roadside Find

Ravenous travelers along the sparsely populated restaurant stretch of Highway 17 between Beaufort and Charleston have an appealing new option to stop and satisfy grumbling bellies.

Its uncomplicated name, Edisto Restaurant, matches its basic steak and fried seafood menu, spartan decor and friendly, countrified service. There is nothing basic, however, about the restaurant’s menu mainstays: fried seafood and steaks. The new husband and wife owner team (he doubles as chef and hails from The Sunset Grill on Edisto Beach), spare no expense on top-shelf cuts of Midwestern, grain-fed beef and fresh-off-the-boat seafood, which is predominantly from local waters. So, for the most part, I didn’t take exception to the almost-downtown entree prices, which lurk around $20.

But, there was one grating problem here that raised the ire of both my palate and my pocketbook. It came in the form of shoddy culinary technique and budgetary shortcuts in a sauce and vinaigrette that were, frankly, heinous enough to be permanently shelved or in dire need of marked improvement. Truly, why pair an exceptional, deftly seasoned and perfectly fried hush puppy with a had-to-be-faux hollandaise that had the texture of moistened sawdust and an acrid, medicinal tarragon aftertaste? Or serve a doctored-up Italian vinaigrette that tasted like it came out of a bottle but was billed as “house made”? It defied logic while kicking the perceived value of an otherwise precious place into a truculent taste tailspin. This element, if and until it changes, modestly dampens my desire to make a 30-mile trek for more of the same.

For now, if I happened to be hungry and in the hood, Edisto Restaurant would be my first pick to satiate my seemingly ever-present craving for excellent fried scallops (or any fried seafood!), an ache I feared might never again be sated with the unfortunate demise of my former fave fried seafood hot spots – The Anchor Line and Tidewater Grill. Fortunately, Edisto Restaurant has arrived to fill a much needed void in this arena.

The restaurant also throws out a healthy and heartwarming dose of homespun congeniality – the kind rarely seen in our increasingly impersonal and speedy world. Our server was the picture of endearment, answering questions with monk-like honesty and engaging, when appropriate, in pleasant banter. Equally remarkable was the restaurant’s utter cleanliness. There was not a speck of dust or misplaced crumb to be found and the air smelled as fresh and clean as a forest in fall. Amazing, given the amount of fried seafood platters and grilled steaks that hog the menu’s abbreviated real estate.

Vegetarians may feel a bit out of their element in this practically vegetable-free (save a half-frozen salad, soggy cole slaw or one of three types of potato preparations) environment, but carnivores and seafood fans will be in seventh heaven, indeed. Entree portions are gargantuan, which packs on even more added value and probably are responsible for the added pound I’m sensing I’m lugging about this morning. The cup of chunky, roe-rich crab soup ($3.95), redolent with butter, cream and a kiss of sherry sweetness, probably has something to do with it, as well.

The rib eye, a beautifully aged piece of moist beef, marbled magnificently with just the right amount of fat, rivaled any I’ve had downtown or anywhere, at least in a long time. Chef Vickery mastered the seasoning and temperature of the steak like a pro. Paired with the restaurant’s signature stuffed potato, pregnant with baked flesh that was folded with what seemed like a pound of cheese, sour cream and butter, was a royal indulgence. The fried seafood combo of scallops and flounder, both sweet, milky and lightly battered, was another source of pure joy, peppered with the added pleasure of an ample supply of the restaurant’s stellar hush puppies. Our server was kind enough to throw a few fried oysters into the mix, and they, too proved to be examples of the best our local waters has to offer, fried with skill of a true Lowcountry fry master.

Stuffed to the gills, we opted to pass on the dessert choices (key lime pie, brownie a la mode, and ice cream) since our server told us they were not house made nor was she aware of where they were prepared.

The restaurant is housed in the original location of the legendary Toomers Place, where I’m told folks would line up in days past for shad roe and other Lowcountry gems. The little, white roadside bungalow that is Edisto Restaurant offers some big and tasty reasons to visit and with some little improvements by the new owners, may very well one day join Toomers Place ranks as a place to visit from near and far. For now, stop by when the circumstances are right – you’re nearby, hungry for big servings of great seafood and beef, and ready to be treated with kindness and care.

Edisto Restaurant
19804 Highway 17, Jacksonboro
(843) 893-3663
Mon.-Tues., 5 – 9 p.m., Thus.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.

Moroccan Magic on Maybank

Cinnamon, spice and just about everything nice are on the menu at Le Club Fez, a recently opened French Moroccan restaurant near the Terrace Theatre on James Island.

“Fez” is one of the best examples of the advantages of living in a vital, diverse and growing town like Charleston. Once a bastion of primarily Lowcountry and soul food restaurants, in just a little under a decade, Charleston has morphed into a culturally diverse dining mecca where tagines and tapas dance just as beautifully as shrimp and grits on our collective dining “carte“.

Hearty thanks go to Fez consultant David Leboutillier and operating partner Craig Nelson who spent months transforming the beyond-bland landscapes of Cynthia’s and Lulu’s that once occupied this space into the plush red carpet of exotic flavors and ancient culture that is Morocco and its oldest imperial city – Fez.

Chef Bryan Lyndsay’s classical French training shines on both sides of the Mediterranean in the two sections of the menu; French and Moroccan. The merger is logical based on France’s long colonial presence in the African country and is deftly executed at Fez by Lyndsay and his kitchen team . Many preparations, such as the resoundingly delicious olives and mussels, can be served either a la “Francais” or “Moroccais” and French bistro classics like cassoulet and confit du canard somehow seem just right simmering in the shadow of Fez’s towering clay tagines – a hallmark of Moroccan fare.

The olfactory senses explode upon entering the crimson den that is softened with blood-red curtains and hushed lighting streaming through gorgeous lamps that hang like glowing orbs from a padded ceiling.

Cinnamon, orange, cumin, cardamom, saffron, turmeric, and more wafted through my nostrils and into my soul setting the stage for what proved to be a sumptuous and rewarding feast for which I will return again and again – especially at these prices. Tagines that can easily feed two range from a meager $16-$18 and the French “plats principaux” run from $16-$23. Fez includes an abbreviated sandwich selection ($7.25-$8) for the Terrace theatre crowd or late night world of James Island looking for a light bite to put a tasty close to its nocturnal cravings.

Early, late, or any time of day you can get your hands on them, the olives Moroccais are an irresistible indulgence redolent with the exoticism of Morocco’s splendid spice palette. The olives spend a long time bathing in a marinade to acquire a softened plumpness and an earthy spice aroma that leans heavily and most deliciously towards cinnamon, orange and more. The B’stilla starter (or petits plat) is another cinnamon delight, this one layered in phyllo dough and stuffed with chunky, roasted whole almonds and mercilessly delicious bites of juicy, rich chicken.

As tempting as they sounded in their French deliciousness, cassoulet and other classic French dishes were not enough to keep us straying from the tagine track. Both the lamb and beef tagines were the stuff of Moroccan heaven, performing a rocking Moroccan belly dance between restrained subtly peppered with the fragrant girth of braised dry fruits like figs, apricots and raisins. Again, cinnamon ruled the roost, but it seemed to gain a quiet momentum like a chorus to a Mozart masterpiece, building and building until a crescendo, forcing a mutual desire to clear our plates like greedy princes at a casbah.

The tagines come with a trio of “seasonal accompaniments” or what is billed on the appetizer menu as a “petit salad Moroccais“. We received a melange of vegetable wonders; standouts included the strangely tart/sweet and absolutely fabulous swirl of spaghetti squash and subdued, roasted whole beets. Remember folks, this comes with the meal!

Desserts, all $5.25, didn’t quite stand up to the tagines, but were not far off. A flaky pillow of crushed almonds and cinnamon wrapped in pastry was exceptional, if a bit chewy in spots. Fez’s cool, creamy creme brulee gets brushed with orange blossom water and an extra fine layer of browned sugar.

In all of its lusciousness, Fez is certainly a breath of fresh air upon the Charleston dining scene. Service was sincerely invested in the needs of its staff, if a bit green here and there. In the end, food got to the right person at the right time and with a smile and the intention to please. So, that’s what really counts. Hopefully, the staff will up the ante on its familiarity with the menu and its preparations as time marches on.

All culinary compasses point to Fez. Put it on your destination list. It’s a trip you’ll be happy you made.

Le Club Fez Francais et Moroccais
1956A Maybank Highway, James Island
(843) 406-2767
Mon.-Sat., 5 p.m.- 2 a.m.
Web site under development. The imminent address will be: http://www.leclubfez.com./

Buzzy and Co. Breathe New Life Into Old "Med" Tradition

A former boss of mine, who possessed exceptional business acumen, was fond of the expression “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While the phase grated against my grammatically sensitive ears, it rang true in the relatively remote corners of my logical mind.

Buzzy Newton, Chairman of The Board of Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company, and his wife, Rebecca Newton, clearly subscribe to the same theory. The 10 week-old co-owners of a decade’s old West Ashley restaurant mainstay, began with maintaining their new restaurant’s most recent moniker: Med Bistro. Even though most everyone thinks of it and even refers to it as its original name, Med Deli, Rebecca says “we wanted to leave it alone”.

Along with the name, they sagely kept broadly under-touted and gifted chef Todd Garrigan and maintain a strong focus on local artists and musicians by displaying their talents on the walls (100% of profits go to the artists) and in the restaurant in the form of live music performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and during Sunday brunch.

Rebecca took a proactive stance in streamlining the restaurant’s popular Bohemian look by enlisting the services of a local designer to select new, mustard colored paint for the walls and to strategically “position” the paintings for maximum eye appeal. The look, further enhanced by strings of twinkling white lights and a long bar adorned with sleek black chairs, is better than ever.

Under the Newton’s stewardship, the relaxed fun of paper-lined tables (and requisite crayons for drawing) have returned, and the spotty service this restaurant’s patrons have been burdened with for years has been replaced with a bubbly, energetic, well-synchronized team of professionals that work in tandem with the kitchen to deliver food on time and with a smile. The mettlesome, bad-service gnat that once settled heavily enough on my aching dining shoulders to to make me avoid the place altogether, is officially dead.

Ding, dong! Like Dorothy and her eclectic entourage after the Wicked Witch’s melting demise, we rejoiced in Med Bistro’s nurturing service rebirth. The well-groomed service team, dressed neatly and simply in black uniforms and armed with knowledge, oozed with positive energy and a desire and ability to please. Our server didn’t miss a beat until the end of our lunch experience when we were required to wait too long for the bill. Because the full lunch surge was beginning to retreat and, consequently, many tabs were likely being calculated all at once, this was excusable. Still, it’s an area where the Newton’s and their staff may want to pay additional attention, especially for the working business lunch crowd.

Garrigan’s maintained the winning, deli-intensive lunch menu of cold, deli-style sandwiches, soups (including the tasty, signature black bean soup), salads, grilled sandwiches, pockets, wraps and quesadillas, but has really beefed up the dinner menu with sophisticated bistro style fare from Cashew and Pistachio Crusted Salmon ($16.95) to the Center Cut Pork Chop served with Au Gratin Potatoes, Thin Beans & Apple Butter ($18.95). This expansion gives Med Bistro an evening breadth its never before experienced and gives Garrigan, a chance to “do his thing,” according to Buzzy.

One thing you can’t get after sundown, however, are the house chips ($4.95). They, in all of their proud calorie counter defiance, provide at least one outstanding reason to visit Med Bistro for lunch. The chips were prepared from wafer thin slices of Russet potatoes that were fried at perfect temperature for optimal crispiness. The chef crafts a bechamel-based sauce, whisked together with a mildly sweet blue cheese (my money says Roquefort) and generously spoons it over the entire platter of chips. I was concerned the offering might be or become soggy quickly unless the sauce was served on the side, but the server said, laughing, that it’s not usually a problem because “everyone always eats them so quickly”. Count me among the guilty.

Other good reasons to come are the fat, Grilled Reuben ($8.95) and Med Grill ($8.95) sandwiches. Both are literally stacked with inches of deli-grade meats and sweet/pungent kraut and slaw, respectively. They towered with excellence and heady, old-school indulgence that recalled the classic corner deli’s in Manhattan. Grill sandwiches (and there are 15 to choose from!) can be served with a choice of several sides or, if you really want to go the distance, try Med Bistro’s onion rings from heaven for a paltry, additional $0.95. Go for it! Life is way too short to miss this treat. They looked and tasted hand-battered (a rarity anywhere, anymore) and were sweet and smooth in the center and hot and crunchy on the outside.

Even though the days of buying wine by the bottle from a separate retail area, to be enjoyed in-house for a minor $1 corkage fee are over, the restaurant boasts a sophisticated domestic and imported beer list as well as a creative and surprisingly expansive wine list ($20-$62 by the bottle) for what is still, happily, a home time dining experience.

The Newton’s prove that old restaurants can be tweaked and updated without losing their soul. Med Bistro’s an enduring example.

Med Bistro

90 Folly Road, South Windermere Plaza, West Ashley

(843) 766-0323

Website under development.

Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (Lunch served until 5 p.m., Dinner from 5 -10 p.m.)

Sun. brunch, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.

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