Good Eats in Cincinnati, OH

cincinnati

I recently traveled to Cincinnati for a work conference.  The conference was held right downtown, so I got to do a little walking around the riverfront and Over-the-Rhine districts.  The city has a lot of interesting old architecture, and, from what I’ve heard, has enjoyed quite a renaissance over the last few years.  I stayed away from the well known local specialty Cincinnati chili, which is basically spaghetti with a cinnamon-inflected meat sauce and (if you like) a mound of shredded cheese or beans on top, but I did score some other delicious eats in my brief time there.

Quan Hapa – This is an Asian street food place that’s small, cute, and modern.  I went with two steamed bun sliders: pork belly (garlic scallion, pickled daikon & carrot, peanut aioli) and sweet potato croquette (with coconut creamed spinach).  The buns were a little gummy and doughy, but the fillings were great, especially the pork.  I also got an order of their chicken wings (marinated in lemongrass & soy, tossed in nuoc mam and honey).  These were smoky, sweet, and addictive, not fried terribly crispy but very satisfying.  Finally, I could not pass up an order of the “vietnamese coffee bread pudding” – rich little chunks of bread soaked in a thin sweetened condensed milk/coffee liquid with chocolate chips melting everywhere.  Wow!  It was fantastic.

Taste of Belgium – I walked up here one morning to grab a Belgian (liege) waffle.  It was kind of a life-changing experience.  I ordered a plain one, and, though I was a little surprised by the density and sweetness of the thing, it was just insanely delicious.  I guess I haven’t had that many true liege waffles in my day, but  I may just spend the rest of my years attempting to make the perfect one at home.

Senate – Ok, this is the au courant gastropub duck fat kind of place.  They’ve got all kinds of gussied up, decadent hot dogs on the menu, and not too many vegetables.  The inside is nice, with exposed brick walls and a marble bar.  I ordered a lobster BLT (butter braised lobster, bourbon smoked bacon, baked egg bun, basil mayo) and some truffle fries.  The sandwich was decent despite some tough, sinewy lobster meat.  I think it was saved by the bacon, which was exceptionally good, and a light feathery bun that surprisingly held up to the filling.  The truffle fries were good as well, crispy and flavorful.

Graeter’s – Of course I had to try the local ice cream maker, who is known for their chocolate chip varieties.  This is because, from what I’ve read, they use the “French pot” method of making ice cream, in which molten chocolate is poured into the churning mix, resulting in randomly sized shards of chocolate rather than uniform pieces.  I ordered the black raspberry chip, and was richly rewarded.  It was really good.  There was actually a massive hunk of chocolate buried in my cup, but I’m not complaining about that.

Asheville, NC

Sunset adds a warm glow to the mountains surrounding Asheville, North Carolina

Boy, did we feast in Asheville recently.  Here’s how it went:

The Admiral:
A dive bar with high fallutin’ food.  We sat at the bar because they are seemingly booked solid every night, even at 5pm on a Thursday.  It’s very dark in this place, and there’s not much atmosphere to speak of.  We started with some bread with butter, which was fine.  Then we moved on to:
Carbonara: fettuccine/basil/pancetta/egg foam/local ramps/duck confit – It was certainly good, but not mind-blowing.  Creamy comfort food.  I didn’t get much basil flavor.  The egg foam was a little unimpressive but added plenty of richness.
Angus Flat Iron Steak: fingerlings/pickled red onions/spinach/lemon mustard vinaigrette/sriracha maple – The steak was perfectly cooked.  The spinach was great too.  The roasted potatoes were unusual with the sweet-spicy glaze, but the dish really worked.
House smoked duck breast: mole/orange-fennel salad/sesame seed brittle/salty peanuts – Wow, this was sensational!  The duck was cooked beautifully and sliced thinly, stacked high and topped with a little fennel.  I loved the mole, and the fact that it was just a smear on the plate.  The tiny piece of brittle and the few peanuts were just right too.  This was an artfully composed plate whose components really came together wonderfully.  This dish also came with a few roasted fingerling potatoes as well, which I thought were unnecessary.
Overall, a bit pricey but undeniably delicious.

White Duck Taco Shop:
In the gritty River Arts district, serving up very non-traditional tacos.  We tried the bangkok shrimp, the gyro taco, the carnitas, and the chicken BLT taco, as well as some chips and salsas.  The tacos were, without exception, excellent.  The shrimp were fried popcorn style with a mustardy-sweet glaze and cucumbers.  Pretty addictive.  The gyro was just like you’d expect, but done very well.  The carnitas taco was also good, with a unique bbq sauce.  I felt it was a little much with pinto beans mixed in to the substantial filling.  The BLT taco was really good too – fried chicken tenders, some mayo, and shredded lettuce, plenty of bacon shards, and tomato.  The chips came with a trio of salsas – green, sour cream/red hybrid, and red.  It was way too much salsa, but each was good.  I would definitely make it a point to return here next time I’m in Asheville.  This place fulfills the true potential of a place like Cary’s Taqueria Del Sol, and adds on to it with a funky vibe and charming atmosphere.

Curate:
Very nice traditional Spanish tapas bar.  Refined setting with an open kitchen.  We went for brunch on Saturday and ordered the following:
Bocadillo serrano: the pinnacle of ham & cheese sandwiches:  crusty baguette, jamon serrano, sliced manchego, a little crushed tomato, and olive oil.  So so good.
Gambas al ajillo : a little overpriced at $11 for a handful of shrimp.  They were cooked very nicely, but the white wine broth at the bottom of the bowl was too salty to even consider dipping bread into.
Tortilla Espanola de Chorizo: totally different than a similar dish at Durham’s Mateo.  This was was a small “skillet cake” of a hashbrown, with caramelized onions, cheese, bits of sausage.  Good but not amazing.
Eggplant: Delicately battered slices of eggplant, fried and topped with rosemary and honey.  Really delicious; one I’ll be attempting to re-create at home.

French Broad Chocolate Tour:
Dan, one of the founders, told their crazy story and led us around the place.  It was fascinating to see the operation.  They are doing great things from a sustainability standpoint, and it was really impressive how homegrown the operation is.  You get to try plenty of chocolate samples at the end of the tour; my favorite was the smoked black tea/sea salt variety.

Gourmet Chip Co:
Only in Asheville?  An entire shop dedicated to homemade potato chips.  They have all kinds of crazy flavors.  We went with a cone of “the Parisian” – herbs/feta/truffle oil.  I have to say I was a bit unimpressed.

Tupelo Honey Cafe:
Asheville’s famous little cafe which is now a chain, and it looks and feels like one too.  I went primarily for their famous sweet potato pancake, and it did not disappoint.  It was huge and really nicely spiced, topped with some peach butter and pecans.  I preferred it without syrup.  The other food we had, including the three enormous biscuits they bring out with each meal, were pretty average.

Chai Pani:
We went after the chocolate tour and chip adventure, so we weren’t all that hungry.  This is a cute little cafe with a line waiting for the place to open.  They serve Indian street food.  We tried some very good samosas, and some naan with daal and raita.  And a mango lassi too.  Everything was delicious in our limited sampling.

Asheville is a great city for eating (and other things too!).  There were tons of places on my list which we didn’t get to, but we spent plenty of money and probably put on a few pounds, so those will have to wait until next time!

Memphis & Kansas City: short BBQ tour

Here in NC we love our bbq, and are very proud of it, but, believe it or not, other parts of the country are known for ‘cue too. Two places that might come to mind first are Memphis and Kansas City. Lucky me recently traveled to both cities, so you know what I was going to be eating! Here’s what I managed to fit in during my brief trip:

Memphis:

Central BBQ – Based on the research I had done, my first choice was Payne’s, but they were closed on the Monday I was in town, so this was my fall back option. I ordered it to-go, but this place had the look and feel of a chain restaurant, which I wasn’t expecting. I ordered a pulled pork plate with beans and cole slaw, plus a large slice of coconut cake (made by a local bakery). The pork was really good, tender and smoky, and I thought the sauce was excellent. It had a unique quality that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. The beans were rather mushy and kind of bland The coleslaw was really coarsely (almost randomly) chopped, but tasted nice and creamy. The meal came with a throwaway dinner roll. I saved room for the cake, which was very good.

Kansas City:

Oklahoma Joe’s – This place is in a gas station, but operates like a more established restaurant, with plenty of tables and friendly staff coming to check on you and bring you some wet wipes when you’re done. I ordered a combo plate with pulled pork and ribs, plus creamy coleslaw (they also have the option of “spicy” coleslaw) and french fries. Here the pulled pork had good flavor and was exquisitely tender, but it had an unappealing sliminess. The ribs too were nothing to get excited about in my opinion. The sauce tasted very generic to me, like your standard jazzed up sweetened ketchup. The meal came with a huge paper bag of fries and one or two pieces of texas toast buried under the ribs. It was way too much food, and I didn’t come close to finishing it.

LC’s – This place restored my faith in Kansas City as a bbq mecca. Actually, it did more than that – this was probably the best ‘cue I’ve ever had. At LC’s they do it more of an Arthur Bryant’s style, with smoked sliced meats piled high between some regular old white bread. (I’d been to Bryant’s twice many years ago, and I recall it too being outstanding) The restaurant itself is a bit run-down, and it’s small inside, but it is worth the drive out to the SE corner of the city. Inside, there’s a large vault-like smoker chamber, all blackened and charred, behind the order counter, from which your meat emerges to be sliced to order. I opted for the pork (again!!). The sandwich, if you can really call it that – it’s virtually impossible to lift up and eat with your hands – was awesome. The meat comes out minimally sauced, and you can add more at the table (it’s good), but you hardly need to. The fries weren’t the greatest, so I briefly entertained the idea of ditching the fries and getting another sandwich, but that would have been a bit gluttonous, right? If I’m ever back near Kansas City, this is where I’m going.

Trip to Chicago

Last week I was in Chicago for some training for work.  My wife was able to come along for a few days, and we were really lucky to have nice warm weather and the chance to eat some great food:

Sunday brunch:
Nellcote – The dining room is heavily stylized in a borderline gaudy French/New Orleans/flamboyant kind of way.  Think plenty of chandeliers, elaborate wallpapers, and French bistro chairs, mixed with glossy white/orange bar stools, pop artwork, and maybe a sofa or two.  You wouldn’t expect them to have a mill in the basement that’s used to grind their own flour, but they do.  A plate of tiny accoutrements came out first (included with the prix fixe deal).  It included some breads (ok), cheeses (fine), poached figs (good), prosciutto (good, obviously).  House-made apple jam and butter were fine, but the lemon curd dip was excellent.  I ordered the pain perdu and my wife got the quiche lorraine.  Again, the plates were highly stylized.  My dish was three parallel rectangular blocks of fried bread, each with a hefty dollop of creme chantilly on top, plus a bunch of diced apples and some maple syrup.  There wasn’t enough syrup and the whole thing was actually rather bland.  I used the remnants of the lemon curd to liven up the dish.  My wife’s quiche was a super-thick individual pie, but it too was nothing to get excited about.  Overall: neat space, mediocre food.

Sunday dinner:
Giordano’s – “Chicago Classic” stuffed pizza, with pepperoni, green peppers, onions, and mushrooms.  Ridiculously thick and cheesy, decadent and delicious.

Monday breakfast:
Vanille Patisserie (French Market) – Two stuffed croissants: spinach/ricotta and sweet cream.  The latter was the clear winner here, but both were good thanks to the excellent flaky pastry.

Monday lunch:
Wishbone – Our training course instructor took us to this Southern soul food joint.  The cornbread to start off with had good flavor, but was a bit dense.  The beef brisket in my sandwich was superbly tender, but I kept having to add more and more of their dark red bbq sauce.  I didn’t care much for the vinegary coleslaw.

Monday dinner:
Avec – A small precious wooden cube of a restaurant.  Yes, the stools were uncomfortable and it was crowded and loud, but the food was top-notch.  Of course I had to get their signature dish – chorizo-stuffed bacon-wrapped dates with roasted piquillo pepper-tomato sauce.  These were incredible, with an impeccable balance of flavors.  The sausage stuffing was amazing.   We also got the “deluxe” focaccia, another of their standard items.  This was a large flatbread, kind of smoky and charred, filled with a soft creamy mixture of cheeses (taleggio, ricotta), plus truffle oil and herbs.  It was excellent.  Next, marinated chicken thighs, with rice, squash, and apples.  Again, very good, if not quite as exciting, but by this point we were getting a little full.  And finally, warm burrata with grilled eggplant, smoked salt, and lobster mushrooms.  This was not the way we would have chosen to end the meal, and we were really too full to eat much of it.  It was very good, but I wouldn’t order it again.  Still, overall it was an excellent dinner.

Tuesday dinner:
Frontera Grill – This topped Avec.  It was really stellar.  The chips and guacamole were simply exquisite.  My wife and I both thought that the chips were the best we’d had, and the two small accompanying salsas were also nice.  This appetizer is expensive at almost $10, but it was a lot of food for just the two of us.  The menu at Frontera is large and it was very very difficult for me to make a selection.  I went with the “street food trio”, which included potosinas, tlacoyos, and sopes.  The dish came out as three very artfully plated appetizer-sized portions.  I can’t recall all of the details, but they were all delicious.  My wife ordered the pork tacos al carbon.  This came with some outstanding tortillas.  The meat was bathed in a rich sauce that kept me coming back for more.  We also shared a side order of the stewed mushrooms, which come served in a tiny cast iron skillet.  These were creamy, spicy, and delicious.  Wow! – a great meal.

Wednesday dinner:
Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba – not my choice, but it was good.  I went with a large group from my training course, so we ordered a lot (!) of tapas.  Some of them were very good, like the steak with bleu cheese and homemade potato chips, the bacon-wrapped dates (again!!) with apples, the empanadas, the grilled octopus with roasted tomatoes, the tomato sauce/goat cheese dip (served with good crusty bread).  Others were not amazing but competently prepared: a potato/onion omelette/quiche-like thing, fried calamari, shrimp with lemon and garlic, short ribs and mashed potatoes.  The croquetas were too cheesy; they reminded me of a fried mozzarella stick.

Thursday breakfast:
Glazed and Infused – some of the best donuts I’ve ever had.  The maple-bacon long john (seemingly a new standard in the world of gourmet donuts) was great.  It was rivalled by a perfect old-fashioned pumpkin spice donut.  Finally, the salted caramel was also very good, but was covered in an overwhelming amount of chopped peanuts.

Thursday dinner:
Au Cheval – Another small, crowded restaurant, but with a very different feel than Avec.  This place was super dark and richly appointed – sort of a decadent swanky diner that features an unapologetically hedonistic menu.  It almost felt like a bar first, restaurant second, but the quality of the meal left little doubt that this place takes food preparation seriously.  I went with the fried bologna sandwich (pictured above, and which I had seen gloriously depicted on a magazine cover as the “best sandwich in Chicago”).  Did I want a fried egg piled on there too?  I demurred.  Nonetheless, the sandwich was huge – of course – and awesome.  Salty, fatty, cheesy, messy.  It was a very memorable sandwich, and one I’d like to eat often if it could be made about 1000 times healthier.  I also got to try the fried chicken, which incorporated honey to achieve a sesame-chicken kind of effect, and some grilled tomatoes, which had a nice sprinkling of coarse salt on top.

Friday lunch:
Grange Hall Burger Bar – Whereas Au Cheval captured the current fad for rich heavy food, Grange Hall aimed squarely for the bearded hipster vibe.  This place was all about vintage finds, rustic wooden tables, heavily tarnished silverware, flannel plaid shirts, cool music, and “down home, old fashioned” food and friendliness.  I mean, they’ve got hay bales out front to cordon off the small outdoor dining area.  Both restaurants had a studied and deliberate aesthetic, to be sure, but, thankfully, in both cases the food really worked.  I ordered a burger with white cheddar and caramelized onions.  Oddly, it came piled high with plenty of raw red onion as well (easily removed).  While not over-the-top great, it was spot on – juicy and very satisfying.  The fries were awesome – super extra crispy thin wedges of russet potatoes.  I also tried the onion rings, which were astonishingly light and feathery.  The desserts were certainly tempting (homemade pies and ice cream), but not so good.  The pie crusts were way too thick.  My slice of pumpkin pie was slightly chunky – clearly not made from canned pumpkin.  That’s a nice touch, but it didn’t make for a better pie.

I feel so fortunate to have experienced an awesome week of eating like a king in Chicago, both with my wife and with the nice folks I met in my training course.  I did a lot of research on the culinary scene of the city before I went, and my high hopes were fully realized.  Whatever pounds I packed on during the week were definitely worth it!

Trip to Maine

image courtesy of flickr

I was lucky enough to recently spend a week in one of my favorite states, Maine.  It was a trip featuring some foul and some fabulous weather, some gorgeous scenery, and, of course, some excellent food.  The culinary highlights included:

  • Fresh lobster – of course – from a tiny shack on the coast, steamed and served with little adornment in a homemade lobster roll
  • Fried haddock sandwich from Becky’s Diner in Portland
  • The “best” burger in Maine (as featured on the Food Network) at the cozy Owl’s Head General Store.  It was undeniably good, and required about 10 napkins.
  • Whoopie pies! (the official Maine state treat) from Cranberry Isle Grocery in Portland.  I tried pumpkin-orange, pumpkin-maple, and original
  • Amazing blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries picked straight off the bushes (thanks to a generous friend of my parents for letting us roam his farm fields).
  • Excellent homemade ice cream (salted caramel and vanilla) from the Stone Fox Farm Creamery truck in Augusta
  • Fabuluous, giant “Sicilian Slab” pizza from Micucci Grocery in Portland.  Truly awesome.

I wish we had had time for more.  But that just means I’ll have to go back!

Trip to Washington, D.C.

photo courtesy of flickr

This past weekend involved a quick trip up to our nation’s capital. While we didn’t have much time for exploring the food scene up there, we did have a couple of noteworthy culinary experiences.

For the ride up, seeking to avoid a boring fast food meal, I had conducted extensive research into alternative places to eat along the way. I confined my search to places not far off the interstates (I-85 and I-95) that were also cheap and quick. Luckily, we were approaching Richmond around dinner time, so we decided to head downtown the place of the top of my list, Buz & Ned’s BBQ. Getting there in rush hour turned out to be a slow haul, but it was worth the detour. It’s a small space but service is quick: just place your order at the counter and they’ll call your name within a few minutes. I got a pork bbq sandwich that was oh so good. The meat was magnificently tender and smoky, doused in a tangy sauce, and served on soft bun. Unfortunately the side items, including hush puppies and some cinnamon bourbon apples, were just average at best. But I would definitely go back for the bbq – it was fabulous.

The next day, for my friend’s bachelor party dinner, we headed to downtown DC for an all out meat-fest at Fogo de Chao, the upscale Brazilian steakhouse located just blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Ave. The place is huge but it was packed with everybody from families to dressed-up couples. Fogo de Chao features scores of different meats, of course, sliced for you tableside, but they also have a tremendous “salad” bar. The latter contains many tempting items such as prosciutto, good salami, a giant wheel of parmiggiano-reggiano, other fine cheeses, and side items from roasted potatoes to an assortment of green vegetables. There are also huge slices of crusty bread, but you’re better off going with the small cheesy-poofy rolls that come straight to the table. These are quickly followed by the meats – ribeye, bottom round, filet mignon, bacon-wrapped chicken, pork tenderloin, lamb chops, sausages, and on and on. As if that weren’t enough, they also bring out mashed potatoes, rice & beans, fried bananas, and crispy polenta. It just keeps on coming until you flip your card (pictured above) from green to red: STOP! My favorites were the tender filet mignon, the succulent chicken, and the delectable lamb chops. Everyone else loved the rib eye steak. I found the cuts of meat, with the exception of the filet mignon, to be inconsistently cooked. I got some really overcooked pork loin and steak pieces. The little sausages were quite average as well. And all of the side items, save perhaps the crispy polenta, were lackluster. But, we certainly got our fill. At $50 a head (not including drinks), I doubt I’d ever go back, but it was a neat experience with a group of great friends.

Savannah Bee Company – Honey

Last spring we went to Savannah for vacation.  One of the highlights was visiting the retail outlet of the Savannah Bee Company.  A honey store!  I tried the tupelo, sourwood, acacia, orange blossom, winter white, and some blends like their “grilling honey”.  They were all terrific, but three stood out for me.  The sourwood was outstanding – a good all-purpose variety.  The winter white, whipped to a marshmallow-fluff like consistency, was perfect for a peanut butter/honey sandwich.  But it was the acacia honey that really stole my heart.  Impeccably light and delicate, it was downright divine.  I purchased small jars of each.  Unfortunately the acacia honey seems to have vanished from their website, but you can still find it online elsewhere.  What’s your favorite honey?

Saxapahaw General Store (Revisited)

Saturday evening we drove back out to Saxapahaw.  It was a perfect day for a lovely drive in the country.  The gas station/general store/restaurant was bustling when we arrived around 6pm.  They had a great menu scrawled on the chalkboard – coconut braised pork shoulder with fried bananas, braised local short ribs with mashed potatoes, local beef & pork meatloaf, walnut-crusted trout, and so on.  It’s true farm-to-table eating, as everything is sourced locally and sustainably, and just about everything is made in-house in the tiny kitchen behind the counter.  After surveying the menu, we walked up the sidewalk to the new sit-down restaurant and bar adjacent to the gas station.  It’s called The Eddy.  A massive wooden door leads you into a beautiful sun-lit space.  It’s small but cozy and very inviting – all rustic wood tables and chairs, complete with a bar and nice patio.  I perused the menu, which offered similarly delicious-sounding items and prices (roughly $12-18), with a few additions like pork carnitas.  The looks of the fresh bread on the tables and the promise of full table service were tempting, but it was crowded, and we walked back down to the gas station and placed our orders down there.  I went with a rock shrimp “pad thai” and my wife chose a duxelle stuffed chicken dish with mashed potatoes and green beans (both $12).  As we experienced on our previous visit (see post here), it can take a long time to get your food.  My wife’s arrived as a giant chicken leg with a delectable mushroom mixture tucked up under the golden skin, all resting on a bed of the potatoes and some brown gravy.  Mine was a much simpler bowl of noodles, but it was loaded with shrimp and topped with sesame seeds and peanuts.  It was spicy and filling, and the noodles were nicely cooked, but the dish probably could have benefited from more cilantro.  The chicken dish was also very good but wasn’t served hot enough.  That was kind of surprising considering how long we had to wait for the food.  As I observed on our first visit, everything was flawlessly seasoned.  In the end, it was richly satisfying food and a superb value considering the quality of the ingredients and the execution.  We ate it all up and vowed to return again.

Weekend in Charlottesville

Boasting gorgeous mountain scenery, a beautiful college campus, distinguished history, and a wonderful small-town feel, Charlottesville (VA) is a great vacation destination.  The home to the University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is situated near the blue-ridge parkway, and is a short 3-4 hour drive from the Triangle.  It makes for a fabulous weekend getaway, especially at this time of year.  The ride up is lovely, passing through Danville and Lynchburg and by countless weathered barns and a handful of road-side antique shops where you can spend hours combing through mountains of junk, or gems, depending on your disposition and luck.

My wife and I recently went for a short weekend jaunt, with one of our goals being to explore the city’s great foodie/locavore culture.  Our first meal was lunch at Feast!, a gourmet grocery in the city’s awesome Main St. Market.  Home to an organic butcher, a florist, a seafood vendor, an excellent bakery, a cooking supply store, and a restaurant or two (in addition to the gourmet grocery), the market is a true foodie mecca, the likes of which would be a perfect addition to the Triangle culinary scene (Raleigh in particular).  Sure, we have a Southern Season, but the neighborhood feel of Charlottesville’s Market, combined with the florist, butcher, and bakery, set it apart as someplace you’d want to go all the time.  Feast! is like a tiny, fancier Whole Foods, with prices to match.  A small 3oz (?) tub of local pumpkin chevre (incredible, by the way) set us back over $7.  It’s little café serves up fantastic sandwiches and sides: my wife tried a turkey, cheddar, and fig chutney on ciabatta, and I had the local prosciutto, tomato, mozzarella, and basil on a beautiful baguette.  A small cup of butternut squash-lentil soup was equally as satisfying.

Later that afternoon, we headed to the Vintage Virginia apple festival, about 15 miles outside of town.  Here I tried Winesap, Gold Rush, Pippin, Rome, and many other varieties of the delicious fruit, and came away with a few pounds worth for home.  The highlight of this adventure, though, was the apple cider donut from the Carpe Donut truck.  Warm, fluffy, and not overly sweet, it was certainly one of the best donuts I’ve ever had.

Dinner that night was terrific as well.  The Local, as the name implies, serves up a delightful modern menu of pastas and mains prepared with regional ingredients (witness the “60 mile salad”, in which all components are sourced from within that radius).  Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, it’s a small restaurant with lots of charm.  To begin with, we were served perfect crusty baguette slices with herb butter.  My wife and I both opted for the chicken dish – stuffed with goat cheese and VA country ham, and served with some sort of brandy-apple-cream sauce over a roasted potato medley.  Although the chicken was a bit overcooked and the potatoes were truly miniscule, the creamy sauce was sensational and the price ($15) was great considering the quality of ingredients used.  I thought asparagus was an odd choice for a seasonal vegetable accompaniment, but I didn’t ask about it.

The next day, we met friends for a late brunch at L’Etoile.  This restaurant is located on two floors of a small, cute downtown building.  The effect is residential, French, and seductive.  For lack of a better description, it is ridiculously charming.  Despite the Frenchiness, the brunch menu features the staples of upscale Southern American brunches: biscuits, shrimp and grits, eggs, and so on.  I opted for the “3 star breakfast” which included a biscuit with sausage gravy (very nice), scrambled eggs (good), bacon (poor), and hash browns (worse).  My wife had a hollandaise-english muffin kind of thing, which featured some very runny eggs.  The shrimp and grits looked nice but the portion size was tiny.  And a chicken salad sandwich looked very average.  We all loved the space, but the meal was a bit disappointing.  On top of that, the service, including the hostess, was best described as bewildered.  I’d try somewhere else next time.

Before heading out of town, we picked up dinner (for the road) at the Greenwood Grocery and Gourmet Market, about 10 miles west of town.  The place was like a country store/Feast! hybrid, with all manner of local groceries and a little counter serving prepared foods.  Unfortunately, being Sunday evening, the sandwiches were not available, though they sounded oh-so tempting (think house made local beef meatballs with homemade marinara and provolone on ciabatta).  We ended up with some curry chicken salad (good but underseasoned), a loaf of local sourdough (excellent), and some regional potato chips and root beers (respectable).  As we ate in the car on the way home, passing right by McDonalds and Wendy’s, we thought: when are we coming back?

Weekend in Charleston

image via Flickr

We spent the past weekend in Charleston, SC for a friend’s wedding.  While there wasn’t much time for culinary expeditions, we did manage to have two good meals out.  The first was a dinner at the famed Hominy Grill.  Located in a nice old building on the North end of town, with a lovely patio, the restaurant is a mostly successful mash-up of the down-home and the moderately upscale.  The food is respectable, if not great.  I had a southern-fried chicken breast, which was succulent and moist, ensconced in a thin crispy fried shell.  It was supposed to come with a country-ham gravy, but this element was nearly absent and added nothing to the nicely executed chicken.  The accompanying mac & cheese was just ok, but the mashed sweet potatoes were so pasty as to be borderline inedible.  My wife had the “big nasty biscuit” – a monstrous fried chicken biscuit with cheddar and sausage gravy.  It suffered a bit from a shortage of sausage, and the cheddar was actually pimiento cheese in the gravy, but still it tasted pretty good.  A side dish of tomato pudding – described by the waiter as “tomatoes, cornbread, and sugar – baked” was addictive.  My dad had one of the “house specialties”: shrimp & grits.  While this is undoubtedly a famous South Carolina dish, and our expectations were high, I’ve had better renditions at Crook’s Corner and Piedmont.  For dessert, we shared a fantastic peach pudding – a sort of cobbler/bread pudding hybrid, and a lighter than expected slice of chocolate-pecan-caramel cake.

Better still was our lunch the next day, at the Cru Café.  The restaurant is tucked away in a beautiful old house on a quiet street near where seemingly all of the city’s hordes of horses make their home.  If the outside is charming with its lovely front porch, the inside of the restaurant is equally as gorgeous – wood floors, old fireplaces, ultra-high ceilings, cozy seating.  I had a difficult time choosing from the menu, but eventually settled on a beef brisket sandwich.  It arrived as a hamburger bun piled high with thin sheets of ultra-tender beef, slathered in a delicious, mildly spicy orange bbq sauce.  I didn’t care much for the accompanying coleslaw, but I don’t care much for any coleslaw.  The sandwich was fantastic.  My wife had the French dip, which was nicely done if a little bland and mushy.  She reported that her side salad was excellently dressed.  My mom had the shrimp BLT, a dreamy combination of its namesake components with pepper jack cheese on rustic bread.  It was superb, and big enough to easily feed two people.  Combined with the food, the setting and ambience make this gem a perfect neighborhood café.

If you haven’t been, get thee to Charleston and delight in the city’s beautiful architecture and terrific food scene.