Monday, July 28, 2008
Saturday, July 26, 2008
This first started a few months ago when I reviewed Langdon's for the Charleston City Paper. The scallops with sweet corn puree knocked my socks off and far overshadowed the lamb chops I had for my entree. There was nothing wrong with the lamb--it was quite tasty--but when it came time to comment on them for the review, I was at a loss for something to say. The best I could come up with was that they were "everything lamb's supposed to be — rich, tender, moist." (Little wonder I didn't see that James Beard Award this year!)
It happened again and again. At Cypress they do up an unbelievable combination of kumomoto oysters layered with sashimi tuna along with cilantro, lime, and pineapple wasabi that goes down cool, fresh and spicy. The scallops and bacon, with a big slab of smoky bacon and a rich pork reduction over the top, is even better. So good, in fact, that I had little interest in the big pork chop that followed.
At Soif it was something as simple as a radish soup with feta and shallots. At Bacco, the unbelievable roasted olives (from their wood-fired oven) and the caprese salad with made-to-order mozarella are all I can really remember about the meal. Everything else was an afterthought.
I have a few theories for this new appetizer fixation (or, perhaps more accurately, "entree aversion").
One is the tapas aesthetic, of which I am a wholehearted proponent. Food is meant to be shared, and the more different combinations and flavors you get to try the better. Call it "sampling." I love going out to dinner with parties or six or eight because it means more chances to order "a few appetizers for the table" and pass around a parade of savory delights.
For me, it's heresy to go to dinner with someone and order the same entree they do. I've consciously cultivated a group of fellow diners (starting with The Wife) who understand from the beginning that sharing is the name of the game. I mean, really, is it even possible to enjoy being with one of those fastitidious people who get freaked out by the thought of someone else touching their food?
But there's more to it. An entree is a commitment, a major choice that's not to be taken lightly. What if your selection is disappointing or--even more frightening--what if your dinner companion's is even better?
When you surround yourself with Proper Diners, they will, completely unprompted, announce, "you must try some of this duck!" and carve off a large slice for you, taking care to include a little of the sauce and potatoes, too, so you get the full effect. But, even with such companions, the best you can get is a little taste of that entree. If--horrors!--yours is the inferior order, you're cursed with the first-hand knowledge of how good Entree A is while you limp your way dejectedly through Entree B, calculating carefully the exact minimum amount you are required to eat to still be able to justify ordering dessert.
This isn't a problem when you have a table full of small plates. If you have a bite of something less than delightfuly, no problem--just pass the plate on and try another. If you come across something so scrumptuous and sublime--like the short ribs with Anson Mills grits at McCrady's--that it disappears in a flash--just order another!
Last week I stumbled into an invitation to a dinner out at The Lettered Olive, the new restaurant out in the Wild Dunes resort on the Isle of Palms. Chef Enzo Steffenelli served up what was for me the perfect approach to appetizers: two sampler plates for each guest, the first with a selection of three or four cold dishes, the second with hot appetizers.
Crab dip is something I would never order on my own. It's the kind of thing that tastes great for the first three bites but steadily goes downhill from there, leaving you overly full and a little sick to your stomach. Three bites from the sampler served up by the Letttered Olive (a restaurant named, by the way, for South Carolina's official seashell) is just about perfect.
Then there were short ribs with a peach BBQ sauce and candied sweet potato that had that rich tenderness you only get from slow-braised beef. The tropical tequilla ceviche was even better--shrimp, scallop, and squid in a tasty citrus marinade with a splash of tequilla over the top. The rest of the sampling--shrimp with grits cakes, seared ahi tuna, bread with pimento cheese for dipping--just sealed the deal. So much, in fact, that I heartily recommend all restaurants add an appetizer sampler platter to their menu.
These are things that are best in small doses. After all this variety, an entree is usually just a let down.
There's an old show business adage that you want to leave the audience not quite satisfied, so they walk out wishing there was just a little bit more. For some reason, that doesn't seem to be the goal for restaurant dining. "I was still hungry when I left," is not an endorsement--it's the kiss of death.
Maybe it's time to change that. Why shouldn't we leave restaurants wanting just a little bit more rather than feeling so bloated and full that our middles hurt and all we want to do is lay down in a cool, dark room?
So, I'm on the "small plates" bandwagon from here on out. I may never order an entree again.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
An old co-worker of mine emailed me to remind me that today is mystery novelist Raymond Chandler's 120th birthday. What better way to celebrate than with a gimlet, the cocktail that plays such a central, nostalgic role in Chandler's best novel, The Long Good-bye.
Chandler claimed that, "A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice and nothing else." He was either a little nuts or liked a mouthful of tartness. A gimlet is basically a martini with Rose's rather than vermouth: a better ratio is 3 parts gin to 1 part Rose's.
But, whatever the ratio, the drink will always be a sentimental favorite for me. So, to Ray, whereever you are, here's a gimlet toast!
Monday, July 21, 2008
No, I'm not getting kickbacks from Firefly Distillery, nor am I angling for a free case or two (really, honest, I mean it . . . though, now that you mention it . . . I mean, absolutely not!!!). I just think it's cool that we not only have our own local vodka distillery but also that it's kicking out something as unique and trendy as Sweet Tea Vodka. And, I'm completely on this little kick to see how all the local bartenders are working it into their own custom creations.
As readers who regularly follow this blog can attest (and I thank them both), I also have a long-standing fixation with the dark art of the mojito. So, when I saw Cypress was muddling up a Sweet Tea Mojito, I had to give it a try. Putting mint into iced tea is almost a no-brainer, and the sweet tea is a natural match for a drink that is already highly sugar-based.
The verdict: quite nice, especially when served in a tall glass over plenty of crushed ice. With all the citrus, the Sweet Tea Mojito definitely has echoes of that ultra-lemony, completely unnatural Lipton canned iced tea. But, it's so much better than that. It isn't really a fit for Cypress's too-cool-for-school neo-industrial interior, but if you had a deck somewhere looking out over a salt marsh at sundown--now you're talking. Atmosphere aside, for now it's sitting at the top of the leaderboard in my tally of local sweet tea vodka concoctions.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
It's that time of year for the many "Eat Local Challenges" to hit the cyberstreets (funny how they always seem to happen in the middle of summer, when local produce is at the peak of ripeness . . .) Having once again wussed out of undertaking such an endeavor, I've been taking great delight watching from the sidelines as various bloggers have adapted (or failed to adapt) to the challenge of eating only foods produced within a circumscribed area (such as North and South Carolina, as in the case of the "Eat Carolina Food Challenge").
One interesting thing is how many of the bloggers taking the challenge don't fall back upon traditional local recipes, which you would think would be the easiest route for making tasty dinners with just things produced in the region. Instead, they go through all sorts of contortions trying to adapt any number of international fusion dishes to ingredients they can find locally. One old friend of mine, irked because she couldn't make proper tortillas with locally-milled wheat flour, cheated and snuck in a little self-rising flour made by the same company but with ingredients that come from who knows where. Just my two cents, but maybe a meal involving tortillas isn't something that's optimal for "eat local" week?
And then there's coffee. I can't tell you the number of "eat local challenge" entrants I've seen who've included, without comment, coffee that was roasted locally (for example, at Charleston Coffee Roasters for a Chucktown-based blogger). While I suppose there are some style points for getting freshly-roasted coffee, I'm hard pressed to see how this advances the goal of "sustainable, local agriculture." What could be more symbolic of large scale, global agriculture than beans grown on overseas coffee plantations?
I feel for the poor bloggers who are deprived of their morning caffeine fix. Here in Charleston, I suppose, you could make do with a stiff cup of tea from the Charleston Tea Plantation, but in other states you're pretty much screwed.
But, for those locavores who really want to stick to the letter of the game, I have a solution, for others have been through similar deprivations in the past (though, perhaps, not quite so self-imposed). During the Civil War, Southerners found themselves similarly cut off from their normal supplies of coffees. While some hoarded beans and diluted their limited supplies, others were more resourceful and devised substitutes. In The Confederate Housewife, John Hammond Moore compiles over a dozen substitute recipes published in Civil War-era newspapers, including the following:
- Corn & Rice Coffee: Equal parts corn and rice, ground and boiled
- Rye coffee: "Take Rye, boil it not so much as to burst the grain, then dry it, either in the sun, on the stove, or in a kiln, after which it is ready for parching, to be used like the real Coffee Bean."
- Sweet Potato Coffee: "Peel sweet potatoes and cut to a size of coffee beans. Spread in the sun until perfectly dry. Then parch in an oven or pan until thoroughly brown before being ground."
- Persimmon Coffee: "Save the seeds of the persimmon after they have been boiled, and you let out the slop; for they are excellent for coffee, rather stronger and rougher than the genuine Rio [I'll bet!--Ed.]; hence I mix two parts of dried potatoes to one of persimmon seeds."
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
Four Moons Restaurant opened two weeks ago up in Orangeburg. Their publicist sent me a nice color picture of the interior, and I'm a sucker for nice color pictures. So, if you want to know what fine dining in Orangeburg looks like, here you go!
Monday, July 07, 2008
Educating Peter: How I Taught a Famous Movie Critic the Difference Between Cabernet and Merlot by Lettie Teague (Scribner, 1997).
I'm the first to admit that I probably don't know as much about wine as I should. I love drinking the stuff, and I love going to dinner with someone who really knows what they're talking about and letting them select the wine. While I'm not a complete ignoramus, I am painfully aware that when I pick a wine on my own there's a considerable element of arbitrariness and false price-based rationalization--like going to the horse track and placing bets based solely upon the horse's names or the published odds.
Every now and then I become determined to correct this deficiency and bone up on the subject. I briefly entertain fantasies of becoming a serious connoisseur, that guy who everyone turns to expectantly at the restaurant table and says, "Oh, and of course you must order the wine tonight!" This illusion usually gets me through about fifteen minutes of research before I become so annoyed by the overarching pretentiousness and obfuscation of wine writing that I give up in disgust and pledge to stick to beer going forward.
So, it was great hope that I picked up Lettie Teague's Educating Peter. It sounded like a great idea: a book about wine that's presented in a readable, enjoyable way. In Teague's case, it's a project to teach Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, a self-avowed "wine idiot", the fundamentals of ordering, enjoying, and talking about wine. What better way to approach a subject that's normally frought with pretention, intimidation, and outright impenetrability?
If only the book delivered.
It starts off promisingly enough, with short chapters on basic subjects such as how to taste (or, more accurately, smell and taste) wine and an overview of six "noble" grapes. Based upon the reviews I'd read and the dust jacket copy, I expected a little more hilarity in the interchange between Peter and his teacher, but it's still mildly amusing and rather informative.
Then, around page 22 things begin to come off the rails. This is a chapter, called "Peter's Tasting Vocabulary," that provides a brief glossary of key words and tasting terms that a wine connoisseur needs to know, such as "beefy" and "extracted". The definitions are fine, but they are presented in alphabetical order with little context around them. I read the whole chapter closely, but just a few hours later, when I flipped back to it to look up a term, I realized that I couldn't remember what half of the terms meant.
It gets worse once you get into the main body of the book, where chapter after chapter marches relentlessly through each wine producing country of the world, with each chapter broken down into sections devoted to the key regions of that country. Again, there's nothing wrong with the material, but it is much more of a reference book than an accessible, guided tour.
Halfway through the Bordeaux section of the France chapter (the first of the country-dedicated chapters) I started to glaze over, as the details of the St. Emilion region blurred into the Paulliac. And I was only on page 55. "I'll never remember all these unconnected details," I thought. I started skipping ahead to the more conversational and interesting sections, like "How Champagne is Made."
The biggest disappointment is that the central conceit of the book, the supposed education of Peter in the ways of wine, ends up becoming just window dressing. Teague, for some reason, does not represent their interaction as a two-way conversation. Instead, Peter's comments or questions are presented as direct quotations (in quotation marks), but Teague's "responses" are not captured as dialog but rather as regular prose, and often is decidedly non-conversational. An example:
"Well, what can you tell me about Pinot Noir that's good?" asked Peter.
Pinot Noir is the grape of all the great reds of Burgundy, and like Chardonnay it's important in Champagne. Pinot Noir is also found . . .
Instead of an enjoyable, funny dialog, we get long, expository passages about wine broken up with occassional remarks and questions from Peter. Sometimes they are sort of funny, but most of the time they are pretty pedestrian.
Ultimately, the book leaves the impression that the real trick to becoming a wine connoisseur is memorizing a zillion names and dates and adopting an insiders' cant that, while purporting to provide a proper vocabulary for describing wine, seems to function mostly as a way to distinguish yourself from the unwashed masses who don't know the right terminology.
Which leads to annoying little "lessons" like this one, from the chapter on Champagne: "Don't say bubbles, say bead, I reminded Peter. And the collection of bubbles that forms on the top of the glass is a mousse, not a head, by the way." I'm all for specialist terminology, but how does "bead" more effectively describe the bubbles in Champagne than the good old word "bubbles"?
I know there's more to wine than this. I can tell the difference between good wines and bad ones, even if I can't always come up with the right terms to explain why. I know there are good vineyards and good vintages and a never-ending array of varietals and tastes to explore.
I'm just waiting to find the right book to guide me through it all.